Alberta Politics

boosterism beating diligence and reason in katz downtown arena debate.

I love Edmonton. I am proud to call myself an Edmontonian. I love living in a downtown core neighbourhood. I also have no patience for the kind of blind boosterism that sometimes envelopes the business and political community in this city.

I am referring to the kind of boosterism reflected in letters this week from the ONEdmonton Downtown Revitalization Task Force and the YES! for Edmonton group that endorse the zoning of a downtown arena district. A quick read of these letters will reveal that the endorsements are not backed up by clear arguments supported by urban planning ideas or constructive arguments. I would not have an issue with these letters if they included reasonable arguments or event justifications. Like the Katz Group itself, I have heard a lot of talk about how a Katz Arena District could revitalize Edmonton’s Downtown core, but I have not seen a lot of evidence.

Before I jump on the Katz Arena District bandwagon, I want Edmonton City Councillors to demonstrate some serious diligence and provide arguments based in reason. Although I am not opposed to the construction of a new arena, I have not been convinced that the construction of a mega-project like a new NHL Arena will result in the kind of vitalization for the downtown core that its proponents suggest.

Is an Arena the only future for downtown?

No. I have little doubt that a new Katz Arena District would bring a lot of Edmontonians downtown a few nights a week, but I believe that we can do better than that. In my mind, the centre of a revitalized downtown is people, but not people driving in from the suburbs – people actually living there. This would require creating an urban environment that is not dependent on large events, but through everyday life. This is not something that requires expensive mega-projects like the Katz Downtown Arena District .

The debate around the development of a Katz Arena District has also avoided raising questions about the future of the dozens of social agencies already present that area of downtown. The Hope Mission, the Herb Jamison Centre, and the George Spady Centre are all within a few blocks radius of where the proposed Katz Arena. These centers provide shelter to hundreds of homeless Edmontonians each night. Successful programs like Housing First have helped provide stable housing for over 1000 Edmontonians, but there are still thousands of homeless Edmontonians who could displaced to other neighbourhoods if the Katz Arena District were built.

Let us improve the quality of life in the core and attract more people – and families – to live in the downtown neighbourhoods by building things and attract business that people will love to live beside everyday.

Financial risk is a factor that is too important to be let pushed aside by boosterism. Should municipal governments be responsible for subsidizing professional sports?

If Canadians believe that professional sports clubs are a business sector in need of public financial support then this is a role that the three main levels of government – federal, provincial, and municipal – need to discuss. Leaving the responsibility to the level of government with the smallest tax-base to assume the role of subsidizer and risk-holder for a private financial venture such as building the mega-project Katz Arena District is simply irresponsible.

Before we zone, before we decide to spend a public penny on building a new arena, let’s not miss an opportunity to debate these important questions that could shape our downtown core for generations to come. Let’s avoid the white elephants and build our downtown into something we can be proud of.


Readers of this post may also be interested in reading My Edmonton, a two-part series on the opportunities and challenges facing Edmonton’s downtown core.

It has to be Downtown

Challenges facing the Core

21 replies on “boosterism beating diligence and reason in katz downtown arena debate.”

A stellar post, Dave. I agree that Edmonton’s downtown is in serious need of revitalization, it needs to be more than just the larger version of Winnipeg or Regina as it feels now. A new arena *might* be part of the solution, but I wonder if the debate on that has already been settled.

Following the Twitter posts of ONEEdmonton and noting the re-emergence of Yes for Edmonton, I can’t help but wonder if the spin machine that seems to be run by the elite group of connected City Hall supporters is revving up because the decision in favor of a new downtown arena has already been made?

More broadly speaking, I also can’t help but feel that these groups that are often meeting to “discuss the future of Edmonton” aren’t anything more than rooms of the same 100 or so people who get together to pat their own backs and enthusiastically support the direction of our municipal government.

Maybe I’m overly cynical, but get the impression that the opinions of the average Edmontonian matter not these days. What will be, will be… and the bill to taxpayers is already in the mail.

For starters, I’d like to see how a giant arena funded with public money wouldn’t be a losing prospect for this city. I’m unconvinced that a giant, noisy building amidst a sea of parking lots would do anything to help this city, and past history seems to indicate that it will do the opposite.

