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Atkins: Council clearly didn’t consider the implications of event centre decision

Council disregarded expert opinion and its own plans to back the Kingsway event centre
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A bird’s eye view of the city’s downtown core. (file)

When I came to Sudbury in the fall of 1973, there were two community fault lines.

The first was the remnant of hard feelings between members of the United Steelworkers and the Mine Mill Union. The issue was ideology (communism), and after raiding Mine Mill for years, the Steelworkers took over the union at Inco in 1962. 

Mine Mill proudly carried on at Falconbridge on its own for many years until it became a part of the Canadian Auto Workers in 1993.

It was deep and personal and many people never got over it.

The second fault line was far less emotional. It was between the business community and the labour movement. They didn’t talk much, and when they did, they often did not see eye to eye.

Things changed when everything came to a screeching halt in Sudbury in 1978 with the big strike and threat of massive layoffs at Inco. Three things happened. The men and women in the union suffered deeply through that year of strife, the business community was thrown back on its heels (some going bankrupt) and a group of people started what was then called Sudbury 2001.

What was significant is that during the most bitter strike in the history of Sudbury, the following interest groups sat at the same community table, leaving their politics at the door: the president of the Chamber of Commerce; members of the provincial and federal parliament; the president of Laurentian University; the president of Mine Mill; the president of the United Steelworkers; the head of the Sudbury and District Labour Council; the president of Cambrian College; senior representation from Inco and Falconbridge; the mayor of the City of Sudbury; the head of the regional council; and the publisher of Northern Life newspaper.
 
The head of long-range planning for the region was seconded to the group to provide administrative leadership.

I mention all of this because it changed how we did things in this city. About half of us are still alive. Since those days, I’ve seen nothing as divisive as the arena debate, although retail store hours deserves honourable mention.

The battle over the arena started innocently enough a few years ago, but became big and emotional at council last week and in certain parts of the public. This genie is hard to put back in the bottle. We need to try. We are all supporters of this beautiful city.

Development is about money, vision, marketing and location.
 
The City of Greater Sudbury became subsumed in competing emotional marketing campaigns between proponents of the downtown and proponents of the Truth North Strong centre.

The story

This narrative should never have started. The city, through labourious planning and consultation involving many Sudburians, developed the Downtown Master plan in 2012 and cited a rejuvenated downtown arena as part of that plan.

Reading that document makes it incomprehensible the city would spend a $100 million to move it out of the downtown.

If development is about money and marketing, city planning and banking is about predictability. You can’t say one thing and do another in planning or no one will believe you. No one will invest if the rules change irrationally or emotionally. It devalues the brand.

Our mayor and city council mean well. After a tense council meeting where there was a tied vote on the downtown proposal and a subsequent startling 10-to-2 approval for the True North Strong proposal, the council changed direction the next day and gave full support to downtown projects, which include the library, the art gallery and the Synergy Centre project.
 
The problem is that in the balance of probability this will not happen. There isn’t going to be enough money and the politics of pot holes is going rear up without question.

The pain is not over.

The big problems

The arena decision is destabilizing. City council, in deciding to support the True North Strong centre, ignored its own hard work outlined in the Downtown Master Plan. They ignored the recommendation of the Chamber of Commerce. They ignored the recommendation and investment of the BIA. 

They ignored the entreaties of Laurentian University, who just spent $45 million investing in the downtown. They ignored the recommendation of their own staff. They ignored the recommendation of their experienced PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultant, who has worked on these projects for many years across North America. They ignored the ample evidence of communities across the country who decided to locate downtown with great results and those that didn’t with bad results.

In short they asked for facts and ignored them. The immediate impact is to hobble the downtown, but the long-term effect is that potential investors will have no idea what might happen in a Sudbury civic decision tree.
 
This is not normal. It is impenetrable.

Council support for downtown projects is to be lauded. It does mitigate to a degree the loss of the arena. The problem is that when you include the arena, they are in one way or another (hopefully with federal and provincial support downtown) talking of public sector investments north of $200 million.

