Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Update on the possible new arena

Paula Simons
The Edmonton Journal

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A new downtown hockey arena. That's the blue-sky proposal that's been quietly floating around the city, sponsored by some discreet local business interests.

Right now, it's just an artist's conception, an intriguing daydream.

Still, it's a great jumping-off point for a larger debate on the future of the downtown and the future of the Edmonton Oilers.

The proposal is to replace the aging downtown post office with a grand new arena and entertainment centre.

The plan's backers, who wish to remain anonymous, even hired an architect to create a design that tops the rink with a dramatic glass pyramid, a quotation of the Muttart Conservatory and City Hall.

Such a development could kick-start the development of the largely vacant railway land north of City Hall, behind the CN Tower, filling the barren strip between 101st Street and 97th Street, with hotels, condos, offices and shops.

It would be great to see sports fans flooding into the downtown, spending money in downtown restaurants, bars and hotels, celebrating in Churchill Square, bringing life to the city core.

A state-of-the-art arena could also be a fine concert site, a fit neighbour for the Winspear Centre, the Citadel Theatre, and the Art Gallery of Alberta.

It could be good news for public transit, too. When the city first built the LRT, it roughed in a "future station" in the area, which never got built. A downtown arena could spur construction of that station -- and of a western LRT line, down 105th Avenue.

But attractive though this proposal is, it's no open-net goal.

For starters, Canada Post isn't selling, not now.

Although it moved its main letter-sorting facility to the west end about six years ago, it still uses the downtown site for administrative offices and customer mail services. Canada Post says it has no plans to move.

Then there's the issue of whether an arena really does revitalize a downtown. Much of the time, a hockey arena is closed and dark, especially in the daytime. Arenas aren't such pedestrian-friendly buildings. At their worst, they're fortresses, surrounded by parking lots.

You need only look around Rexall Place and Commonwealth Stadium to see that sports complexes don't always attract upscale bars, restaurants or hotels.

Finally, there's the question of when, where and whether the Oilers want to move. Rexall Place, which opened in 1974, is still a functional facility. But it's the third-oldest arena in the NHL, and one of the smallest. Nor does it have the kind of VIP amenities new arenas offer their corporate customers.

Still, the Oilers have more than seven years remaining on their existing lease with Northlands. And they are Rexall Place's anchor tenant. Cal Nichols chairs the Edmonton Investors Group, the local business people who collectively own the Oilers. Proponents of the downtown arena have already met with him.

"Of course, I've seen all the plans. But it's mostly doodling right now," he says.

Nichols isn't opposed to a downtown arena. Most new sports facilities across North America, he says, are right downtown, often connected to hotels, convention centres or office towers. And yes, he sees a need for a new arena.

"We're playing in the big leagues and we have to provide what customers expect of a big-league team," he says.

But a new arena on Northlands property would be another option. Nor does Nichols rule out a massive upgrade to the existing rink. There are certainly pluses to a Northlands site, not least of which are the existing LRT station, the room for parking and Northlands' own proximity to downtown. Nichols wants a thorough public discussion about any new arena, one that takes into account the interests of all of Edmonton.

"This is bigger than the Oilers," he says. "It's about the entire community and its needs. We have to do, not what's right for the Oilers or Northlands or the downtown, but for the city."

"Big ideas like this, you don't get too many shots at them," adds Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge. "You need to get a lot of people around the city to talk about something like this. It's not about a building, it's about a city. That's what makes it a challenging debate."

And perhaps that's the greatest value in this downtown arena proposal -- the debate it provokes. We may not need a new arena right now. But now is the time to start planning.

How do we keep a beloved small-market sports team economically competitive, while leveraging that team as an engine for smart urban development?

If we do want a new arena downtown, how do we site and design it, so it promotes vibrant street life?

And how do we pay for any new arena? The Oilers had a great financial year thanks to the new league salary structure and the Stanley Cup run. Last week, Forbes Magazine reported the team had an operating income of $10.7 million US last year, the fourth-highest in the league. Forbes estimates the team's value has gone up 40 per cent in the last two years; the magazine says the Oilers now have the fifth-best debt-to-value ratio in the NHL. Still, compared to big-city teams with big-city revenues, the frugal Oilers are in no position to build the kind of top-of-the-line arena that might come with a $250-million or $300-million price tag. How do we get the right mix of private investment and government support to make such a dream a reality? LaForge is so right. A city doesn't get many opportunities for urban renewal like this. Let's start talking now about how to make the most of it. Thirty-six years ago, Edmontonians debated and rejected the idea of a similar downtown facility called the Omniplex. Is it time to resurrect a little Omniplex spirit? Only Edmontonians can say.

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