Rogers Place: Was it worth it?

As Calgary city council prepares to vote on a multi-million dollar arena deal, Edmontonians might feel a sense of déjà vu.

A look back at the Rogers Place deal as Calgary mulls proposed arena

Nearly six years after the deal was inked and three years since it opened, some key players in Edmonton talk about whether Rogers Place was worth the cost. (CBC)

As Calgary city council prepares to vote on a multi-million dollar arena deal, Edmontonians might be feeling a sense of déjà vu.

When the Rogers Place arena deal was approved in 2013, it came with plenty of potential, promises and possibilities.

There was the promise of attracting billions of dollars in investment; the prospect of using public money to support a multi-million dollar sports franchise; the guarantee of keeping the Edmonton Oilers in town for decades to come. 

Now, the city's neighbour to the south is grappling with the same discussions.

So, six years after inking the deal and three years since the arena's debut, is Rogers Place worth the cost?

The Katz Group is paying for 27 per cent of Edmonton's $613-million arena project. By comparison, the Flames ownership group and Calgary would split the cost of the $550-million project 50/50. 

The City of Edmonton pitched $312 million for the project, with the rest of the money coming from a city-levied ticket surcharge. The project price tag includes money for the Winter Garden, LRT connection to the arena, a pedestrian walkway and the Downtown Community Arena.

'Downtown has taken off'

Despite the hefty public investment, Coun. Scott McKeen said the development boom in his ward is a sign of the project's early legacy.

"Downtown has taken off," he said. 

INTERACTIVE: Drag the slider to compare the Rogers Place site in 2009 and 2018

The Downtown Business Association found the amount of "underdeveloped" land downtown shrunk to 40 per cent in 2016, down from 52 per cent a year before the arena deal was signed.

The 2017 report found a handful of approved projects worth more than $2 billion were expected to be complete by 2022. 

"Given what's happened downtown, I think it was one of those rare circumstances where the public investment in a major sporting facility really worked," said McKeen, who was not yet a councillor when the deal was signed. 

"We wouldn't be here without ... the courage of that previous council because, man, it was controversial. It was really controversial." 

Coun. Scott McKeen says the arena deal propelled development and transformed Edmonton's downtown. (Gaetan Lamarre/CBC)

Tony Caterina, one of three councillors who voted against the deal in 2013, cautions against giving the arena undue credit for downtown development. 

"The timing was fortunate that we had a number of projects all ready to go, and I think that just accelerated the development of the area," he said. 

Caterina would have liked to see more outward-facing retail spaces built into Rogers Place. 

"Unfortunately, that didn't happen," he said. "If there's no event going on, obviously there's no traffic in the building and the street looks deserted." 

But McKeen expects downtown to enliven as the Ice District is fully realized.

"We have not seen the complete picture yet," he said.

Even if the area becomes the lively hub pictured in the original renderings, some people are still concerned about the use of public money to subsidize private sports franchises.

A Canadian precedent

In fact, Edmonton set a Canadian precedent when it comes to spending public dollars on a sports arena, said Jay Scherer, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in sports sociology. Now, Calgary could do the same.

"In terms of the big picture of what cities do and what they stand for, it's of such little importance in terms of providing infrastructure for all citizens, to ensuring that our most vulnerable are looked after," said Scherer, who is researching Edmonton's arena and downtown district. 

"Those are the things that make a city worthwhile, not spending money on professional sports."

Scherer said he has never seen a fully detailed argument or study that shows why wealthy team owners can't finance an arena independently.

Jay Scherer, a sports sociology professor, says Edmonton's decision to spend millions of public dollars on a sports arena set a Canadian precedent. (Gaetan Lamarre/CBC)

He noted Edmonton has debt-financed most of the arena project, since the lion's share of the Katz Group contribution is being paid as rent over the 35-year life of the deal. 

"What you're buying really is a guarantee that the Oilers are going to stay in Edmonton for the next 35 years, and you're paying a significant price to do that," Scherer said. 

"Certainly, the development has been very impressive to see. The profits going to the Oilers in some of those instances have been very impressive as well."

Forbes estimates the value of the team leaped to $400 million when the deal was signed in 2013, from $225 million the previous year. The team's value has grown steadily since, rising to $540 million in 2018. 

Are the Oilers a unifying force? 

McKeen said it's not just about money. 

He echoed former Mayor Stephen Mandel's concerns that the Oilers would have relocated if the city didn't strike a deal. 

If the Oilers had left town, McKeen said Edmonton would have lost a powerful unifying force.

"It seems almost silly, but we don't have many things in our culture these days that unify an entire community — an entire city — and the Edmonton Oilers do that," he said. 

While the Oilers might create a sense of unity among hockey fans, Scherer said the arena itself is exclusive, as game tickets are prohibitively expensive.

An aerial view of Rogers Place during construction. (CBC)

He also said issues of gentrification didn't get proper consideration during negotiations. The community benefits section of the deal, drafted without community input, makes up just one page of the 34-page deal.

Critics have lamented the lack of firm targets for money toward affordable housing or jobs for people living in the community. 

It's still early days for the arena deal, Scherer said, and its full merit and faults are yet to be seen. 

"Anyone who is going to say this is an immediate success story is being a bit premature."

With files from Laurent Pirot, Katrine Deniset and Simon-Pierre Poulin


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