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Opinion: KED project seems a case of ‘misguided enthusiasm turned catastrophe’

Co-chair of Downtown Sudbury BIA argues an arena project in Medicine Hat, Alta. offers a valuable perspective on the Kingsway Entertainment District
A vandalized billboard advertising the Kingsway Entertainment District project. (File)

Our community has been divided by debate, shrouded in illusion and perhaps, blinded from perspectives, realities and examples that might help us make more informed decisions. 

At the heart of this debate, a hockey rink, so let us roll with that analogy. There are no nets in pro hockey without a goal-line camera. Why? Well, ideally, it's so the judge can make an informed decision on whether the goal has been achieved.

Let's call that camera perspective, and in theory, the more cameras we have on the goal line, the better decisions we can make. So are we using all the goal-line cameras we have at our disposal, and do we have a real and honest perspective to consider? 

In the particular case of the Kingsway Entertainment District (KED), a lot of this epic debate will be solved once an event centre is actually built in our community.

After that, It still will take several years for the impacts to be clear. What happens when a community pulls its event centre out of its core and locates just past it’s big box district? Will it thrive? Will the area around it thrive? Will the old building find a new use? Will opinions change once it’s built?

To find these answers however, we may not need to look too far.  

A quick gander at Medicine Hat’s Co-Op Place arena, which replaced the older Downtown Medicine Hat Arena, can teach us a lot. It’s a great example of misguided enthusiasm turned catastrophe and a perfect comparison to the proposed KED project here. 

The commonalities are astounding, right down to both communities using the consulting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to evaluate their projects. In its two KED  reports, PwC even showcases “the Medicine Hat example” to council.  The only real difference between scenarios is that Medicine Hat’s new event centre is located much closer to their Costco and other businesses than they would be  in Sudbury. They even have a Keg restaurant a short drive away. 

Medicine Hat has easier access being located conveniently along the Trans-Canada Highway as well as other major arteries, creating what should have been an easy commute home. 

So knowing these tidbits we have to ask ourselves, with all these extra advantages, has it thrived? Actually, it’s been a bit of a disaster. Medicine Hat decided they would hire an arena management company to help ensure great acts attended the centre. They put out an RFP to find interested companies, and only received one bidder, ASM Global (one of only two to respond to Sudbury), responded. In its proposed budget, the City of Medicine Hat allocated $360,000 per year to run the new centre, the same as it cost to manage the old arena (Sudbury has the same plan). 

Unfortunately, the new arena immediately saw operational cost overages that continued to balloon to more than $1 million annually in loss by 2019. That’s when they decided to let go of the management company and the company Canalta gave up its naming rights, which were taken over in a smaller contract by another company, Co-Op. 

Medicine Hat took over management and the operating costs continued to balloon to $1.7 million annually, or 472 per cent of the anticipated costs. The arena proved too far and too difficult to get to and from, despite the multiple entrances.

Oftentimes, local homeowners would have to wait hours to be able to leave their homes during an event, and ironically, crowds never reached more than the capacity of their old arena. 

The big shows anticipated having huge problems getting audiences, and then after that reality played out several times that had major acts playing to an empty hall, the acts simply stopped coming. The opposite of what was expected. 

Ticket sales weren’t supporting shows in the new location and now they can no longer attract the same calibre of artists the “old barn” used to. 
Well surely the area around it grew? Unfortunately, it didn't, but they did get a Boston Pizza.

What of the “old barn”? Medicine Hat council was confident the old arena would be snapped up nice and quick. Unfortunately, without the games and events, demand in the area declined and so did the market for the location. 

After years of failed attempts to sell the building, council gave it away on the condition the purchaser demolished it. But free wasn’t quite good enough, and council threw in $1.5 million in tax incentives to cover the cost of demolition. Those incentives ballooned to $3 million just to keep the deal alive.
But did the opponents see the light and support the project? Well apparently the public opinion did change. In 2021, council was up for election and was fully replaced by candidates running on a “let's not make that mistake again” platform. 

The mayor took 23.3 per cent of the vote while a previously unknown candidate who ran on a platform of following better planning practises, in-filling, and replacing recreation infrastructure by keeping it in the neighbourhood of the infrastructure it replaced, took 66.4 per cent of the vote.   

Had our own KE been able to move forward at it’s original schedule we would be singing the exact same tune: “If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have moved forward.”

We would have sighted COVID-19 as the reason for its disappointing outcome. We would be scouring our vocabularies for words that save face. Uniquely however, we have a rare opportunity to re-evaluate now before we, the taxpayers, need to overcome ballooning costs, and disappointing turnouts. 

Using countless past examples of absolute failure and this current moment of clarity to reflect, we have the ability to make better, longer lasting and sustainable solutions, ones that will actually benefit and uplift our entire community, ones that create jobs and prosperity, and choices that bring excitement, elation and togetherness.

Rob Jones is the co-chair of Downtown Sudbury BIA.