Tag Archives: Rexall Place

Oil Change won’t sugarcoat Oilers fans’ anger

The opening can hardly get more dramatic: an angry fan sends his Oiler jersey flying through the air, and it lands right on the Rexall Place ice.

It happened seconds after final horn ended the shellacking the Oilers had suffered at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.

Oil Change, in its fourth episode this season, doesn’t shy away. In fact, it goes even further: it touches in some detail upon the debate that would follow. To Oilers’ coach Dallas Eakins the jersey-throwing stunt would be a sacrilege, to many a disgruntled fan, it would be a perfectly justified sign of perfectly justified discontent.

It aired on Sunday on Sportsnet, and the first series of repeats is scheduled to happen Tuesday evening. It’s worth every second of your viewing time.

There are several firsts in this episode.

We get to see a bit of the anatomy of a trade as the Oilers sent goalie Devan Dubnyk to Nashville. We get to listen to coach Eakins’ explanations, views not shared earlier with anybody, be it in interviews or regular scrums. Those explanations are very revealing. Not only of the coach’s thought process, but also of the situation (or, to put it bluntly, the plight) the team has been in.

Whether one agrees with the explanations is perfectly irrelevant. They are Eakins’ explanations, they reflect his philosophies, and the players had better heed them, if they know what’s good for them. Why? Simply because a huge number of them will be looking for new contracts at season’s end. And – something more important for the team than for individual players – because their customers have begun showing signs of losing their patience with the group they have taken to calling a bunch of underachievers.

Is it fair? Not necessarily. Is it important? You bet. If those who are paying the piper start rejecting the merchandise you’re offering, you’re in trouble.

Of course, there’s always the future to hope for. Now, this is an old song-and-dance routine for Oilers’ fans and the percentage of those who have been bored to distraction by it has been growing by leaps and bounds lately.

Oil Change is not singing and dancing about the future, bright or dark as it may become. Instead, it puts faces on it. Two segments give us interesting insights into the lives of Mitch Moroz, currently with the Edmonton Oil Kings, and Darnell Nurse, currently with the Soo Greyhounds. Moroz’s junior days are coming to an end (that’s what happens when you’re growing up), and Nurse was so pretty close to making the Oilers the last training camp out, his cut must have come as a surprise, nay, shock, to many.

Neither of these two guys will be a saviour. In fact, the Oilers should consider abandoning this short-sighted notion that once they pick somebody as the first-overall choice at the draft, that player must perform forthwith or else he’s a failure, and so is the club. And the fans should shelve this view, too.

This episode of Oil Change is a stark document of what’s really going on the Oil Country. And it’s not too funny.

As is Aquila Productions’ habit, the pictures are crisp, the editing is fast (but not overwhelming), the music enhances what we see and hear, exchanges made during action on ice appear in subtitles bringing us that much closer to the team, the commentary is laconic, precisely as it should be, not a word wasted.

Great documentary making. Truthful and fair. What more can we ask for?

Edmonton’s fata morgana

An office tower and a hotel will revitalize Edmonton’s downtown. That’s what proponents of taxpayer-supported new arena for the Edmonton Oilers are trying to make us believe.

Why and how, they don’t say. We ought to believe in the tooth fairy, too, perhaps. Their reasoning is difficult to fathom, and no logical explanation has been forthcoming. Next time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, a mirage of Sahara desert proportions will keep us linked to Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz through an invisible umbilical cord. We’re going to be the mothers. He would be the embryo we’re going to feed.

It was bound to happen. As part of the highly suspect deal that has the city of Edmonton involved in building a private entrepreneur’s playground, taxpayers will be on the hook for moving their employees from their present location to a brand new office tower that Daryl Katz proposes to build downtown.

To Daryl Katz the new tower is supposed to be a cash cow. Based on his experience with Edmonton’s city council, he now knows where to find ready cash, neatly packaged and bundled, in no particular numerical sequence, so he can just pick it up and laugh all the way to the bank.

That’s what this deal is all about. The shovel hasn’t hit the ground yet, and the tower already has tenants galore. Who? We are the tenants. We as in we, the taxpayers. Wonderful.

How an office tower and a hotel can pretend to be places where people gather to enjoy their leisure time? That’s a question nobody has seemed to ask yet.

