After six wasted years of fighting, court cases, lawsuits and millions and millions of dollars spent, Greater Sudbury is in the same place it was in 2017 when city council approved what would become the Kingsway Entertainment District project, and no farther ahead than it was in 2016 when Sudbury Wolves owner Dario Zulich first proposed the idea.
Some rejoice in the project’s death, others mourn for what might have been, but thanks to a process that seemed flawed and fraught with pitfalls from the get-go, the cancellation of the KED should come as no surprise.
The KED started as a private venture proposed by Zulich, but in the year following his first floating the idea, it morphed into a quasi private-public partnership.
But not everyone was on board from the beginning. In fact, many people considered the proposal to relocate the venerable Sudbury Arena, widely considered the heart of downtown, as a betrayal of the 2012 Downtown Master Plan, which included provisions for a vibrant downtown arena.
Clearly the idea of moving the arena did not sit well with the whole of city council either, otherwise why request a report comparing the two locations, the Kingsway and the downtown. That report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was received by council in the early spring of 2017 and was supposed to help answer the question.
It did not. In fact, the report was quite wishy-washy. KED opponents portray it as clearly showing downtown was the better location, but that is not actually what was found.
The report gave high marks to both locations — which is why we call it “wishy-washy” — but said the KED had the potential (not exactly the most assured of terms) to reap more economic rewards for less cost. The result though was that there was no clear “winner” in terms of location, which should have offered little incentive, in our view, for city councillors to break faith with the edicts of the Downtown Master Plan.
This lack of certainty was reflected during the much-discussed June, 2017 meeting when city council voted on whether the arena project should be downtown or on the Kingsway. That vote saw council split on the downtown question, which under meeting rules counts as a defeated motion, a situation which, we believe, forced many councillors to vote yes on the Kingsway — it was a vote-for-something-or-get-nothing situation.
There was never a solid consensus around the council table, a fact that certainly did not bode well for the fate of the project.
There is no denying the KED was a bold and enticing prospect, and its successful completion would have served Sudbury’s pretensions as the major hub of Northern Ontario. It might even have been successful, but one has to wonder what might have happened had the vote gone another way.
The Sudbury Wolves and the Sudbury Five might today be playing in a new downtown arena.
In terms of blame, the concerted and well-organized opposition to the KED is taking a lot of heat with accusations their campaign killed the project. There is, perhaps, a dash of truth in that — if you stand on your head and squint. Had the lawsuits and court challenges not delayed the project (which had an initial completion date of mid-2020) for years until the COVID-19 pandemic dropped and drove costs through the roof, construction might already have begun.
But saddling the opponents with all the blame is unfair. No one could have predicted a global pandemic would occur in the middle of the project. It is also important to remember every court and planning tribunal challenge was lost by the opponents. Had the pandemic not occurred, there is no reason to think the KED would not have been built. And this is not a NIMBY scenario: the opponents were not against a new arena; they were against the new location and urban sprawl.
It is also not the fault of the opponents that a major developer like EllisDon, which does about $5 billion worth of business annually and is well-versed in these types of builds, dropped out over concerns about the Request for Proposals process. That, we believe, is telling.
What’s more, saddling the opponents with all the blame ignores where the real culpability lies: with the City of Greater Sudbury and our elected officials.
Ultimately, they are responsible for this mess. They conceived the large projects initiative, an initiative without a clear directive, that led us here. They got in bed with a passionate and well-spoken developer looking to find a purpose for some fallow property within spitting distance of a city landfill. They decided to take the arena project out of private hands and turn it public. They decided to ignore the strategic directives of the taxpayer-funded Downtown Master Plan.
And city council, ultimately, even failed to convince a clear majority of themselves that the KED was, in fact, a good idea.
Now, Sudbury has no KED, is out millions of dollars and is still saddled with an arena that, even as venerable and historic as is the Old Barn, no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended. Greater Sudbury needs a new arena and given the current market and economic conditions, who knows when that might happen.
So again, we are right back where we started in 2016 — except we are poorer by millions of dollars and saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt.
The question today is not who is to blame. The question is: what do we do now?
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.