This year the City of Greater Sudbury is going to make a big decision. It will have impact on the built-form, culture and development of the city for the next half century.
The decision is whether to build a new arena downtown (where the current one is located) or move to a location outside of the city core.
These decisions are never made without controversy. Northern Ontario cities are small. A multi-million-dollar decision of any kind can have disproportionate impact on public and private interests. In an echo system with scarce resources, these decisions are hard fought and inevitably become personal because everybody knows everybody. You end up on one side or the other even if you aren't. It can get testy.
My favorite donnybrook over scarce resources and development took place in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, in a small town called Blockhouse, not far from where I have a summer cottage. The volunteer fire department added a new truck bay to their fire hall (to house their brand new pumper) without applying for a building permit.
They didn't think they had to. At one point, the county determined it had to tear it down. Before all was said and done, eight volunteer firefighters and their department faced a total of 47 provincial charges.
When they finally arrived at court, it was decided to drop 40 of the charges. The department agreed to plead guilty to four charges under the provincial building code, while the fire chief agreed to pay a fine of $400. The municipal council also agreed to amend its land-use bylaw, which excluded emergency services from having to go through a development agreement before putting up the building.
Who knows how many friendships were lost and money spilled over a garage attached to a fire hall.
Sometimes facts are less important than emotions.
Sudbury, over the years, has done a lot to combat that sucking sound of commerce and community slinking out of town to the suburbs. In the 1960s, they got started with urban renewal and created the City Center retail complex that became the Rainbow Centre.
In the 1970s, Don Collins, the first chair of the Regional Municipality of Sudbury (appointed by the province), forced through the implementation of the new Civic Square complex, which revitalized the downtown at the time and wouldn’t have happened without him.
In the year 2000, the YMCA located their brilliant 70,000-square-foot facility downtown, which has done much to keep the downtown vibrant.
The most recent project has seen the city’s support for a new School of Architecture downtown. It is an amazing building filled with more than 350 motivated, creative students from across Canada, living and studying in downtown Sudbury.
All of these moves have been deliberate public policy decisions to build a better city.
The problem is that council did not start by calling for proposals to build a new arena in downtown Sudbury, which would have been logical given its planning priority to support growth and development in downtown Sudbury. It just asked for proposals in general.
Logically enough, the owner of the Sudbury Wolves would like to build an entertainment centre on land he owns on the outskirts of the city. It's not clear what amount of public money will be requested to get it done.
Arenas outside of the downtown core generally don't work.
The last time I saw this play out was in the late 1980s when I bought the Ottawa Business Journal. It was owned by Michael Firestone, who would soon have his 15 minutes of fame as the original owner of the Ottawa Senators. He was a developer.
Although he loved hockey, his real game was to build an arena and hotels on a property he owned in Kanata, outside of Ottawa. I remember when visiting to consummate the purchase of the OBJ, observing he worked out of an office labeled “skunk works.” I was never allowed to peek inside.
On the other side of that door grew the idea of the Ottawa Senators and their new home outside of town. A while later, the company went bankrupt and eventually Eugene Melnyk picked up the remnants.
As we speak, they are working hard to walk away from the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata and get back downtown.
It's just common sense.
We’ll see whose shoulders the Greater Sudbury city council stands on to make its big decision.
Michael Atkins is the president and owner of the Laurentian Media Group, a diversified media company, which includes Northern Life, Sudbury.com, Sudbury Living Magazine and Northern Ontario Business.