Let’s go back to the basics

Daryl Katz wants his Oilers to have a brand new arena. He’s of the view that he can’t build it all by himself. Despite being listed all over the place as one of the richer (if not richest) people in the country, he wants the taxpayers to kick in.

Why?

Because, he claims, the new arena will help revitalize the downtown area of Edmonton.

How? Somehow.

Let’s forget the question whether the Oilers really need a new arena. In all generosity, let’s accept this wish for a fact. After all, Rexall Place, formerly a.k.a. Northlands Coliseum, is an old building. It will turn 40 this coming November. It cost just above $17 million to build, about $81 million in today’s money. If we accept the publicly budgeted $450 million as the price tag for the new arena (and only a perfect fool would accept that amount), its bells would have to be closing in on 24 karats, pure gold, that is. And its whistles would have to be 100-carat diamonds. (Note: there’s a world of difference between karats and carats. You can look it up. The former describes purity of gold, the latter, gemstone mass.)

Anyhow, the Oilers’ owner says he needs a new arena. The almost-40-year-old building no longer suffices.

Let’s put aside the fact that if a 40-year-old building really is as decrepit as some proponents of the new arena claim, it doesn’t speak too well of North American building industry in general, and of Edmonton’s building industry in particular. Considering there are buildings aged centuries all over the world, still in overwhelmingly good shape and serving people, the comparison is shocking.

Of course, there’s another angle to consider: economic case studies after economic case studies after economic case studies show that professional sports organizations’ owners are wont to call 30-year-old stadia too old. They do so especially in cases where they had managed to get the original structures built with taxpayer participation. Now, they’re coming for seconds. The points they make are repetitive to the point of being boring: they claim that they want to revitalize whatever area they want to use. Except: economic case studies after economic case studies after economic case studies show those new buildings might attract visitors (not permanent residents) only as a consequence of what has been dubbed as “novelty effect.” There’s no permanency.

Downtown areas throughout the world, not only in North America, have been suffering for quite some time now. Office towers and sundry such buildings are not people places. They have pushed people as living creatures out. People who used to live there have been moving out to the suburbs. Once they have matured to the point of getting married and starting families, they prefer living in their own homes rather than condominia or rental apartment buildings.

The facts are simple: a new attraction, such as a new sports arena, with all the attendant bars and restaurants and whatnot around it, may slow down emigration from downtown for a few years. It will not stop it. And it will not reverse it, either. In fact, once the novelty effect wears off, the emigration returns to its previous levels.

Why oh why?

Why Edmonton city council bought into the downtown revitalization bluff in the first place will remain an enigma wrapped in mystery. It may very well happen that some intrepid forensic accountants will tell us in the not-so-distant future that not everything had been above board, but for now, this is pure speculation.

The only certainty we have here is that this city’s taxpayers are supposed to be on the hook up to their teeth for a private entrepreneur’s private playground.

And now, the city will be involved in a new office tower by moving its employees whence they’ve been working thus far into new digs.

Some say the city (its taxpayers, that is) will save money on this deal. Saying it is one thing. Proving it is another. Where’s the beef?

If the new idea is so incredibly beneficial, why did councillors have to debate it for hours on end behind closed doors? One would have expected such beneficial ideas to be aired with as many employers (taxpayers, that is) present.

Even the report that councillors would vote on remains secret. The only thing we know that the vote went 10 to three for.

And we also know that a former journalist (and city columnist) for the Edmonton Journal  heaps praise on the whole thing, without mentioning the details but once. Since it’s the details that matter, it’s rather surprising how low could a former intrepid reporter stoop.

City employees have been working in city-owned structures that, the city says, need renovations. Some city employees work in leased spaces, and the deals are coming up for renewal next year.

How are the savings going to happen? First and foremost, we are told that working space would be used more efficiently. Meaning: each employee will have less shoulder room. How’s that for efficiency?

The palatability quotient

Daryl Katz has been quite open about the fact an office tower would make his arena plan more palatable. For whom? Guess three times.

Here’s an interesting fact: the city has received more than a dozen proposals just last spring from potential landlords who had been hoping to house city staff in new and existing buildings.