I’d really like these boosters to find some examples where giant entertainment complexes actually ‘revitalized’ any district in which they’ve been located. Instead I get a lot of winks and smiles and assurances that no, I don’t need to worry because it’ll all work out. Don’t you love the Oilers? Look at Winnipeg after they lost their team?

So basically I get a lot of noise and pathos and that’s supposed to convince me?

Admittedly I’m a bit on the fence with the post Dave. I believe this is part of the revitalization puzzle. It’s not an answer in and of itself. We’ve seen in the last decade how far downtown has come.

You’re right that having people living in downtown is important but that won’t happen overnight and you can’t ignore people outside the core. An arena is an opportunity to expose them to the growing amenities and possibilities downtown. Part of the tilt we need, though it sounds small, is to have those more suburban Edmontonians considering downtown as part of their lives (entertainment, shopping, meals). That’s already slowly happening and in my opinion an arena can help with that.

Whether people like it or not, the Oilers are a key component of this city. It doesn’t mean we bow to everything they say but we need to be honest about their place in this city’s fabric and how that can connect to other plans including revitalization of downtown.

Thanks for the well thought out post.

Excellent piece! I should point out that our letter of support is just that and is not intended to restate the wxtensive discussions we already had with the city. From a personal perspective, I completely understand the business case of the arena and as a developer I am not naive enough to think this project can get done without public help. It is simply a matter of how to best craft the input. Look forward to heaing you speak at next week’s council meeting.

I’m glad you raised these questions because I haven’t really seen them raised elsewhere.

I haven’t been in the broader “Urban Renewal” loop for a few years, but for quite a time it was something I did some work in – looking at Urban Renewal in both Europe and N. America.

My particular area wasn’t the big downtown mega-project/arena thing BUT over the years a number of studies and reports looking at such projects passed over my desk.

And you are ABSOLUTELY correct – where is the evidence?

Over the last 10-15 years there have been a good few such projects in N. America, aiming to “revitalize” various down-towns.

Many have failed (sometimes failed miserably). Fewer have been successful.

So where – in the context of Edmonton – are the comparative studies of those examples (and the lessons learned)?

Where is the research, taking the data from all the previous research in this field, and applying it to Edmonton?

We need to see evidence which shows us how the situation in Edmonton does and doesn’t compare to past cases and what sort of probabilities underlie the boosterism and wishful statements that a Katz Arena “will” revitalize downtown?

IMO, we also need to have looked at how other ways of revitalizing downtown (at much less potential cost to the taxpayer) may actually be far more effective.

We need to ask: is the reason for all this a. build a new arena downtown and justify it with the “urban renewal” argument? Or b. revitalize and renew downtown by using the unique opportunity of a downtown arena to do so.

If it’s the latter – then there well be much more effective ways of renewing Edmonton’s urban core which give far more “bang for the tax-payer’s buck” than what $XYZ Million we end up spending on an arena.

(but my – admittedly cynical – take is that it’s probably much more a. than b. …)

Purely off the top of my head, but how do we know that we wouldn’t get, say, twice as much value in terms of downtown renewal if the City spent $250 million on other types of Urban Renewal (along with the associated policies) rather than putting it into an arena?

I don’t think that would be totally beyond the realm of possibility – but we don’t know and we don’t have the information to be able to tell.

I certainly recall there were a good few reports etc. coming out of some such mega-revitalization projects in the US urging caution and/or words of warning/wisdom for cities embarking on similar projects.

There was one – and I have no idea now where it was (Ohio?) where a fairly detailed report was made to the US (or possibly State) Congress outlining the pros and cons, but also delineating what were the “absolutes” required for both the City and the Public in any such joint project.

One such absolute requirement was that any commercial partners HAD to have open books as part of the project if public funds were to be used – otherwise it just could not work.

Again – and I don’t recall if it was that same project or another one – but there was one such project which had become a white elephant and a burden to the particular city because the projected broader development and promised growth in taxes didn’t happen (and certainly not within the time-lines that had been foretold during the development stages, and the “selling it to the public” stage). The reason being the projections weren’t based on much more than what was essentially wishful thinking and guesses with no solid research or evidence to back them up.


