About that arena

Let’s look at the big picture

One thing we can all agree on is that the discussion around a potential arena site has become so convoluted and the issue so saturated that we’re all tired of thinking and hearing about it. The variables surrounding the issue can be difficult to parse, and it would be nice if there were a simple solution to the problem that was easy to understand. It is our responsibility as citizens to sort through the information with a critical eye, to disengage ourselves from the media reporting and the competing marketing campaigns, and to reason through the ideas being presented from base principles.

The issue of the arena site is so tied up with our perceived notions of what Sudbury is, what it can be, and our own personal identities as Sudburians, that it is easy to become emotional and to let reason fall by the wayside. Emotion is of course valuable on an interpersonal level, but appeals to emotion become dangerous when we’re thinking about a project of this scale. The emotional part of our brain is ill-equipped to deal with ideas this large. If we make the wrong decision, it could have an enormously negative impact on our future. So, as exhausted as we all are by the prospect, it is imperative that we distance ourselves from the issue, and approach it with a scientist’s eye and and a surgeon’s steady hand if we can ever hope to navigate the morass of confusion we now find ourselves wading in.

Another thing many of us can agree on is that Sudbury has long been the victim of poor urban planning and rash construction decisions that have led to a convoluted network of roads and infrastructure that have proven impossible to maintain. One needs only take a drive down Barrydowne to see the impact of this unchecked development on the business community (a disused Canadian Tire store, a shuttered Burger King, etc.) and feel the impact underneath your seat as you hit yet another unavoidable pothole.This notion is supported by facts: we now have more infrastructure in our city than we can ever maintain according to a report by KPMG, to the point where we now may have to decide which portions of our infrastructure we will leave to ruin.

We all want to see our city grow and prosper, but this fact alone should give us pause when discussing any new development in our city. An arena, regardless of location, will require yet more municipal infrastructure to support it, not to mention the actual building itself, which will be owned and maintained by the municipality (our tax dollars).

Let’s put a pin in this for a moment and focus on the idea of a new arena. We will look into the attendant developments that have been proposed around a new arena site later. Much has been made of the necessity of a new arena, but ask yourselves: why do we need a new arena? In the True North Strong press conference on Thursday, June 23rd, Dario Zulich himself vouched for the structural stability of the Sudbury Community Arena (our current arena). We can agree that the acoustics in the current arena are awful and that it’s a poor concert venue. However, the capacity of the arena is more than adequate for the sporting events currently being housed there, and the sightlines for sporting events are good. There is adequate accessibility for the disabled, more than enough washrooms, and easy access to the concessions.

Yes, parking at the arena during peak use hours is difficult and frustrating, and costs money, but if parking is the issue and not the arena itself, then perhaps we should address the parking situation. Ask yourselves, why would we stop using a structurally sound building that is completely adequate for its current purpose? Would it not be a more sound investment to upgrade the current facility if we do indeed need an upgraded sports facility?

Considering these facts, we must admit to ourselves that a new arena is a desire, not a necessity. So, why are we acting as if we’re in an emergency situation, where our crumbling arena must be replaced immediately before it collapses? Again, here we should advocate caution. Remember, we find our city in its current state of affairs because of reckless, ill-considered, poorly planned construction decisions.

So, ultimately we don’t need a new arena. We desire a new arena. Let’s think about why we desire a new arena.

This is where it gets sticky, as this part of the argument is what is most tied up in emotion. We cannot confuse our desire for new buildings and nice things in our city with what is most necessary for a prosperous city. Again, emotions are easily manipulated and tied to ideas that may seem desirable, but that may not ultimately be in our best interest. There is a whole branch of pseudo psychology devoted to manipulating your emotions: Marketing. Marketing campaigns are designed to appeal to the emotional part of your mind, bypassing the logical part and wrapping your desire and identity around an idea so closely that you won’t stop seeking it until that idea is manifest. This is what True North Strong is; a marketing campaign, and a damn good one.

For the past three years, we’ve been bombarded with digital billboards all around the city and physical billboards on the water tower, ads at our sporting events and on our busses, and a relentless press campaign, all pushing the idea of a new arena complex and tying it into our identity as Sudburians. Even the name True North Strong was designed to evoke a sense of community and togetherness. But, as we all know, marketing and reality are very rarely aligned.

Over the course of this campaign, the idea of a new arena has gone from something we all thought might be nice to have if we had the money someday, to a necessity that must happen immediately. If not the TNS marketing campaign, what precipitated this change? This marketing pressure even prompted our city council (a notoriously inefficient and conflict-ridden group) to pass a motion in March to move forward on constructing a new $100 million arena, the site of which was to be contingent on an independent consultant’s report.

With a snap of the fingers, the dialog shifted from whether or not we needed a new arena to where the arena would be located, and the marketing team behind True North Strong were more than prepared for this moment. Just as we began to ask ourselves what the heck this True North Strong thing was anyway, the marketing team behind TNS masterfully laid out a grand vision for a multi-use complex on land owned by a private backer who would partner with the city to make this vision a reality. (Despite the fact that our council has to this day not approved any new construction beyond a new arena).

This decision caught many Sudburians by surprise, and we were bombarded with exciting new ideas about what the future of our city might look like. It truly has been an inspiring time, seeing so many people engaged with our city and hopeful for our future.

