City works to ensure Rogers Place arena doesn’t force out homeless

WATCH ABOVE: Edmonton’s new downtown arena is going up in one of the city’s most challenging areas. Laurel Gregory takes a look at what plans are in place to make sure the most vulnerable citizens aren’t displaced.

EDMONTON — Rogers Place will open the doors of downtown Edmonton to thousands of eager event-goers.

But city officials, police and community workers want to be sure the new arena doesn’t shut the doors on vulnerable citizens who call the area home.

Construction on Rogers Place is expected to take another two years, but a committee has already been set up to look at safety and policing in the area, where numerous agencies serve Edmontonians dealing with mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

This fall, a team of police and city representatives from the Arena Impact Assessment Group will visit Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles to learn from their experiences developing large sports and entertainment centres next to neighbourhoods with social pressures.

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Los Angeles’ Staples Center opened in 1999, not far from skid row.

“It bumped right up against a challenging area in the city there,” says Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht. “So, we are going to go down, have discussions with those people, see what kind of experiences they had from a policing perspective and how they resolved those issues.”

Ryan Navales has seen the transition in Los Angeles first hand. The former addict is now with public affairs for the Midnight Mission, which offers shelter, addictions treatment, job counselling and other services on skid row.

“There’s always an opportunity for the developer to get involved in a real way if he listens to the community needs,” Navales says.

He says when the Staples Center was proposed, the developer acknowledged those needs and offered neighbourhood residents jobs and opportunities.

READ MORE: Downtown arena construction leads to employment opportunities for struggling Edmontonians

Community benefits are written into Edmonton’s arena agreement, which includes a “provision for development/facilitation of training or employment for low-income/high-need Edmontonians.”

According to Julian Daly, about 10 people have been hired for arena-related jobs through the Boyle Street Community Services’ pre-employment program. He hopes more opportunities will arise in retail and hospitality once the arena opens.

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“What we don’t want as a city is to have a development that leaves a lot of people left out and feeling marginalized and displaced. That would certainly not be a world class achievement for us.”

READ MORE: Stakeholders show off progress on Edmonton’s downtown arena

Jay Freeman of the Edmonton Homeless Commission says with or without development, finding homes for hard-to-house Edmontonians remains the priority.

“I’ve often heard it said that downtown is everybody’s neighbourhood. Well, if it’s everybody’s neighbourhood, we have to work really hard to make sure that’s the case.”

The arena is slated to open in time for the 2016 NHL hockey season.