One thing you’ve consistently spoken to in your posts is the belief that the only magic bullet to downtown revitalization is to have more people downtown.

I couldn’t agree more.

But, still the question remains: how best do we achieve that?

To my mind, it’s important to resist framing downtown revitalization projects as questions of either/or’s. Either we have a new arena, or we have a new housing complex for families. That type of thinking not only lacks ambition, but realism.

One standalone project – whether it’s a new arena or a new office tower or a condo complex – won’t be enough to turn the tide of suburban migration. Instead, we need a constellation of different types of projects – large and small, corporate- and community-driven, augmenting physical and intangible infrastructures.

It’s in that messy conglomeration that we’ll achieve the bounty of network effects and cascading returns.

I agree, too, that the financing component is a separate (if not easily severable) debate; but I find it hard to argue with the ambitions to change our derelict downtown into a place Edmontonians would want to spend time in.

I know a downtown arena and more housing downtown aren’t mutually exclusive, but given the behavior of some Oiler’s fans in the past (ie. 2006 Stanly Cup run on Whyte Ave) would many people want to move their families near a new arena and associates bars and resteraunts?

Great questions and comments from many here. My biggest concern with this entire debate is that there hasn’t been any. I am fine if we have a debate, identify the issues and weigh them fairly. This has not been the case,keep asking questions people, its your tax dollars, and I for one don’t agree with a CRL , its a false front for tax dollars not coming back to general coffers. If you believe this won’t affect the taxes you pay, I have a bridge for sale in new york. its going cheap.

I’d buy a bridge for sale in New york city. I’d even buy it no questions asked. I’d fix it up and then re-sell it for a huge profit. I think you need a better comparison John W. Yours fell flat.

I read with interest how everyone talks about having a debate, but they only want to debate what they “think” they know of the issue. For starters this would not be a publicly funded arena, it would be a P3. Katz has committed $100 million, a ticket levy would raise the next $100 million, so we’re really talking about half the cost. I don’t know about the rest of you but I don’t see too many Edmonton billionaires lining up to throw money at our downtown, do you? I’m not a Katz lacky but in my opinion when a private businessman is willing to pay for half the cost of something that may, and I stress may, benefit our city, shouldn’t we at least sit up and listen to what he has to offer?

If Katz was funding 100% of the cost this wouldn’t be an issue, we’d all be cheering and yelling in excitement for the new arena. But because public money could be involved we all want to debate “downtown revitalization?” seriously? The debate is over whether or not public dollars should be used for the arena, and how they will be used.

Here is a piece I wrote about the issue back in August. I would like to see more focus on broader community benefits of financing any amount of the costs of the arena. I am in favour of public financing for “private” projects when indeed the community benefits are clearly spelled out and agreed upon by citizens generally. There needs to a clear return on investment.

A new arena would be great provided:

1) 3 independent costs are provided for the completion of the entire project, that being the area itself AND the new shopping district, so we have a true handle on the cost.

2) What ever fraction the city has to bailout/ kick in, should be the ratio of the profit due to ticket sales and revenue generated by the district. Therefore, the city would possibly be 2/3 owner of the entire project and therefore should get 2/3 of the entire profit for the project, that is fair and the oilers can get 1/3 of the profit, or what ever total ratio of the project they kick in.

3) If the city puts any money in, the city should be a bonafied business partner, not a subsidizer of private business.

4) There should be a democratic vote if people want to pay the xtra tax to cover the city’s portion of the cost.

We really don’t need a new arena, if city taxpayers are forced to cover the remaining costs, as this is imposed, undemocratic and unfair. If we city taxpayers vote to have the arena, then we taxpayers should be equal business partners and the revenue generated, should be taken off should be paid back to the city taxpayers to offset the increased city taxes to pay for the arena.

We want the arena, but under fair conditions. We don’t mind if the oilers leave, we can always start another team here, there is a lot of hungry talent that is willing to work hard to impress.

[…] I have written before that if Canadians believe that professional sports clubs are a business sector in need of public financial support then this is a role that the three main levels of government – federal, provincial, and municipal – need to discuss. That said, raising the suggestion of public subsidies and committing to give a public subsidy are two different things, especially when the promise is packaged on the eve of an election. […]

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