Wednesday, January 26, 2011

City of Champions

Today Wayne Gretzky turns 50. As you might expect, this is something of a celebration in Edmonton. Among the many entertaining anecdotes I heard today was a nugget from John Short, who is a local sportscasting legend and was involved with the Oilers during the Boys on the Bus years. He said 99 is revered in this town not just because he was a unique talent, but also because he forced Edmonton to "grow up" and realize we can be the best in the world at something. I wasn't here at the time, but my take is Edmonton changed from a modest town to a great city during these years. An attitude shift.

I wonder if Edmonton has lost a bit of that self-confidence. We're constantly comparing our city to Calgary, and the bitching about the Centre of the Universe never ends (although Toronto-bashing seems to be what unites Canadians, outside of Toronto). This is timely since we are in the middle of a debate about a new hockey arena. For some reason the existing one won't cut it anymore. I'm not sure why, exactly, although I can vouch that it is cramped in there. So, we seem to have come to a general consensus that a new arena will happen, and that it will be downtown. The downtown part was not always assured - the usual arguments about lack of parking being the main opposition. But the Katz Group, owners of the Oilers, and mayor Stephen Mandel at least seem to agree that a downtown location could spur a revitalization effort if done properly. I'm all for this - make the city centre more attractive and vital, help curb urban sprawl, get people out of their cars and instead walk or take the LRT to the game, and maybe grab a meal before or a drink after. It's not a magic bullet of new urbanism, but it makes a lot of sense and seems to have been successful in a few other cities as well.

But. The devil is in the details. The proposed "sports and entertainment district" is now bogged down with questions about money. Who pays? Who owns it? Who would run it? As best I can tell so far, Oilers owner Daryl Katz is willing to put up $100 million of the total project cost of $400-$450 million. Some costs could be offset by a ticket tax or Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) over a  couple of decades. Now we're in the middle of figuring out how much if any public money will go into the project. We could be talking the other $350 million here. Councillor Don Iveson has stated he is generally for downtown revitalization, but has been asking the toughest questions on the particulars of the Katz proposal. So nobody's really sure how things will turn out.

I don't want my tax money spent frivolously. But I look at the things we have spent big bucks on recently (the $260 million overpass at 23rd Ave and Gateway, which as far as I can tell helps only the merchants at South Edmonton Common) and wonder if we can't think big for a change. Think about being great again. Yes, we can get caught up in our dreams, and a little dose of reality is a good thing. But like a family on a tight budget, you have to watch your pennies, but still go out and treat yourself to a night out once in a while.

One columnist, Peter Adler, has been opposed to the very concept of a downtown arena from the beginning: "they just don't work" he writes. He goes on to point out that our side streets in Edmonton are covered with snow and need to be plowed. Reminds me of the opponents to the Olympic bids in Toronto and Vancouver: how can we spend big money on something so unnecessary when we still have homeless and poor people?

We can always do better with addressing poverty and homelessness. I wish my street was plowed regularly when it snows. But I want something to feel great about as well. This used to be the City of Champions, because of successes by its football and hockey teams. The pride and positive attitude of its citizens is not something easily calculated in the budget, but it matters. We ought to think about great things again.

Or, another way to look at it is if we're going to blow a few hundred mil as a city, it may as well be on something that makes us look good, and feel good, instead of a cement overpass.

Happy birthday Wayne. Here's to another 49 years.

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