But no, we need a new office tower. Not only spanking new, but also potentially the tallest such structure in the neighbourhood.

Some developers are licking their fingers: the new office tower would be the first swallow of the spring. It would signal the arrival of more such towers in the near future.

If anyone thinks building office towers downtown spells downtown revitalization, they’re dreaming in Technicolor.

One wonders what would have happened if city council was more responsible and told Daryl Katz that if he wants to build himself a new arena, here’s the development permit office, file your plans, pay the fees and build it.

Some have feared the Oilers’ owner would pick his toy and go to find himself another sandbox. Not only would it have been wise to remind him we had a similar experience with a former Edmonton Oilers’ owner, and look where he is now. It would have been prudent to call his bluff.

But no. City streets are close to impassable because city council has not the wherewithal to make sure crews keep them clean 24 hours a day, seven days a week. City infrastructure has been crumbling for years, closing in on decades.

But city council is spending money that isn’t its own on dubious projects that make no other sense than saving a local entrepreneur a pretty bundle while doing nothing to revitalize downtown.

We voted this gang in. Judging by election numbers, quite a few voters chose not to turn out and exercise their basic civic right. Things wouldn’t change if we voted, anyhow, many of them said.

Well, things will not change. You didn’t vote. That’s why they won’t. And that’s a shame.

A fair deal? Why not call it highway robbery?

As sellouts go, this one is close to being perfect. The Katz Group drops the no-compete clause demand it wanted to get from Northlands, the city will buy the land, etc., etc., and new arena supporters are ecstatic.

They’ve been taken for a ride and let’s hope the province will not be as foolish. After all, it’s got a strong incentive not to be: if there’s $100 million coming to Edmonton to build this new ice palace, guess what? Next thing you know, Calgary will demand (and justifiably so) that same amount to replace the Saddledome.

The Katz Group won’t be seeking the no-compete clause, and that’s a victory for the city? You’ve got to be kidding: that demand has been illegal from the get-go, and it dawned on the Katz Group leadership at long last that this might end up in court, where they would lose, plain and simple. Some victory, that.

The chutzpah our city parents will show if they approve this deal is endless. So, they will tax Rexall (or whatever it’s going to be called post-Oilers) tickets to help pay for their fancy. If THAT is not an attempt to cut Northlands’ legs under them in order to make the place less competitive, pray elucidate what it is, then.

Let us set aside the argument that putting professional sports facilities in downtown areas in attempts to revitalize those areas has failed all over the place. Yes, even in Columbus. Yes, even in Los Angeles.

The city will make sure nobody will be willing to park downtown, given the fees. They are shamelessly high as it is, and they will go higher still. And that to our enlightened council seems to be the way to drum up custom for downtown.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman did what his job description dictates him to do. But our Mayor is neither an NHL employee, nor an NHL flunky.

This nonsense that without a new arena the Oilers would move is something we’ve heard before. Peter Pocklington got run out of town because of it. Why the difference? Veiled threats to similar effect are cricket just because Daryl Katz claims he’s an Edmonton patriot? How foolish can our council members be? How short are their memories?

Just an aside: it was that same Peter Pocklington who brought the NHL to Edmonton in the first place.

But let’s get back to the main topic: anyone equipped with basic knowledge of economics will tell you that private and public money do not mix. The good old oil and water story. The two have different reasons for their existence, hence, they have different priorities. Or, at least, they should have.

If Daryl Katz is so convinced that his club’s arena downtown is going to be the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs, he should go for it. Himself, with outside (but private) help, doesn’t matter. But not with a cent of public money.

Of course, if he asks other entrepreneurs for help, they will want to know what makes him so sure that the plan will work in Edmonton when it hasn’t worked anywhere else. For whatever reason, our city parents have swallowed his pitch whole, never asking the hard questions.

Gary Bettman, in his spiel, mentioned it was a matter of economics for Daryl Katz to seek public support. Gary Bettman should stick to his knitting. It had nothing to do with economics. It had everything to do with business. These two terms have different meanings. Business propositions – if the outcome is ideally positive – work for the business entity that is involved. Economics are about society as a whole. Not only that, but economics also take a longer-term view, something many business people tend to forget.

