Alberta Politics

election promises, arena subsidies, and political zealots.

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.

21 replies on “election promises, arena subsidies, and political zealots.”

Great post Dave.

I am actually in downtown Tampa right now and we spent last evening in the area right around their downtown arena which was opened in 1996. As far as downtown vitalization there are three interesting observations from my evening (which by the way was a non-event evening).

First, most of the land surrounding the arena is being used for the parking of cars! Tons of empty lots and parkades, not unlike the downtown eastside in Edmonton or the area around Rexall place. The streets around the downtown office buildings and between the downtown core and the arena were completely empty.

Second, there was a very nice river walk space which included an outdoor bar/cafe and some interpretive and play spaces. While this space was very nice and was being used, it was not busy and it was built with a combination of Tampa Bay Lightning money and donations – not a flux of ‘private investment.’ I suspect as well that the usage of this space had more to do with the harbourfront and the convention centre than it did with the presence of the arena or a vibrant business district created by investment surrounding the arena.

There is also a very nice, albeit small, commercial development adjacent to the arena. With a theatre complex and a number of eateries, this development was somewhat well used, but its presence probably had more to do with the cruise ship terminal located there than it did with the presence of the arena.

I have little doubt that this area is much busier on a game night, but I’m not sure whether a promise of vitalization is delivered by building an arena alone. This district has had 15 years to grow and demonstrate economic vitality and I don’t believe it has done that. I would suggest that Edmonton would be better off building a cruise ship terminal!

When Ignatieff says “He supports funding for a new arena in Quebec City” he means just that. Not out west where there is not as many votes as in Quebec or Ontario.


Of course, there is plenty of rational, informed and necessary criticism of the arena proposal, and at no time in my column do I say otherwise.

You can be against this arena project for good and fair reasons — and that’s where I may end up myself when I see more detail.

But when I say that the attack on this proposal is led by a zealous faction, I meant it, and I believe it to be true. I’ve had as much experience debating this topic as anyone, and I don’t think I’m being unfair in characterizing the loudest voices of opposition in this manner.

Essentially, this camp wants to make it impossible for any politician to support any public funding of any arena project by creating a climate where such funding is viewed as wrong-headed and immoral. Indeed, in this debate, I’ve been accused of being immoral many times for putting forward the notion that it might just be OK to have some public funding of this arena.

My goal in that piece was to say I don’t accept this reasoning and this kind of attack, and to argue there might well be good reasons to support some public funding of such a project, if it’s necessary and reasonable to do so.

If you’ve voice rational opposition to this proposal, I certainly don’t see you in this faction. But it nonetheless exists and is a major part of this debate.

While I admire Iggy’s preference for new arenas over Harpo’s desire for new prisons, neither is the answer. Putting more mentally ill, aboriginal and poor people may play well to the unprogressive Conservatives’ aging core supporters. And the Libs are just pandering to soft separatists to choose Liberal over Conservative brand this time.
But you got it spot on re: Staples and the rest of the Journal stable of columnists who have written in favour of giving a billionaire a free arena at the expense of NECESSARY infrastructure. Mandel and Co. bungled winter snow removal (that’s removal, Steverino, not clearing, which simply means pushing snow from one side of the street to the other). Now they are no doubt busy trying to find an excuse for not filling in potholes — even as city streets become gravel roads.
Is there no way to recall Mandel and his free-spending council?

@Jonathan T. Never once heard of Tampa as an example of best practices for design. If best practices aren’t followed, these things won’t work. As I said, if they’re not followed in Edmonton, no need to proceed.

P.S. Robert Gerard. Do you read Paula Simons-Gary Lamphier on the arena issue? Evidently not.

Good post Dave, and good job on calling out David Staples approach. His comments here just further reveal that he has no clue what he’s talking about. Apparently he’s ok with opposition to the arena, so long as said opposition doesn’t make valid arguments (or some such nonsense). Take this bit:

“This camp wants to make it impossible for any politician to support any public funding of any arena project by creating a climate where such funding is viewed as wrong-headed and immoral.”

Call me crazy but I thought Alberta had a heavy right wing bend to it, and we’re a group of people who by-and-large don’t believe government should be in the business of business? The NHL is as big a business as it gets, and Daryl Katz has the revenue to build his own arena.

Also, I think Staples is using the common argumentative tactic of extremism, something most often deployed by a group lacking in their own winning arguments. Most of us opposed to the Edmonton arena deal don’t like the current offer, full stop. Saying that we are arguing against ANY politician ANY project EVER is just childish rhetoric from someone devoid of solid points in favour of their own position.

Staples continues to ignore the fact that this proposal is being financed by around 75% public funds. No matter how many times Staples et all refer to the ticket tax as privately levied funds, it’s still not true. The City will be the one borrowing said funds until such time as the ticket tax repays those borrowed funds, thus drawing down the City’s capability to borrow for its other more important commitments. If Katz wants to front the debt for the ticket tax himself, then & only then should anyone call the ticket tax private investment.

