'Let's have a referendum': CBC Asks panellists call for public vote on new arena
Pros and cons of locating stadium downtown weighed in wide-ranging panel discussion
Saskatoon voters should be the ones who decide whether the city spends hundreds of millions of dollars on a new downtown arena and convention centre, according to two panellists at a CBC-hosted discussion on the subject Tuesday.
"I'm a huge believer in democracy. Let's have a referendum," said Victor Matheson, an American sports economist.
"We've seen way too many examples, at least in the United States, of backroom deals [where], all of sudden, 'We've decided we're going to spend $350 million of your money. Enjoy your new stadium,' " he said.
Alan Wallace, a former planner with the City of Saskatoon, ardently supports the idea of a downtown arena. But he agreed with the idea of a public vote on spending priorities such as a new arena.
Wallace said the huge expense — up to $375 million, according to a consultant's report — would need to be weighed against other priorities such as a new central library branch and the relocation of rain lines in the city.
- Scroll to bottom of story to watch the full discussion
Do as the Romans did?
Will Lofdahl, the CEO of the city-owned SaskTel Centre, began the discussion by stressing the need to replace the 30-year-old facility, located on Saskatoon's northern end.
Lofdahl said that while the arena remains profitable — $2 million in profits this year — some top acts including Roger Waters and Paul McCartney have passed up the venue due to its physical constraints, including a low rigging system for lights.
Record-breaking concerts, such as last month's Metallica show, have pushed its seating capacity to the limit, and an improved building is needed simply to maintain the arena's existing level of business, he said.
"In time we'll be knocked off that list [of cross-country tours]," he said.
Asked why the new arena should be built downtown, Lofdahl said, "The Romans built the Coliseum downtown."
"It creates a lot of synergy and it helps the downtown to be more successful," he later added.
'Privilege and entitlement'
Some of the panellists who followed Lofdahl questioned whether a new arena should even be a top city priority.
"To me it's about privilege and entitlement," said Marcel Petit, adding that a new facility should not be publicly funded.
Petit is the executive director of Saskatoon's Core Neighbourhood Youth CO-OP. He said it's tough to get funding for projects like youth centres, women's shelters and addictions centres. And he said the people who use those services likely wouldn't benefit from a new arena anyway.
"I've talked to homeless people. They don't care. They don't use it," Petit said of SaskTel Centre.
Janice Braden, a community commentator, expanded the scope of the conversation even further.
In light of a recent U.N. report offering a gloomy climate change forecast, building an expensive new arena doesn't seem as critical, she said.
"I'm more on the hold-your-horses camp," said Braden.
SaskTel Centre's location nine kilometres north of the downtown core is actually a plus, she said, in that it serves as a regional centre attracting people from other communities.
Wallace came down hard on the location, however, saying it does nothing to promote different types of transportation among Saskatoon residents.
"They couldn't have picked a less accessible site if we tried," Wallace said of Saskatoon voters' decision in 1985 to locate the arena where it is. "Who here has biked to SaskTel Centre? Or walked? You have to drive."
A downtown arena linked to a future bus-rapid-transit route would help boost the city's currently low transit ridership numbers, he added.
Danger of creating a parking 'desert'
If the project went ahead downtown, current city planners would need to balance the need for parking with the danger of creating a parking lot "desert" that would work against the goal of creating economic spin-offs for restaurants and bars near the arena, said Wallace.
Matheson put it more bluntly.
"Parking lots are the death of arenas in terms of being part of the community," he said.
Matheson stressed that Saskatonians should weigh the arena decision very carefully, given the data (spanning two decades) he's seen about stadiums in the United States.
"The general opinion of economists not directly associated with running arenas ... is that stadiums and arenas tend to be fairly poor investments for cities," said Matheson.
"We don't see increases in per-capita GDP, taxable income, job creation."
Need versus want
Affordability was a key concern for Braden and Petit.
"It comes down to the money for me," said Petit.
Braden said the option to renovate SaskTel centre for $101 million might be an easier sell for the public.
"There's a lot of pressure on people [with living] costs right now," she said.
A final decision is likely years away. The City of Saskatoon is still reviewing the consultant's March report.
Wallace said he expects the city to weigh-in over the next two months. CBC News has sought confirmation of that from the city.
If a referendum took place, it would bring the saga of SaskTel Centre full-circle.
In 1985, a referendum asked residents to choose between SaskTel's current location and what is now the River Landing development downtown.
Nearly 54,00 people voted. Slightly less than two-thirds of people chose the current site.
Wallace said that a new referendum should concern only whether a new arena is built. City councillors should decide on the location, he said.