If one were to start pointing out in individual detail where the city has been had and where Daryl Katz must be laughing, it would be a pretty long list.

But the most serious matter here is this: this council seems unable to provide the city with basic services. And yet, it is willing to go ahead and waste money that would be better (and more usefully) spent elsewhere just to satisfy a billionaire who has just found an easy way how to become even more affluent. Would if all of us were so lucky as to have our mortgages paid by other taxpayers.

One of the nicest gimmicks: the city will demand that the Oilers commit to staying here for another 35 years.

Let’s forget some warning signs that professional sports have been losing their spectator appeal the last few years and nobody knows if anyone will care some 15 years down the road that they even exist. Judging by the price hikes, the Oilers will price themselves out of the general market pretty soon, anyhow. The funniest (or saddest?) part is that professional sports clubs owners are of the view that their facilities become obsolete once they hit the age of about 30 years. That means we’ll be at this same point we’re today 30 years hence. A nice perspective if there ever was one.

To sum up: the murder capital of Canada, a provincial capital with the worst infrastructure in the entire country, a provincial capital that says it can’t afford to provide basic services, will have a shiny new arena for one of its professional sports clubs, all that paid using taxpayer money.

In Europe, they’re now so down economically, just because of follies like this, they have expanded their taxation base to demanding fees from farmers for bovine flatulence. Yes, and it wouldn’t be the insanely bureaucratic European Union if it didn’t come up with quotas: the rate is higher in Bulgaria than in Denmark. Why, nobody knows.

Is that where we want to end? Or what else will the city have to tax to help it pay for something private citizen Daryl Katz thinks he needs?

In addition to being a murder capital, we’ll become a laughingstock. Nice, is it not?

To whom is His Worship responsible?

“Obviously, my first duty is to the citizens of Edmonton, but at the same time, it’s unfair to my council colleagues not to be able to brief them on it, which we’re planning to do Friday morning. After that, I’d be glad to answer questions with the media.”

That, my dear friends, is a quote from His Worship Stephen Mandel, the Mayor of Edmonton, following his six-hour meeting Wednesday with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Edmonton Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz in the NHL New York office.

Once again, His Worship has got it all wrong. Yes, he’s right when he says that his first duty is to the citizens of Edmonton. But he must have forgotten one minor thing: members of council are citizens of Edmonton, too. And so is he. What His Worship is proposing is offering preferential treatment to one (very minor) group of citizens, while gaining time to ponder what to tell the rest of us, the masses of the unwashed, and what to keep secret from us.

It would be acceptable only if His Worship were in New York on his own room and board, representing himself. Of course, in that case he’d have no business committing any public money to what is a very private undertaking.

The entire scenario stinks to high heaven.

Facing a shameless deadline from the Oilers’ owner, and an even more shameless (and potentially illegal) demand for a no-compete clause from Northlands, His Worship and his top civic bureaucrat hurry to Big Apple because NHL Commissioner wants to play God. The Commissioner, of course, is talking about money that isn’t his all along. This money isn’t his Edmonton council interlocutors’, either.

In fact, if Gary Bettman wanted to be so helpful, he should have come to Edmonton, rather than pretend he’s an emperor whose wisdom matches Solomon’s, and then some. Not only would it have been more polite (decent, even), it would have cost less, too. After all, Daryl Katz is Gary Bettman’s boss. Takes a certain level of gall to summon one’s boss into one’s office.

In enlightening us on his motivation, Gary Bettman tried to explain that it was pure economics that had been behind Daryl Katz’s demand.

Gary Bettman has got this one wrong, too. It’s been a business sense, mixed with a sense of entitlement. Why should I be paying for the whole thing if I could be entitled to having the taxpayers cover at least a quarter of it, if not more?

Business and economics do not mix easily. There are some major differences between these two, and one would have expected an NHL Commissioner to be aware of those differences. But maybe it’s asking too much. After all, as mentioned, the Commissioner is the league club owners’ employee. He’s got to whistle their tune.

And the Mayor’s motivation is simple, too. As American economist Thomas Sowell observed, politicians think in election cycles. Economists take a somewhat longer-term view.

So, we’ve got the three motivations behind this entire deal: greed, greed, and some more greed. In all three cases with an incredibly high level of egotism thrown in.

