Watson won't rule out public money for downtown NHL arena

Mayor Jim Watson isn't ruling out investing public money into a downtown NHL arena at LeBreton Flats, and is asking for a mandate from the public and council to represent the city's interests at the negotiations for the project.

Mayor says hasn't been asked for money yet

The RendezVous LeBreton Group's proposal moves the Ottawa Senators' hockey franchise to a new downtown arena that has a public space called LeBreton Square right outside. (Image supplied by RendezVous LeBreton Group)

Mayor Jim Watson isn't ruling out investing public money into a downtown NHL arena at LeBreton Flats.

"I don't know if they're going to come forward and ask for any of those dollars," the mayor told reporters after Wednesday's council meeting. "Certainly I want to make sure that whatever happens there is to the benefit of the taxpayers of Ottawa."

As far back as January of 2016, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said that no taxpayers' money would be involved in his proposal for a new downtown arena.

Last year, the National Capital Commission selected the Senators-backed RendezVous LeBreton Group to redevelop the western part of the flats. Part of the RendezVous plan involved moving the NHL hockey arena from Kanata to downtown.

Watson said Wednesday he'll be asking for "a clear mandate from the public" and his council colleagues to allow him and city manager Steve Kanellakos to negotiate on behalf of the city as the redevelopment discussions shift into high gear.

An online consultation will be followed by a report to the financial and economic development committee, where the public will be able to speak, in order to "find some general principles at a high level," said the mayor.

Mayor Jim Watson will look for a formal mandate from council to negotiate the city's participation in the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, shown here in April 2016. (Kate Porter/CBC)
There are significant issues for the LeBreton redevelopment that would affect the city, such as who's responsible for the upkeep of the public parts of the development, who's on the hook for the millions needed to clean up the contaminated soil and whether a new Sensplex is needed at the downtown location.

"The city needs to be at the table for these discussions," said Watson.

While the mayor repeated that he wasn't going "to speculate on something that hasn't been asked," it is the first time he has seemed open to the possibility of putting taxpayers money into the arena.

"My bottom line is, whatever is being asked from us, does it make sense and is there a return on our investment whether it be through property or development charges or the increased market value assessment of the property," Watson said.

The mayor also told reporters that the city's involvement with the LeBreton project can be used as "leverage" in its negotiations with the Senators over including OC Transpo fares in the price of a hockey ticket.

"They need our help for this project to go forward, and we have asks on our side."

The mayor also said he'll work with the Senators, west end councillors and residents to help mitigate the economic loss of moving the arena from Kanata.