It’s so refreshing to read dialogue rather than name-calling in response to a Blog (or a newspaper article). I am an Edmontonian, and am not decided one way or the other. There seems to be some pretty strong evidence that, if done right (which is the key) it can have a very positive effect on downtown.

But there is the counter argument that public funds could be put to better uses (prisons not being one of them – thank you Robert). And there are a number of people I know and respect who believe that the effects on the marginalized population, who are already significantly down-trodden and live in the area of the proposed arena, would be egregious.

I think I pretty much understand where Mr. Katz is coming from – from a business perspective, if you can mortgage 20% of the asset, and have public funding either cover or mortgage the other 80%, that puts all your other assets at far less risk if the venture fails. And that of course is the very argument, from the taxpayer perspective, against it.

But if the other stuff I’ve read about in the media is correct with respect to increased tax revenues, job creation, etc. then it starts to sound like it could be a win-win.

And I gotta say – Rexall/Northlands sucks; and I gotta say – downtown Edmonton sucks (though not as badly as it did 10 years ago – but far more so than it did 40 years ago).

So while there are undoubtedly more and better uses to which public money could be put – history tells me it’s not going to be put there – it just won’t be put anywhere, because it entails borrowing, and no politician in Alberta is going to borrow money, or raise taxes, to alleviate the suffering of the down-trodden. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to that are the kinds of initiatives that Mandel has undertaken on homelessness and safer communities. The most visionary politician in Canada on this stuff.

I know him, and I have enormous respect for him – and if he thinks this is the thing to, then I’m inclined to agree.

But you know what Edmonton really needs in the downtown (that it used to have 40 years ago)?

Shoeshine stands. Check out downtown Calgary (especially the Plus 15).

@David Staples

Those were just my timely observations as I was walking around downtown. I would like to read more about the funding of the Tampa project.

I guess my point is that vitalization is not an automatic just because you build an arena, I think many people think that it will be. There are a lot of risks involved and if the business community isn’t willing to take those risks, than why should the city?

Not being a resident of Edmonton, I have not paid very much attention to this debate thus far. However, as a general rule, I would suggest that most cities’ ratepayers would be better off if such projects, built with their tax dollars, were actually owned by the cities that build them. They can then be leased (i.e. rented) to users such as pro sports franchises like the Oilers, at a lease rate that gives ratepayers a reasonable return for their investment. The ownership of the facility, however, would remain with the city whose dollars paid for it.

Your repeated use of the phrase “Katz Group Arena” immediately reminded me of the agitprop that gave us “Barack *Hussein* Obama” in Tea Party talking points. Technically correct but dripping with unspoken meaning.

Also, I’ve heard from two attendees of the Mike Lake roundtable last week – you and Mack Male. Who else was at the meeting? Two tech-savvy males of similar age and political persuasion is not in itself an indication of diversity.

I haven’t been able to vote on your blog poll about the federal election on either of my computers. Is there an automatic screen on New Democrats?


Oh! I just noticed LIBERAL is in bold for me. Dave, I don’t know how I voted Liberal, but you might want to check if there’s some sort of bug in that thing.

Jonathan T: Thanks for the comment. Interesting observations about Tampa. I don’t know much about Tampa, but those are useful observations. I really get the feeling that the “revitalization” element of the Katz Group’s PR campaign was just tacked on at the last minute in order to tap into the perception that many Edmontonians have about the downtown core.

Scottie: Thanks for the comment. I would agree that these comments sound more like they are more about appealing to regional votes in Quebec than they were a serious commitment to invest infrastructure into pro-sports arenas.

@dstaples: thanks for the comments. I’m glad that you are still keeping an open mind and waiting for the details (truthfully, I have not sensed that was your position while reading your columns).

As I wrote in the blog post, there are zealots on either side of this issue. Some people will oppose the construction of the arena without reason (I like to think that I have reason, facts, and arguments behind my opposition) and then there are the legions of fans who will do whatever the Oilers want. Neither of these are healthy for our city or for the future of the downtown core.

There are rational arguments for and against the downtown arena proposal, but I feel that the Katz Group, City Council, the Mayor, and the mainstream media have missed the first steps in the debate: what do we want our downtown to be?

We sidestepped this important question and are now focused on debating about whether a downtown arena should be publicly or privately funded. We really should be debating whether an arena district is what we want to centre our downtown around (I send a reluctant kudos to the Katz Group for their masterful PR maneuvers in sidestepping the important questions and staying quiet during the 2010 municipal election).

While I have not been convinced that a new arena is a good choice for downtown, I am sensible enough to see that the powers that be will make it happen. So, at their behest we are left debating publicly versus private funding until the issue moves on and we can have a grown up debate about the real challenges facing the heart of our city – like making it more family friendly.

@ Neumanic thanks for the comment. Is it not the “Katz Group Arena?”

There were 8 participants at the roundtable. Men and women who were students, from the housing sector, immigration workers, business, etc.

So David Staples has moved beyond name calling and questioning the connections those who oppose the arena have to Edmonton? – because that’s exactly what he was doing if you look back through his Twitter feed.

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