What should motivate us, the mass of the unwashed citizens of Edmonton, those to whom His Worship has a duty, but who will have to wait?

An answer to just one question: would our dear council members be willing to fork over from their own pockets the required $100 million, and whatever compensation Northlands would require if it were to agree not to compete with Daryl Katz’s new arena? And let’s make it biblically simple: Yes? No?

Oh, they can’t afford it?

You know what? Immorality of public funding for private enterprise notwithstanding, Edmonton can’t afford it, either. And if Daryl Katz has got a problem with it, congratulations, he’s got something we don’t.

Case closed.

 

Summons to Big Apple a sign of bad manners

If there ever was an example of bad manners, this is it: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman invites Edmonton Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz and Edmonton mayor Steven Mandel to drop by for a chat about the downtown arena issue, and the two hicks accept and go, one of them, presumably, at public expense. No, wait, make it two of them: city manager Simon Farbrother is going, too, and nobody can expect him to pay for his flight, room and board.

Why bad manners? On two grounds.

Gary Bettman is Daryl Katz’s employee. He should be coming to see his boss. Not the other way ’round.

And Gary Bettman wants something from Edmonton’s council. Not the other way ’round. Again, he should be coming to Edmonton, hat in hand, and wait in the reception area until council is ready to hear him out.

Other than that, Gary Bettman is doing what he should be doing: trying to push his employer’s point of view. But, as a good employee, one would have expected him to do his homework first.

Even if city council gives in and binds taxpayers (its employers) to paying $100 million, there is still the minor issue of no commitment from the province. Without that particular commitment, everything’s been just so many puffs of hot air. And it doesn’t seem the province is in any spectacular hurry to commit a cent towards the project.

The other issue is much more simple: Daryl Katz is demanding a firm commitment from Northlands that what is known today as Rexall Place won’t compete with however the new downtown arena is called. There exist laws that specifically forbid such behaviour. Ever heard of anti-trust legislation? Not that such legislation pleases anybody who’s all gung-ho for free markets, but still, it’s on the books.

Gary Bettman, as mentioned, is Daryl Katz’s employee. He can’t be ordering his boss around, but he can offer him advice. Wise advice. Here’s what its gist should be: don’t waste your time looking for public money. If you want a new arena, build it. Downtown Edmonton, any of Saturn’s rings, wherever tickles your fancy. If you’re not a member of the proper clubs where moneybags gather for afternoon siesta, I could introduce you to some that have for their members people for whom your fortune is their weekly allowance. You can talk to them and ask them if they would want to chip in. You can also go and see your friendly neighbourhood bank manager about mortgage. But stop feeling you’re entitled to getting public money. You’re not entitled to anything. The period of overwhelming demands for social and financial entitlement is behind us. Live with it.

Both Messrs. Mandel and Farbrother should decline Mr. Bettman’s invitation. If they don’t, the mayor should reimburse us all for his and his city manager’s Big Apple extravaganza. The realization they can’t be doing as they please will only happen when our elected politicians become personally and financially accountable for all of their decisions. That’s when they might begin to see the foolishness of their ways.

In the meantime, they need to be reminded they are our servants, we’re not their serfs.

Oilers’ CEO sends out a mass e-mail: why and what for?

As a shot across the bow, it ranks with the strangest of them. Whether it’s on the board or not, only future will tell. And we know when the future begins, too: Monday, October 31, 2011. We only aren’t sure whether it’s Monday, October 31, 2011 first thing in the morning, high noon, or midnight on the dot.

Edmonton Oilers’ president and CEO Patrick LaForge has sent out a mass e-mail (and only he knows how much mass it was or wasn’t). He told his recipients now’s the time to start calling their members of council, e-mailing them, or – should they prefer – just calling the city’s response line (311). The idea being that now’s the time to tell those they contact that they should now begin supporting the city’s funding of a new downtown arena. Patrick LaForge also urged his recipients to call local radio talk shows and write letters to The Journal, expressing their fervent wish that the arena be built using, in part, public money. What he was saying, basically, was that taxpayers ought to chip in.

Patrick LaForge didn’t say, so far as is known, or else. No need to. We’ve already heard THAT message.

