Go big or go home.
If you want public funding for a sports stadium, you’d better be ready to completely soak the government, because otherwise your requests will be ignored.
Had Edmonton secured a multi-billion dollar event like the World Expo, the construction of a new arena would be a forgone conclusion.
Instead, the provincial and federal governments have both turned their nose up to projects that will ensure the long term viability of the NHL in Alberta.
Premier Ed Stelmach reiterated that point on Wednesday at the Calgary Stampede, while on Thursday he announced $25 million in provincial funding for the Stampede’s centennial next year.
The recent precedent has been set through the Olympics and Pan-Am Games where the three levels of government in both B.C. and Ontario have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into each of those international events. That funding went to many projects from infrastructure to security and, yes, to stadiums and sports facilities used by professional sports teams. In fact the B.C. Lions are still reaping the benefits with a new retractable roof being constructed on B.C. Place. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are also having their home rebuilt.
Edmonton did benefit from this in the 1970s with the Commonwealth Games that yielded a football stadium and Calgary did as well with the Olympics in 1988, getting the Saddledome.
All of these projects have benefitted private entities.
Now Edmonton and Calgary are bellying up to the trough again.
With Rexall Place in the capital in desperate need of replacement and the Flames’ home just a few years away from the same state, their owners are looking for help in replacing these facilities.
In the case of Darryl Katz and the Oilers, they aren’t looking for the whole project to be publicly financed and then handed over, in fact Katz has pledged $250 million directly to the building of the new rink and another $100 million to the development of the surrounding area. The City of Edmonton has ponied up with $100 million as well, on the condition that either the province or Ottawa comes up with the other $100 million.
And yes, Katz is looking for full control over the building, but that would also mean the Oilers will be picking up the tab for any future renovations and operating costs. They are one of the few teams in the NHL who do not control the facility in which they play — and that includes the Flames who do.
It is easy to paint this as building a sand box for millionaires to play in, but it goes far beyond that.
The arena would be at the centrepiece of Edmonton’s downtown revitalization, a project that is long overdue.
The arena would also benefit Albertans from Red Deer north.
In addition, the project serves more than just professional hockey fans.
Like Rexall, it would be a 365-days-a-year building, and ensure the city remains a destination for trade shows, major concerts, the CFR and other major events like the world junior hockey championship, the Brier and the world figure skating championship. It would also become home to the WHL’s Oil Kings and the National Lacrosse League’s Edmonton Rush.
Both sides have studies about how it will effect the city’s economy or how those studies are inaccurate.
What a new building does though, is it keeps Edmonton on the map.
It gives central and northern Albertans something to rally around and be proud of, as well as an ongoing place of high-level entertainment.
I also have a feeling if this was regarded as more of an arts venture there would be far less squabbling over it — as projects like the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum have received millions in funding the last few years for renovations and building projects.
We sometimes forget the role that sports — whether they are professional or amateur — play in our culture.
Is it cheap? Absolutely not.
Does it guarantee an economic boom? Completely debatable.
Should we expect the tax payers to shoulder the entire burden and risk associated a building like this? No, but we shouldn’t expect Katz to either, especially when the benefits extend to an entire region and beyond the realm of professional sports.
The one thing it would guarantee is a home for the Oilers, a place where dreams of young people will be fostered and a future for many high-profile events in Edmonton.
All the same things the Olympics and Pan-Am Games promised for their hosts — but at a fraction of the cost.