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Atkins: KED, COVID-19 and adapting to our new world

City council has made a positive decision to listen
Michael Atkins
Michael Atkins. (File)

Happily, on Oct. 6 city council has agreed to listen to a proposal from local architecture firm 3rdLine Studio to redesign the downtown arena as an alternative to the Kingsway Entertainment District. 

It's early days and the wounds from the political battle over the Kingsway Entertainment District (KED) are most certainly not healed, but it is a positive development. There is no commitment of any kind, but there is a willingness to listen.

COVID-19 has changed everything. The opportunity to save tens of millions of dollars and still get a new arena is an important consideration in today's world.

If you are an actor, you are out of work. If you are a restaurant owner, you are fighting for your life. If you are a healthcare worker, you are contemplating a second wave. If you are running a long-term care facility, you are on tenterhooks. If you are a teacher, you are trying to master Zoom. If you are a parent working from home, you are pulling your hair out while loving those beautiful people you brought into this world. If you are a university student, you are sitting in front of a screen, not a professor. If you are the president of that university, you're desperately trying to balance the books and if you drive a school bus, you are on high alert for the slightest sneeze or tummy ache every working day. 

This doesn't scratch the surface of the hardships people are experiencing in every walk of life.

So, why would anyone who believes in the Kingsway Entertainment District be open to changing their mind?

The first reason is that we live in a moment that was simply unimaginable eight months ago. The outlook for the entire industrial, commercial and entertainment economy is turned on its head.

The second reason is that there is a priced out alternative that did not exist eight months ago. It is not a binary decision any longer. It is a comparative analysis.

Like every other organization in the world, city council has new information and needs to take it into account.

Some things that are different.

  • There are tens of thousands of square feet of empty retail and commercial space a stone’s throw away from Barrydowne and Lasalle. If you want more, throw a stone from the corner of Paris and Regent. Retail malls are going to change dramatically over the next 10 years. Nothing is as it was. New investment of any kind in a new development will be hard to come by.

  • The tax base of the city will be under siege for years. The pressure to raise taxes will be immense.

  • The health of casinos will take years to recover. They may never be the same. The owner of Gateway Casino (Catalyst Investment Fund) has been trying to sell it or IPO it for years. The most recent billion-dollar transaction fell apart in July. If Gateway ever does anything at the KED, what will it look like? They are under no obligation to do anything.

  • The Ontario Junior Hockey League remains closed for business. It has yet to say when it will return to business. Does a junior hockey team need a new arena or competitive rent?

  • The hotel industry has been hugely impacted by COVID-19. Conferences remain on hold. Travel remains primarily regional. Airlines continue to lay off tens of thousands of people. Who exactly is going to build a new hotel in the middle of nowhere? No one has signed on to build anything yet. New hotel builds will be selective and limited for many years.

  • Science North is laying people off. The YMCA is losing millions of dollars. Laurentian University is on its knees and Cambrian College is hurting. These are not normal times. These institutions help drive our economy and keep us competitive. They may need help. Where do our priorities lie? Where is our greatest public return on investment?

 And yet. And yet there is reason to be optimistic.

  • We have a potential homegrown solution to redesign our arena, which looks exciting and dramatic. It was created by local people who care about this community. They took the risk to do the work with no guarantee anyone would listen. This is a public service. It could also be a savvy business strategy. Either way it is to be applauded.

  • The new design promises to save significant amounts of money. It could save tens of millions of dollars in capital costs and millions more by not requiring new public infrastructure to support it.

  • A local investment group is interested in a mixed-use/commercial/hotel development downtown worth more than $20 million, which is more likely to happen if the arena is redesigned and revitalized downtown. They are currently in discussions with the city.

  • Less likely, but still in the mix is a potential plan by CP to move their railway tracks out of town and consolidate various loading functions at another location. This could have a dramatic impact on the vitality of the downtown and a new redesigned entertainment centre could be the centre of it. We need to take this seriously.

  • The school of architecture has invited architects from around the world to participate in the Sudbury 2050 design competition. This is an incredible undertaking that has attracted more than 100 entries from more than 25 countries around the world. This is our school putting us on the map. We've earned it. We invested $10 million to get it. It's a homegrown solution. The mayor and councilors Geoff McCausland and Deb McIntosh are on the judging committee along with prestigious jurors from across North America. It's a big deal. Let's take this initiative seriously and integrate the best ideas into our planning. What's the point of having your own school of architecture downtown if we don't listen to it?

So times are tough but the spirit of Sudbury is tougher. This is a dynamic community where people care about where they live and put their money where their mouth is when it is at risk. It is inspiring.

Let's take a deep breath to contemplate the massive change in our circumstances as we are doing in our personal work and family life. Let's slow things down and investigate the richness of our opportunities and come to terms with our new world.

We are lucky. We have the time. We have the people and the creativity to innovate. We've done it for years. We can do it again.

Michael Atkins is president of the Laurentian Media Group and former owner of Sudbury.com. He sits on the board of Village Media.