As objections to True North Strong’s proposed building site began to mount (it is not in line with the City’s stated Official Plan, it would require massive infrastructure investments (hydro, sewage, road capacity improvement, etc.) and rezoning, the location is ill-supported by public transit, the location increases our dependence on cars, it furthers our already insurmountable urban sprawl, entry and egress will prove difficult, to name a few), the TNS team was able to shift the dialog at each juncture by announcing deal after deal for attendant structures to be built, to the point that the discussion was no longer about building an arena.

Let’s look at some of those deal announcements and what they amount to.

First, there is the motorsports park. The building of a motorsports park is contingent on the building of an arena at the TNS site. It requires the acquisition of 100 acres of crown land next to the proposed TNS site, which we can all agree is far from a given. Basically, we are talking about something that some people think would be nice to have. It is nothing more than an idea at this point.

Second, there is the casino. Again, this development is contingent on the construction of the arena at the TNS site. Gateway has signed a letter of intent, but they are still keeping their options open as to a new casino site. Even if the arena is built at the TNS site, they may not decide to construct the casino there. The Kingsway could prove inadequate for their purposes once further due diligence is done on the part of Gateway.

Finally, and most recently, TNS has announced a downtown “music city”. This performing arts centre would be located in the former Sudbury Arena once the sporting operations are transferred to the proposed TNS site. Despite all the fanfare surrounding this announcement, Zulich and TNS state that this is “just an idea”, and once again, it would be contingent on the construction of the arena at the TNS site. This performing arts centre would of course be nice to have, but there are many unaddressed questions surrounding this idea. (The City of Greater Sudbury owns the arena property, not Dario Zulich. Who will foot the bill for this project? How much will it cost? Who are the developers that we’re bringing in from out of town to construct the proposed hotels that are tacked on to this project? Who would own the building? Do we actually need a hotel or are there better land uses for our limited available space downtown? How long will our arena sit vacant while TNS prepares its grand vision for the Kingsway site?) Further, it is unacceptable for TNS to make an announcement like this without involving all key stakeholders in our community in the discussion and exploring a similar type of vetting process to what has been done with the arena.

So really, we’re not talking about a multi-use complex on the Kingsway and an events centre downtown. We’re still, as we have been all along, talking about an arena and where to locate it. Council has only approved an arena. Apart from this, all that has been proposed are ideas, nothing concrete. Sudbury has only ever agreed that it desired a new arena (and even then we have to admit to ourselves that it is a desire, not a necessity). Anything else added on to the discussion of an arena is pure speculation, more marketing and press designed to obfuscate the key issue (where is the best site to construct an arena).

The timing of the “music city” announcement is especially curious, as it came immediately after a report from an independent consulting firm hired by our elected government and city officials was released advocating for downtown as the best site for a proposed arena construction. We paid experts $340,000 to evaluate the best site for an arena. Council stated 8 objectives for an arena site, and downtown scored highest along most of these metrics, and most importantly was identified as the area of lowest long-term risk to the city. At this point in our city’s life, considering our history of bungled construction (private industry has a bad track record as well), adding new developments to our city anywhere other than where experts have advised us is inexcusable and regressive.

To digress for a moment, there have been arguments mounted that we should focus on 3 of the 8 metrics that council identified as most important. These 8 metrics were: Parking, Cost, Economic Impact, Complimentary Benefits, Ease of Development, Access, Vision and City Building. Why would we completely disregard five important decision criteria in favour of just three? Remember, we’re in the state we are because we haven’t been looking at the big picture or thinking of the long-term repercussions of our decisions. Does it make sense to be willingly myopic with such an important decision?

We may all think we know our city and what it needs, but how many of us have a degree in urban planning, civil engineering, architecture or design? How many of us have made a career travelling the world to determine best practices for urban construction? How many of us are aware of best practices for urban design?

Urban design and city planning are disciplines; trades based in science and empirical research, similar to being an electrician or a plumber. To use an analogy: if you are considering buying a home, would you rather have the estimate on fixing the wiring by a licensed electrician or by a real estate agent motivated to sell?

Considering all this information, it is advisable again to exercise caution. Why would we compound any problems with our current municipal layout by adding not one, but between four and eight new developments to our city, especially with our currently frozen tax rate? How can we accommodate more reckless, ill-considered growth? Ask yourself, if the TNS vision actually comes true, why would we give control of our casino, our motorsports park, our arena, four new hotels, and a new events centre to one company? Ask yourself, if the TNS land is a viable investment, why would a land developer invest so much money in a marketing campaign to convince our municipality to build on his land instead of seeking out private investment? Contrary to the opinion of some, in every construction scenario, the taxpayer will foot the entirety of the bill for this $100 million new arena. Apart from donating land that private industry wouldn’t build on without public investment (our tax dollars), TNS has never proposed a financial contribution to constructing the arena facility.

Make no mistake, this is an important decision. Making the wrong call on this issue could bankrupt our city and cause it to fall into cultural collapse and further disrepair. As taxpayers, we need to demand value for our dollar, not just low cost. We need to demand a livable, forward-thinking, thoughtfully-planned city with developments that line up with the plan that we’ve all agreed on. We need to stop the insanity and take a breath.

Now that the discussion has shifted from whether we need an arena to where the arena will be located, let’s not let ourselves be blinded by marketing. Let’s make critical decisions based in fact. Let’s stop taking so many risks. If we must have a new arena, that arena must be downtown to minimize risk, maximize immediate and future economic benefit, and minimize further untenable infrastructure bloat, as per the experts on the topic.

Clayton Drake (Citizen, Musician, Concert Promoter, Film Industry Professional)