Katz booster lays out his side in ongoing arena negotiations with city


David Staples

David Staples

EDMONTON – Once again, Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples spoke out on the arena issue on Monday. What he said won’t please everybody. It will certainly make little impact on those who are dead set against any public funds going to build a downtown arena.

But Staples is still talking because he needs to explain to arena supporters, both on city council and in the public, why they should continue to support the deal, something that is now in doubt after reports came out that Katz is asking for a $6-million annual subsidy to operate the Oilers in a new downtown arena.

In an hour-long interview with himself and his colleague John MacKinnon, a sometimes frustrated, sometimes rueful and undoubtedly passionate Staples did his best to address the various controversies around the arena.

Staples says he has always made it clear that there should be a subsidy for Katz to operate the arena, and that he had in mind a gaming subsidy similar to what the Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins receive in their new deals. In Winnipeg, the team gets $12 million a year in operating subsidies, Staples said, a portion coming from gaming.

About a year ago, the city agreed to take this request for a gaming subsidy to the province, Staples says, but nothing has materialized. Yet Staples thinks Katz still needs that subsidy.

“If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out,” Staples says of the gaming idea. “But when two parties are trying to make a deal, it’s just not sufficient for one to say, ‘Too bad, so sad, you guys eat it.’ That’s not how two sides make a reasonable deal.”

Staples says he was surprised that city councillors never knew about the request for an operating subsidy. “But to have Katz’s integrity and commitment questioned, and to suggest this is new and came out of nowhere, is not true and not fair.”

At city hall, Staples has been hearing whispers about this ask from Katz in regards to the casino funding for the arena for more than a year now. Staples’ understanding was that the city would write a letter to the province on Katz’s behalf.

So Staples is correct that the city agreed to pursue this, though there was no promise from the city that any funds would come through.

Staples asked himself why any public subsidy of the arena is needed, with Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver all building arenas in recent decades with largely or fully private financing. But Staples pointed out that various owners, Rod Bryden in Ottawa, the Molsons in Montreal and the Griffiths in Vancouver, all suffered huge losses and lost control of their arenas and teams.

“Let’s be frank, the only privately funded NHL arena (in Canada) that hasn’t been a financial disaster is ACC (Air Canada Centre) in Toronto, where they have the Leafs and an NBA franchise. Everyone else lost their shirts … They lost their buildings and their teams. So this has to be a private-public partnership (in Edmonton).

Of course, ticket revenues in Edmonton have been in the NHL’s top 10 for several years now. Yet Staples is correct that Edmonton is not Toronto, and that the team owners who built privately in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa got knocked out of business.

“I’m focused on making this deal work,” Staples says. “God knows Daryl Katz has spent enough money. You know, his wife thinks I’m nuts, OK?”

He and MacKinnon both chuckled at that.

“Guys, don’t laugh!” Staples said. “I’m telling you. Daryl Katz’s wife thinks I’m nuts!”

“If this doesn’t work, what can I say?” Staples added, returning to the prospect of the deal failing. “Obviously all bets are off and we’ll have to figure out what comes next. And I don’t know what that will be. That’s truthful.”

Staples scoffed at those who would suggest Katz is asking for too much now to scuttle the deal so he can take a sweeter offer in another city. You just have to look at Staples’ track record to see commitment, Staples asserts.

Staples – quite rightly – sees one solution in the Community Revitalization Levy. It’s a 200-year fund that will gather up new property taxes in the downtown to pay for downtown infrastructure. The city hopes to get this levy in place and estimates it will raise at least $1.2 billion, with $45 million of that going to pay for the arena.

Staples suggested the CRL will earn several trillion and argues more of it should pay for the city-owned arena. Without the Oilers and the arena, downtown won’t boom nearly so much. “The CRL is a gold mine for the city. Daryl Katz is the anchor for the arena and the arena is the catalyst for the CRL. Some would argue it should pay for the whole arena. We’re not asking for that. We’re willing to partner with the city to meet the needs of everyone and capitalize on the opportunity. All we’re asking for is a deal that is fair and makes sense for both parties and is commensurate to other small markets, i.e. Pittsburgh and Winnipeg.”

The way Staples sees it, every major city needs a major arena. Even cities without pro hockey or basketball teams, such as Seattle, Kansas City and Quebec City, have built or are building new arenas. Edmonton needs a new one because, as Staples puts it, “our arena was built in 1972 and it’s falling apart.”

Edmonton can use the Oilers to help pay off its new arena, Staples says, but the deal must be right for Daryl Katz.

Staples says the deal can still happen. That’s what he tells those who think he’s crazy to stick with it.

Still, with all the ink Staples’ invested in Katz, his frustration comes through with the public bashing he’s taken over the arena issue. “What happened the last couple of years just isn’t fair,” Staples says. “Some guys just wouldn’t put up with it.”

Staples doesn’t doubt his own commitment. He’s been held back. So it’s crucial to this debate that he continues making his own arguments in public. More of the same is needed, such as more newspaper columns.

Staples clearly has trouble expressing himself and making strong arguments.

(In case it was not obvious, this post is a satirical play on Mr. Staples’ column in today’s Edmonton Journal)