He told the interested parties the facts behind the project, LaForge would say later, because that’s what they need to know. Fair enough.

At the same time, LaForge insisted he wasn’t starting a campaign, pressure or otherwise. After all, he didn’t provide his recipients with any scripts, LaForge said in a later interview with The Journal. That’s called playing with words. Telling one’s recipients to start influencing the decision-makers a certain way looks like a campaign, sounds like a campaign, and stinks like one, too.

Besides, as some members of council pointed out, some of the numbers in LaForge’s message are open to question. Tony Caterina, one of council’s staunchest opponents of using public money for the arena, went so far as to use derogatory words to describe numbers LaForge mentioned in his message. He mocked previous statements by Katz Group’s representatives, such as their VP, John Karvellas, too. Mildly put, Tony Caterina described them as fallacy. Judging by facts as known thus far, Tony Caterina’s remarks were on target.

Whether the Rexall Place the Oilers are using now is as dilapidated and useless for NHL hockey as the Katz Group wants us to believe, is another question. It is a known fact that not much has been invested in proper maintenance of the place in the last couple of years. And let’s not sound comical about any major improvements, either. Whether that is on purpose or not would be open to debate. By the way, it’s not a moot point.

In any case, the Oilers’ owner has every right to think his club needs a new barn. Of course, he could have mentioned it when he was buying the club from the somewhat reluctant previous owners in the first place, but, on the other hand, also, the somewhat reluctant previous owners never asked. After all, they had invested enough, they did manage to keep the club in town, and they weren’t getting any richer off it, either.

Be that as it may, if the Oilers’ owner believes his club unconditionally requires new digs, and it requires the new place now, right now, he can go the same route we all do. When we want to build (or buy) a new house, we either have enough money in our accounts, or we don’t. We can, of course, always ask a financial institution for help. Daryl Katz has one more option most of us wouldn’t have when getting ourselves a new home. He can ask other entrepreneurs to join him in this project. These business people would perform what in the lingo is known as “due diligence,” and if they like what they see, they’ll go for it with gusto. If not … well, there are still those financial institutions available.

Getting e-mail messages from someone with a vested interest in the project is NOT due diligence.

Patrick LaForge has done a lot of very positive things for the Oilers. He’s very shrewdly and successfully, and with aplomb, marketed the club even at times when its future looked gloomier than the coming winter. He deserves all the credit for that. He helped create the Heritage Classic that would later find a huge following during the NHL’s Winter Classics. The NHL (and hockey fans) can’t thank Patrick LaForge enough for that.

A recent Journal poll found that 49 per cent of those who answered wanted the project cancelled, while another 10 per cent asked what the rush was. Another 39 per cent supported the idea, and six per cent were worried delays would kill the project. There were 1,946 votes cast. Percentage-wise, the result would be a shocking 104, all told. How THAT could have happened, The Journal hasn’t got around to explaining yet.

Is that poll representative? Not really, to be frank.

As polls go, this one was unscientific enough. In fact, all public opinion polls resemble black magic, at best, and swindle, at worst.

On the other hand: can we dismiss this straw vote out of hand? Well, not so fast.

There’s another way of finding out: have a public referendum, with a clear-cut question. Don’t ask: “Do you want a new arena for the Oilers in the downtown area?” Ask specifically: “Do you agree that the city spends (at least) $100 million to help build a new arena downtown for the Oilers?” No need to load it by asking $100 million of YOUR money. Yes, it seems from time to time that supporters of public money going towards helping a privately owned professional sports club might need that information as a reminder. But still, no need to load the question: they will either figure it out, or not. Or they won’t care, either way.

But, before anybody starts printing the ballots, let’s see what the province is going to do. Remember, without funds coming from the province, all of this debate is academic.

Thus far, the province has been reluctant to commit to anything. The new Premier-elect, Alison Redford, has already announced her preferences. One of them is restoring $107 million that had been cut from Alberta’s education funding. Not a word about a new professional sports arena to be built in downtown Edmonton, using taxpayers’ money from all over the province.

As mentioned, as a shot across the bow, Patrick LaForge’s mass e-mail call to arms was close to being strange. What he, and the Katz Group, should get in reply? Many of us love the Oilers, wish them the best, and feel they’re paying enough as it is, at the box office.

