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Montpellier pushing for referendum on the KED

Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier’s motion for the city to hold an Oct. 24 referendum on the Kingsway Entertainment District is unlikely to either pass or achieve the 50-per-cent voter turnout required to make it legally binding, says Mayor Brian Bigger
gerryMontpellier
Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier. (Supplied)

Despite wheels already in motion to have the city move forward with the Kingsway Entertainment District as expeditiously as possible, a referendum might call it to question.

Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier is presenting a motion to council for the referendum, which he wants to see included on the ballot for the Oct. 24 municipal and school boards election. 

It asks: “Are you in favor of spending $113,000,000 on a new arena?”

The ambiguity of “new arena” is deliberate, Montpellier said, and $113 million is a ballpark estimate for the approximate cost of either the KED arena or a modernized downtown Sudbury Community Arena. 

“I am of the opinion that people are getting disgusted with this arena b—---t, wherever,” he said, adding, “They were b—----ting us all about building a new one downtown for the same money.”

Various numbers have been bandied about as estimates for how much either arena project would cost. Last year’s PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimated the KED arena as costing between $87 million and $92.8 million, excluding site development costs. This same report puts the cost of modernizing the Sudbury Community Arena to the same standard as the KED arena at $115.4 million if done in one phase and $118.6 million if done in two phases. 

In his motion’s preamble, Montpellier cited a petition of approximately 3,500 names, which he presented to city council last month, as evidence there’s public appetite for a referendum.

Montpellier’s motion will face a number of hurdles, the first of which getting it on the agenda.

He submitted the motion to the city on Jan. 13, which means he missed the two weeks’ notice required to make it onto the Jan. 25 city council meeting agenda. To get it on the agenda now, he will require a two-thirds majority of city council support, which he said he will try to achieve.

If Montpellier gets the support of enough of his fellow councillors and the motion gets on the agenda, it runs the risk of not getting debated until after the March 1 deadline for a referendum question to make it onto the Oct. 24 ballot. 

“That’s not a figment of my imagination,” Montpellier said of this concern, noting that council meetings frequently end before the entire agenda has been dealt with due to a two-thirds majority vote required to extend meetings beyond three hours.

Whenever city council finally debates the motion, Mayor Brian Bigger said he interprets it as being a reconsideration of a previous decision of city council, which means it would require a two-thirds majority approval to pass. 

“We made a decision to proceed,” Bigger explained. “We’re proceeding with care and we know that delays and ongoing attempts at delays only add to the total costs of the renewal of this community asset.”

Although they remain divided on the KED, a narrow majority of city council members have consistently voted in favour of the project. 

For his part, Bigger doesn’t believe a referendum is necessary.

“The decision’s already been made by the majority of members of council, and those decisions have been made in an open, transparent and public process,” he said, adding that Montpellier’s motion appears to be nothing more than an attempt at “grabbing headlines.”

In the event Montpellier’s motion were to pass and a referendum vote does take place on Oct. 24, it’s possible that agreements will have already been signed and shovels are in the ground.

Although the KED’s grand opening date has been delayed to 2025 from 2024, the city’s projected timeline for the project would remove it as an election issue, if achieved.

Following this timeline, a completion agreement would be signed by all of the project’s partners, including the city, early in the third quarter of this year. This would legally bind them to complete their respective components of the project. The city is responsible for an arena, Gateway Casinos is responsible for a casino and Genesis Hospitality is responsible for a hotel.

City council is expected to approve the project’s final budget, a design-build request for proposals and have the city commence site preparation work around the same time.

Regardless of where the city’s at in the project by the time Oct. 24 hits, Montpellier maintains that his referendum question would remain relevant and that the city could still back out.

“What can there be there?” he asked. “A construction trailer?”

The project could be altered by the next city council at what might be “a very substantial liability” to the city, city solicitor and clerk Eric Labelle clarified to city council earlier this month. The severity of liability would depend on how many benchmarks the city hits on its projected timeline.

For a referendum question to be legally binding it would require at least 50 per cent of eligible voters to weigh in, which Bigger said isn’t likely.

The 2014 referendum questions on retail hours failed to achieve this target despite overall voter turnout surpassing 50 per cent, which the 2018, 2010, 2006 and 2003 elections all failed to do.

With the referendum question unlikely to be legally binding, Bigger said that Montpellier’s motion would essentially shift KED-related decisions to the next city council. 

“The cost of construction is increasing at a significant rate, and generally quicker than the cost of inflation is increasing,” he said. 

“The best time to move forward and build a new events centre would have been 10 years ago, and the next-best time is now, and deferring it potentially puts it further out of reach for the community.”

Click here for a Sudbury.com poll that asks: “Should the 2022 municipal election in Greater Sudbury include a referendum question on the KED?”

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.