A little less than a year ago, city council, much to its own surprise and that of many others, decided to build a new $100-million event center on the Kingsway. Tuesday night, to no one's surprise, council confirmed that decision with the vote to approve zoning for the project.
The only real departure from expectation was the concise and deliberate dismissal of the decision by the current chair of the city's planning committee. Deb Macintosh, also the councillor for Ward 9, was brief, polite and scathing. She outlined why the refusal of the council and the planning department to acknowledge their own hard work will undoubtedly send the issue back to council for reconsideration from the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal within the next year.
There is significant public resistance to the project as the implications (social, environmental, financial, administrative and strategic) have become more understood. Of course, there is also significant public support for the Kingsway Entertainment District plan, too. Much of the angst has played out on Sudbury.com as contending factions have had their say. The problem with this issue is that there is no middle ground. No win/win. Just win/lose.
It is now out of council's hands for the moment. It will be appealed.
We got into this situation because after many years of councils dithering on major projects with lots of visioning but not a lot of action, Mayor Brian Bigger and his brand-new council wanted to deliver on something big for the people of Sudbury. They didn't appear to care where that something big was located. They didn't care if their decision conformed to city planning strategies developed over decades.
They cared about getting something done, but gave virtually no direction, which of course is their job. And now we are a city divided.
We went from too much visioning to no vision.
This created a vacuum. There was no context for the proposals that were to come. The vacuum was filled — brilliantly by two smart entrepreneurs who owned some land in what many, including us, consider the wrong place. But they sold that place well and most of council bought in, hook, line and sinker.
Many members of the public bought in, too.
But few, politicians or public alike, thought to consider the implications of ripping the arena out of the heart of the city, or the implications of creating a new economic zone out of whole cloth, and what that might mean for New Sudbury, for the big box development at Silver Hills, for downtown.
There is a metaphor sketched out by management guru Stephen Covey. Leadership is knowing which forest to work in. Management is choosing the right instruments to cut your path through the forest most efficiently. No amount of management can overcome working in the wrong forest. Council doesn’t appear to have considered the impact to the city’s existing retail and entertainment economies by creating a competing entertainment district and economic zone.
It may be that we’re in the wrong forest. But no one who was supposed to thought to look at the trees.
Although Ontario government regulations and city policies state it’s unnecessary, there is no reason an economic impact study can’t be done to test the implications of removing the arena from downtown and creating a new economic and cultural zone on the eastern end of the Kingsway.
If all big projects come to pass as planned, Sudbury will have new convention and performance space downtown (Place des Arts and a convention centre) and new convention and performance space (event centre and hotel) on the Kingsway. The city should conduct a capacity audit to determine if the community can even support doubling up that way.
This is especially important considering the challenges the Sudbury Symphony, Sudbury Theatre Centre and Theatre Cambrian have had financially and in attracting audiences.
If the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal rules against the Kingsway rezoning and official plan amendment, the city would be wise to consider what it might do in that circumstance.
The irony of opening Tuesday’s city council meeting with a report on one of the city's most celebrated environmental successes (the re-greening of Sudbury that began 40 years ago) will not be lost on those of us old enough to remember. The decades long (and ongoing efforts) to rehabilitate the environmental devastation that was Greater Sudbury took leadership. It took planning. It took vision.
It was a different time.