3 of 6 of mayoral candidates say Saskatoon needs a downtown arena, but none say it's a priority right now
Several candidates say private money, partnerships are key to any plans
Three of the six people running for mayor in Saskatoon — Charlie Clark, Don Atchison and Mark Zielke — agree the city needs a new arena and that it should be located downtown.
But none of the candidates say the project is a priority right now.
In November 2018, city councillors decided that if a new arena is built, it ought to go downtown and be part of a larger entertainment district. The city then began scouting possible locations, with an eye toward sharing a short list of candidate sites with the public by the end of 2019.
The city has yet to report back on those site options, however, and council meetings are on hold until after the Nov. 9 municipal election.
"If COVID had not hit, my hope had been to see a report on location options this year," said Mayor Charlie Clark, who is seeking a second term.
But the pandemic has created uncertainty for projects like arenas, Clark said, and "it is prudent to see what these implications will look like in the coming months before making specific decisions about an arena/entertainment district."
Common themes among candidates
Consultants have previously recommended the 30-year-old SaskTel Centre be replaced with a new joint-use downtown arena and convention centre. The cost is pegged between $330 million and $375 million.
Despite the uncertainty facing the project, CBC News reached out to Clark and the five other mayoral candidates to get their views on an arena: whether it's needed, whether it's a priority right now (especially considering so many candidates are questioning plans for a new downtown library), and where it should go.
All candidates agreed that if a facility is built, it should go downtown. However, four candidates — Cary Tarasoff, Zubair Sheikh, Zielke and Clark — either said the arena is not a priority right now or that it's not needed immediately.
Several said private investment is key to the project.
Two candidates, Tarasoff and Norris, said the possibility of combining an arena and the already-planned new downtown library should be considered.
Only one candidate, Tarasoff, said where he'd prefer an arena be located. He chose the 22nd Street E parking lot across from The Bay and TCU Place — a favourite among some observers.
Atchison suggested the public should be able to vote on plans for the arena.
Here's more on what each candidate said:
Clark said a new arena to replace SaskTel Centre is needed but not immediately, "particularly given the uncertainties of COVID-19, but I believe we need to be planning and preparing for a new arena."
Clark said the ongoing process of identifying a location allows for "better exploration of potential financial partners" and "financing models that don't rely on property taxes."
"My goal would be to come up with an approach where the total amount paid by property taxes is zero," Clark said.
Clark said the arena should feature other amenities.
"The most successful arenas developed in recent years are tied to entertainment districts that have other amenities," he said. "Having the arena and convention centre in close proximity creates opportunities for shared services and experiences."
Atchison is hoping to reclaim the mayor's seat, having been defeated by Clark in the 2016 municipal election.
Atchison agreed a new arena is needed, saying a new sports and entertainment complex could bring many more people downtown every year, plus more tax revenue. The added foot traffic would help make people feel safer downtown, he added.
"Ideally, we should have located a new structure downtown some 30 years ago when we had the opportunity," he said, referring to the 1985 plebiscite on Sasktel Centre which resulted in the facility's being located on the city's northern outskirts.
Atchison said he was reluctant to cite his preferred location, as he did not want to encourage land speculation. But he said the city yards (where they're located now, anyway) are too far away "and will not create the synergy required to give you a healthy and vibrant downtown.
"Building the multipurpose entertainment facility outside of downtown would set the downtown back another 25 years or longer," he said.
Atchison said the city needs to prioritize among its competing initiatives, including a bus-rapid-transit (BRT) system — which Atchison has criticized as too expensive — and removing rail lines, which Atchison has championed even in the face of staunch opposition from the CP and CN railway companies.
"The citizens should have a say," he added of the arena.
Cary Tarasoff said Saskatoon does not need a new arena
"During a pandemic where no one is even able to go to the arena, it seems the best we should do is plan for the future — to take this extra time we have to look better at our options," Tarasoff said.
"If we actually do need a new arena, and we can deal with the potential backlog of traffic due to the rail issues, then the downtown would be the most central location."
Tarasoff said the 22nd Street E parking lot is the ideal location because it would bolster existing busineses "instead of trying to create a brand-new version of the same off some distance away, which will deplete patrons from our core.
"I also believe that this location has the best option for a future BRT tie-in along 1st Avenue N."
Tarasoff would like to see the new downtown library linked with a new area.
"The library wants to be a destination, so that collaboration already works with pools and rinks in our city," he said.
Mark Zielke said a new arena is needed for its spinoff economic effects and potential to draw people downtown but that the project is not a priority right now.
"I believe that any and all mega projects should be closely looked at and rationalized, especially when it comes to impacting tax rates," Zielke said.
Like Clark, Zielke said private money "should be the staple of this investment."
Zielke said the location depends on those doing the investing.
"If one spot has more buy-in and is able to attract the suitable financial backing, then I believe that's where it should go," he said, adding that having as many entertainment options as possible is key to attracting that investment.
"I don't believe the city is currently in a position where it can be the driving force of investment. That being said, there are many creative ways to make it more attractive for private investment to happen."
Zubair Sheikh is the most critical of a new arena project, calling it "another luxurious project."
"I am running on smart money management. An expenditure like this is not needed right now," he said, adding that the project, if it does proceed, should be a public-private investment.
Rob Norris did not respond directly to the 12 questions contained in CBC News' arena survey, one of which asked, "At a time when a new downtown library is being questioned as a priority (even though the library is an Saskatoon Public Library board project), do you think a new arena should be a priority for the City of Saskatoon?"
"While not the intent, these questions could be seen as setting up a false dichotomy between a new downtown library or new arena for downtown Saskatoon," Norris said.
Norris, like Tarasoff, suggested a third option: combining the library and arena into one facility, "among other community-focused and corporate services or amenities."
"Before being rejected without much debate, a joint-use facility was one of the options offered within the library's business case," Norris said of city council's November 2019 approval of $67.5 million in city borrowing on behalf of the Saskatoon Public Library board.
Norris said the city needs to consider what projects are affordable as the city focuses on rebounding economically, as well as what the surrounding civic infrastructure costs would be for a new arena.
"The Government of Saskatchewan and the Government of Canada must be engaged in any discussion about a proposed joint-use facility, as should First Nations and Métis partners, as well as the private sector," he said.