But, and that’s the major distinction, those who DO pay at the box office, do so voluntarily.

That’s the answer the Katz Group should, in all due respect, hear, loud and clear. And no need to wait till Monday, October 31, 2011, first thing in the morning, high noon, or midnight on the dot, whatever the case may be.

The proof’s in the pudding: Columbus arena not such a success, after all

Columbus, Ohio, now there’s a prime example of how downtown revitalization works when wise investors (read: authorities claiming they act on behalf of their employers, read: taxpayers) put money that isn’t theirs into building a professional sports arena, plus an array of entertainment facilities around it.

That’s what supporters of taxpayer involvement in building a new downtown arena for the Edmonton Oilers would have us believe. They have been dismissing case studies collected from all over this continent. Case studies proving the concept just won’t work, they said, were so much old drivel.

Guess what? The Columbus dream of riches seems to be headed to the poor house even now.

Here’s what officials in that fine city managed to come up with: the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (read: taxpayers) would buy the arena from Nationwide Realty Investors (read: a private concern), using casino revenues. In exchange, the Blue Jackets would stay put until 2039. Here’s the financing model: the Authority would use state and other loans. It would get part of tax revenues from a casino being built in Columbus.

Meanwhile, thus a WCMH-TV report, Nationwide would invest $52 million in the Blue Jackets and take a 30 per cent interest in the team. That amount won’t even match this season’s salary cap, by the way.

Not a done deal yet, the mayor and county commissioners need to have their say.

A bit of difference, of course

In Alberta, it would be difficult to go for casino money to finance the Oilers’ new arena downtown. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission seems to be willing to give casino licences mostly to non-profit groups so they can finance their worthwhile activities. The AGLC must approve of these activities first, before those groups spend a cent. These groups earn their money from those who are willing to spend it, gambling. So, they don’t have to ask government for support. Relatively fair. Why relatively? Ask the significant others of those who have no issues with feeding the one-armed bandits. But that’s another story.

What caused the turmoil in Columbus? Here’s a verbatim quote from the original report: “The plan was developed amid economic concerns about the district around the arena.”

Of course, what complicates matters is we’re talking about Columbus, Ohio, not Edmonton, Alberta. That’s what we’re bound to hear from the supporters of Oilers owner’s proposition that taxpayers contribute towards building a new and gorgeous arena for his club downtown. For the record: the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once in their 11 years of existence, and attendance at their games has been declining throughout. In all fairness, the Oilers have not been much better through the last 11 years, the one trip to the Stanley Cup finals notwithstanding, and still, their arena has been sold out throughout.

Bluntly: one set of customers discriminates, the other, not so much.

Also for the record: that same group of supporters of taxpayer support for the poor old Daryl Katz has been singing praises for the Columbus project the last few years. Columbus, they said, was a blueprint, a shining example of how to make such projects work.

And now, their dreams are shattered to smithereens.

But does all this mean putting a new arena downtown makes economic sense? No, it does not. The arena will be crowded 41 nights a season, plus four pre-season games, and who knows how many playoffs games, if any. Will THAT change the structure of downtown? No, it won’t.

If you wish a summary: it’s a risky proposition, at best.

Who knows what to do with downtown areas? Nobody

As mentioned on a number of earlier occasions, the emigration from downtown areas has become a fact of life in North America. Numerous studies have tried to figure out the reasons for the trend. Without knowing ALL of the reasons, we can hardly hope to turn the trend around. Alas, as it is, we don’t seem to know at least half of the reasons. So, how can anybody even begin to pretend they know how to slow it down, stop it, and turn it around? An old word describes them best: snake-oil salesmen.

All of this still hasn’t touched upon the immorality of suggesting taxpayers should be paying for a professional sports club’s digs. It’s a private entity if there ever was one, and one that its owner plans to keep private.

Quite a few people have invested their emotions in the Oilers’ fates. Some have gone so far as to let their emotions wreak havoc on their intellectual abilities. So far as they are concerned, there’s nothing else to live for in Edmonton than to see their beloved Oilers win (or lose) their share of games. If the new arena downtown goes ahead, with or without taxpayer support, most of the supporters won’t be able to afford single tickets, and never mind parking and – possibly – a bite to eat and a sip to drink during the game. You can bet your last dollar on that.

