Senators asked city to pay for arena, mayor says

The Ottawa Senators originally asked the city to pay to build a new downtown arena on LeBreton Flats, Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday.

Jim Watson, federal ministers eager to move ahead with LeBreton Flats redevelopment

Mayor Jim Watson claims Senators owner Eugene Melnyk originally asked the city to pay for a new arena on LeBreton Flats. (Laura Osman/CBC)

The Ottawa Senators originally asked the city to pay to build a new downtown arena on LeBreton Flats, Mayor Jim Watson said Wednesday.

The revelation came during Watson's first public comments since Senators owners Eugene Melnyk filed a $700-million lawsuit against his partners in the redevelopment venture. The suit also claims Watson's office threatened Melnyk's company with reprisal if it pulled out of the deal during the recent municipal election campaign.

"Their original opening discussion with our staff is that they wanted the city to build the arena, and I said that we're not in the business of building arenas," Watson told reporters after the final council meeting of the term.

"We're not going to use tax dollars to pay for it."

Watson said the Senators organization approached the city soon after the National Capital Commission awarded the LeBreton redevelopment bid to the hockey franchise and its partners in 2016. According to the mayor, the Senators were looking to the city to create a municipal services corporation that would own the NHL rink.

Senators respond

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Nicolas Ruszkowski, the team's chief operating officer, called Watson's comments "disappointing and inaccurate."

He said the two sides met at the city's suggestion to talk about funding models, but when the city made it clear it didn't want to be involved, the Senators moved on.

"Numerous options for the development of the site were discussed; including, for instance, the adoption of Edmonton's arena development model. When informed that this was impossible, [Rendezvous LeBreton] moved on," he said in a statement, adding Melnyk never demanded the city build an arena. 

Ruszkowski also said the mayor ruling out tax dollars for an arena is a double standard, considering the city had already invested to upgrade TD Place stadium at Lansdowne Park.

"That partnership, composed of the City of Ottawa, Pomerleau Inc. and Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group — which includes John Ruddy — has had its operational problems. According to numerous media reports, stadium construction was tainted by disputes over unpaid bills, escalating costs and the bankruptcy of small businesses."

A rendering of the RendezVous LeBreton plan for a new downtown arena. (Image supplied by RendezVous LeBreton Group)

Lawsuit came as surprise

Watson would not comment on any details included in the lawsuit filed last Friday by Melnyk's company against Trinity Development Group Inc., Trinity's founder and executive chair, John Ruddy, project manager Graham Bird and his company. 

However, Watson said he was surprised that the Senators lawsuit was filed the day after the NCC board decided to try to salvage the partnership by January.

"You don't prepare a document of that nature overnight, so obviously they were putting some thoughts into what their actions were going to be," Watson said.

NCC chair Marc Seaman, NCC CEO Mark Kristmanson, Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez, and Ottawa mayor Jim Watson attend an Ottawa Board of Trade event on Nov. 28, 2018. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Mayor, ministers want to move ahead

Earlier Wednesday, Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez said the federal government is fully behind redeveloping LeBreton Flats, but will leave the process to the NCC for now.

"I know how important it is for the NCC and how important it is for us, not only for me, for the government, for the prime minister, for all of us," Rodriguez said during an event at Ottawa City Hall.

"There are options. I know they're looking at different options, but we're committed to moving forward with this project."

Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna, the MP for Ottawa Centre, said she wants to make sure that the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats is done right. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The NCC has said it's no longer possible to move to the second-place finisher from the 2016 competition.

Its options include finding some way to move forward with some of the Rendezvous LeBreton partners, or launching an entirely new bidding process. The board of the NCC will make a decision when it meets in late January.

Watson also said he's "committed" to seeing the revitalization of LeBreton Flats, but said he would "rather us do it right than fast."

Those sentiments were echoed Wednesday by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

"We need to get this right," said McKenna, the MP for Ottawa Centre.

"This is ... an incredible piece of land in downtown Ottawa. We need to be looking at how we move forward in a positive way, but ensure we get it right for the next 100 years."

With files from Ryan Tumilty, Kate Porter and Chris Rands