Hub city buzz and buzzkills: Economic benefits vs. health risks as NHL decision awaited

How much economic benefit would Edmonton see if the city is declared a hub for the playoffs? It’s a question that even downtown hoteliers — an industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic — aren’t sure they can answer.

'Don't think it's going to fundamentally change the situation' most hotels are in

A pedestrian walks outside Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in Edmonton in March. If Edmonton becomes an NHL hub city, some wonder if the benefits are worth the potential health risk. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

How much economic benefit would Edmonton see if the city is declared a hub for the playoffs?

It's a question that even downtown hoteliers — an industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic — aren't sure they can answer.

"It's great exposure for Edmonton, I think," said Chris Short, vice-president of the Hotel Association of Greater Edmonton and general manager of the downtown Courtyard Marriott hotel.

But, he added in a Thursday interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM,  "I don't think it's going to fundamentally change the situation that most of us are in."

While the NHL has yet to make a formal announcement, multiple news agencies are reporting that two Canadian cities will be the site for the league to play out the remainder of its season: Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton for the West.

Games would be played before empty arenas and players would be kept separate from the public. 

Without any details on logistics, Short said it's difficult to know how the arrival of 12 teams plus scaled-down staff — an estimated 900 people in total — would benefit most of the downtown hotels.

The new J.W. Marriott hotel, which is connected to Rogers Place arena, is expected to be one of the hotel sites. Short said it's not known whether other downtown hotels could be tapped for service as well.

There are pros and cons on either side, he said.

The Courtyard Marriott, located on the top of the river valley, remained open throughout the pandemic, even as many other hotels — including the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald next door — closed their doors.

Business dropped to three-per-cent occupancy in March and April. It would normally be  60 to 65 per cent full, he said. Only seven staff were working, down from about 75 when the pandemic hit in March.

"Sometimes it's just one person on a shift," he said. "It's a little creepy actually to be in a big hotel by yourself."

Hotel business starting to return

The carefully phased-in reopening has started to see things turning around, he said. This weekend, the hotel had 40 rooms booked — lots of out-of-town golfers, judging by the tees left behind in rooms, he said. 

Its patio reopened on May 29 and that has also been well-received, he said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and public health authorities in Toronto and Edmonton have given their approval of the NHL's plan to keep players separate from the general public. That means any hotel would become part of the NHL's  "bubble." 

"If we had a team here and it creates a bubble where we can't service any other guests or can't have our patio open, you know, we have to look at whether that business is worth it or what are the restrictions around that," Short said. 

On Twitter, residents are also wondering about the economic benefits and whether the opportunity to put Edmonton in the spotlight is worth the potential health risk.

One tweet pointed out that dozens of NHL players have tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol started June 8. 

"The season should be done and the focus should be on next season and delivering that safely. It's not worth the risk no matter how small," said the tweet. 

Another post stated: "Explain to me how this helps Edmonton? What value does it actually bring? Not tourism, financial? I'm dubious."

Even the potential benefit to bars, which can usually bank on Oilers fans coming in to watch the televised game, may be overshadowed by the health risks.

Last week, Alberta Health officials were tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 linked to four downtown Edmonton restaurants:  Greta Bar, Earl's Tin Palace, The Pint and Local.

In June, the Canadian federal government agreed to the NHL's cohort quarantine proposal, which allows incoming players to the country to bypass the mandatory 14-day isolation period.

The league plans to reopen training camps July 10, but has yet to release a schedule for the 24 teams still in the running for the Stanley Cup.


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