With a federal election call potentially around the corner, election promises are being dealt out like playing cards. Promise this, promise that. Trying to win back regional support lost over the past decade, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said that he supports funding for a new arena in Quebec City.
Not surprisingly, Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples used a recent column to lead the Katz Group Arena cheer parade, praising Mr. Ignatieff as a saviour for his pre-election suggestion. Of course, no one should be surprised by Mr. Staples column given his past columns on the topic, which have demonstrated his strident support for the proposed Katz Group Arena.
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.
The thing I find the most disappointing about Mr. Staples recent column is that he labels arena skeptics as zealots, which distracts from the legitimate concerns being raised about the public funding and construction of the Katz Group Arena. There are legitimate reasons to question about the presence of public funding and the decision to construct the Katz Group Arena in the downtown core. There are zealots on both extremes of this issue, but there are legitimate reasons to oppose and support this public policy issue.
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.
Even Edmonton Journal business columnist Gary Lamphier, who has described himself as a supporter of a new arena admits that many key questions remain unanswered about proposal. Proposals under negotiation would have the City of Edmonton fund around $400 million and take a large portion of the financial risk for the project, which would end up being privately owned by the Katz Group.
In the rush to push forward a City Council vote on the project, a frustrated Mayor Stephen Mandel:
“Either we build a new arena or we become a second-class city”
While Mayor Mandel soon after admitted that his “choice of words probably wasn’t right,” this comment epitomized how much boosterism has become a central part of the Katz Group Arena debate. The debate is not about whether it is smart public policy for a municipal government to finance the construction of a private arena or even whether the presence of the Katz Group Arena in the downtown core will actually lead to the “revitalization” that the company promises. It has been overshadowed by the driving desire to become a “world-class” city, though no one is quite clear about what exactly that means.
When I think of “world-class” cities like Paris, London, Vancouver, Montreal, or New York, it is not the sports arenas, tourist attractions, or expensive gimmicks that make me appreciate those cities. It is the people who live there that make those cities impressive.
This kind of boosterism is not limited to the arena debate. The decision by the federal government to not fund Edmonton’s bid to host the 2017 Expo bid also drew the ire of Edmonton’s “boosters”, who lashed out at the federal Conservatives and even made ridiculous statements about how it would lead to the Tories electoral demise in northern Alberta (a recent Angus Reid poll showed Conservative support in Alberta sitting at 69% province-wide, with the Green Party with 12% support, and the Liberals and NDP tied with 9%).
I expect some people to attempt to make federal funding for the Katz Group Arena or the denial of Expo funding an issue in the next federal election, I do not believe either of these issues has legs on the federal scene.
At a meeting last week, I joined a diverse group of eight Edmontonians to discuss local issues with a group of five of the city’s Conservative MPs. Over the course of the two hour meeting, we talked about a wide-range of issues from LRT, immigration, crime, digital economy, health care, and housing, but the words “arena” or “expo” were never mentioned.