This is unprecedented and unlikely to happen. Given the city is paying the full tranche for the arena, you know where the shortfalls will occur — it will be downtown. In five years, everyone will say “Well, we gave it a good try.” If that happens, it will be devastating to the city. A travesty.

And then there are the terms and conditions. The city has agreed to spend up to $100 million on a private plot of land and it has got nothing concrete in return. Yes, it gets a piece of that land for 10 bucks, but that is probably what it was worth before the arena is built on it.

It gets no participation in the profits of the land revaluation it has caused with the public’s money. When the mayor in a late night death–bed repentance tried to get some guarantees of performance from True North Strong, councillors voted it down, with some saying it was an insult to Dario Zulich.

Yes, that’s what happened. The only thing True North Strong is committed to do is try. When the poor junior lawyer for the city was asked if the so-called “best efforts” contract was binding, he stumbled and then agreed it was binding. The problem is binding for what? Not much. We desperately need some experience here.

Next up, the city needs to enter into a lease with the Sudbury Wolves. The city now has a massively increased risk and vested interest in the financial success of the Sudbury Wolves.

There is currently a class action lawsuit against the Ontario Hockey League made up of 400 past and current junior hockey players. They want to get paid for their services. A similar class action lawsuit has just been certified against the Western Hockey League.

The result is that it changes the business model for junior hockey if it is successful. This may or may not be material for the Wolves … but it would behoove the city to find out. The city is entirely out of their league for these sophisticated negotiations.

Smartening up before it is too late

It may be the decision to abandon the arena downtown is final; too much political capital spent, too many councilors locked into their positions, too much arena fatigue.

If that is the case, the city must negotiate a price for its monumental generational investment before it is too late. The minimum is what True North Strong marketed itself to be. Why else would you put an arena half a kilometer from a landfill site and risk all the known downsides of moving it out of there unless you were getting something big in return.

It’s like trading Sidney Crosby for a 10th-round draft pick. What’s missing are the investment plans of Truth North Strong and the Sudbury Wolves. Given the casino is already going somewhere in the city regardless of location, you only get half points for sticking it near the event centre.

That’s easy. In fairness, this unbelievable circumstance occurred because the original proposal from True North Strong was a Public Private Partnership, wherein the city guaranteed financing for an arena they would own. The city decided it wanted to own the facility and never got around to thinking about how to protect itself.

The Mayor believes in value for money. It’s time for him to step up and actually negotiate. The current circumstances are untenable. There are no priorities and no safeguards for the city. The city is horribly exposed both downtown and at the True North Strong location.

The good news is Perry Dellelce and Dario Zulich are fantastic Sudbury people. They believe in this city. Dario put his money on the table and bought the Wolves.

Perry is a founder and managing partner of Wildeboer Dellelce, one of Canada’s leading corporate finance transactional law firms in Toronto. He has a flair for marketing that is unparalleled. Our Toronto companies have been long time clients of his firm.

Perry got involved in fundraising for Laurentian University and played a leading role in turning our fundraising program around. You can work with Perry. He believes in community, as does Dario.

That said, if True North Strong wants an arena on their land, they need to protect the downtown by being part of the downtown solution. That means getting on board and making sure the Synergy Centre, the art gallery, and the library are financed downtown as destination locations, not just tucked into the old arena to make us all feel better.

You can’t go first class in one place and second class in the other. This must be solidified before any shovels hit the ground for the True North Strong facility. First things first.

I hate to see the arena leave the downtown. It makes no sense to me.

It makes more sense to invest in our old arena for hockey and entertainment, and build the Synergy Centre across the street with the library and art gallery — all connected for half the investment.

If there is no political will to reconsider these decisions, we have to work together to make it all happen or nothing will happen. We cannot build the True North Strong project before we are assured the downtown will receive its mitigating investment.

What we all share is a love for this community. We can fight it out or we can synergize. To make that happen, we need a city council and administration that is tough and smart and set’s out the end game.

That is their job. It is not even half done.

Now let’s enjoy the summer and come back this fall and take a second look at how to create a win/win not a win/lose proposition for this city.

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.



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