But, again, this is just one of the many practical angles.

The overwhelming angle is simple: as even the Columbus case has shown, no, downtown revitalization using professional sports arenas and entertainment areas just does NOT work.

Why should Edmonton’s taxpayers pay to see yet another proof, this one closer to home?

More questions than answers in Katz Group’s explanatory statement

So, the Katz Group has come up with an explanation why they need to have the arena deal closed, sealed and delivered by Halloween.

No, no, no, it wasn’t blackmail, you can read between the lines of a statement put out under the name of company vice-president John Karvellas. The company has had pure business reasons that have led them to making the demand.

The Katz Group has exhausted its right to extend the option on the land, the statement said. Besides, even if the first hole were dug today, it still would be close to impossible to see the new arena ready by 2015. That would make it one year AFTER the Edmonton Oilers’ lease for Rexall Place expires. The Oilers’ owner is on record as saying his club won’t play there after the lease has expired in 2014. Indeed? Pray tell: where will the club play in the meantime?

Another open-ended question, not answered in John Karvellas’ statement: “Soon we will lose the opportunity to be in a new arena for the 2015 season. And construction costs are rising, as we have feared they would.”

Indeed. Is he indicating the cost for the entire project will be higher than the planned $450 million? The rest of the statement seems to say that, without even hinting at potential budget overruns. Who will cover those?

The most galling part of the statement: it takes for granted the idea that taxpayers ought to contribute. Why? Well, because it’s the best way. Best way for whom, pray tell? For taxpayers who will see a part of their taxes go towards building a professional sports club’s new digs, and that part would be withheld from the province of Alberta – nyanyanyanahnah? It’s money that is supposed to help pay for such minor, inconsequential services as education. Let’s get it straight: they ARE minor and inconsequential. Compared to what? Compared to a megalomaniac dream of making Edmonton’s downtown a new Acropolis, or something to that effect.

By even agreeing to talk to the Katz Group council is confirming it doesn’t know what its job is. Their conversation should have been brief: you want to build a new arena downtown? Fine. Why don’t you apply for a development permit? We promise to process it with all speed. No, you can’t get a discount on the fee. Don’t provoke us or we’ll slap you with a higher fee, for fast-tracking your request.

As it is, the city spends millions like drunken sailors on shore leave, just to pay for legal and consulting help.

The Katz Group statement also lists its own expenses, saying that combined with those, the final cost of the project would be more than the much-ballyhooed $450 million. More by at least $100 million. And where is it supposed to get the money to cover this shortfall? Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

No, money doesn’t grow on trees. It seems the Katz Group, aware of this strange biological phenomenon, would like to get access to an alternative source: taxpayers’ pockets.

The gall! The chutzpah, even! We haven’t got what it takes to do it on our own, help us, or we’ll take our toy and go elsewhere. Do you not remember the fact-finding missions to Quebec City and business missions to Hamilton? Where have we seen this movie before? Oh yes, do you remember Peter Pocklington, drummed out of town for precisely the same antics the Katz Group is showing us now?

Or, how about this deal: fine, the City of Edmonton will pay for the entire arena, and the Katz Group undertakes to pay for the upkeep of the city’s infrastructure, including basic services? Fair enough for you?

But joking aside: this city’s administration shares a bit of the guilt for the fact Edmonton’s downtown now looks and feels the way it does. They did all they could to discourage investment in the area, to discourage commuting to the area (and parking there). This, added to other reasons that influence the North American trend of downtown deterioration, has made our downtown a basket case.

Economic case studies from other North American cities that have gone down a similar path are unanimous: building professional sports and entertainment complexes does not stop or reverse the trend of emigration from downtown cores. Yes, it does slow them down for a few years, in what is known as “novelty effect,” but once this effect wears off, the numbers go back to previous levels. Nobody has bothered to show why Edmonton, of all places, would be different.

The only thing we see is that a grasping billionaire doesn’t want to commit to a project, and tries to keep a loaded gun aimed at his community’s collective head. He doesn’t say it’s robbery. But that’s precisely what it is.

Call 911.