Should Saskatoon set aside downtown land for future sports arena?

Sports business is huge but according to Tourism Saskatoon, the city is falling behind in regards to infrastructure. Eric Beck / Global News

SASKATOON – While sports business is huge, one group believes the city has been on a “penalty kill” in regards to infrastructure. Saskatoon Tourism is lobbying to have amenities improved at SaskTel Centre and boost the economy in the area.

The group’s director of industry development and sport, Randy Fernets, says they’ve been participating in the development of the City of Saskatoon’s “Growth Plan to Half a Million” and put forth the idea of setting aside land for a sports arena in the downtown area as an economic development project.

READ MORE: Officials unveil plan to accommodate half-million Saskatoon residents

Fernets says if we are going to make plans to supplement an increasing population, consideration should be given to preparing for a major downtown sports facility to attract additional investment into the area.

Tourism Saskatoon cites Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto as having seen their downtown communities thrive for this reason.

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“In Saskatchewan, especially in Saskatoon, we wait until the girders fall before we build something new. We work our facilities. I think Rutherford arena is a perfect example. I mean, you got rust falling off it,” Fernets said.

“We should be looking, at this time, at setting aside land downtown for the potential of a facility.”

The more short-term path for Tourism Saskatoon involves improving infrastructure at the facility currently in use.

“Why aren’t we doing something to add something on to SaskTel Centre?” stated Fernets. “That’s a concern for us as other facilities across Canada are improving and we’re falling behind.”

“A couple additional ice surfaces at SaskTel Centre would allow us to bid on major skating and other hockey events. If you look at the services in regards to restaurant development and other things around it, most people leave the building and are gone after an event.”

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SaskTel Centre has not reached 30 years of service and yet it continues to draw big-name acts. Some concerts scheduled to hit the stage in 2016 include: Hedley (May 5), The Who (May 6), Selena Gomez (May 19) and Justin Bieber (June 16).

Over 138,500 entertainment tickets were sold for the facility in 2015, according to Pollstar, placing SaskTel Centre 102nd out of the 200 top venues in the world and tenth in Canada. The arena ranked 85th world-wide in 2014.

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“I think we can be making lots of additional dollars in hosting after events, social events like cabarets and different things and especially with major sporting events. Instead of having to get on a bus-to-bus to another facility, wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay at the building and just have to go through a door,” Fernets said.

“I take the example of Professional Bull Riders (PBR) rodeo where they had to go all the way over to the SaskTel soccer centre to host a cabaret, where they lost most of the potential people who would’ve participated in the cabaret.”

To make his argument, Fernets compares Saskatoon’s sports infrastructure to Canadian cites with their own professional hockey team but according to him the National Hockey League (NHL) ship has sailed for Saskatoon.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever see NHL because the cost of franchises.”

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The good news is there’s a new game in town – the Saskatchewan Rush. Fernets said we should work on what we can do and the newly-relocated National Lacrosse League (NLL) franchise is already exceeding expectations.

“National lacrosse is a perfect example, I think it’s shown them that other markets that aren’t NHL-based that we can make things happen and I think that’s what we have to look at in other facilities,” Fernets said.

“I think [Rush president] Lee Genier wanted to fill the place and we weren’t too sure whether it would happen or not, but his prediction is coming true with the sport. People from Saskatoon and the province are latching onto it. It’s fast-paced, it draws that millennial crowd.”

READ MORE: Saskatoon businesses could see spin-off from Saskatchewan Rush

The Saskatchewan Rush have not sold out a home game in their inaugural season at SaskTel Centre, but with 13,700 fans at the game on March 12, there appears to be hope for professional sports in the  city.

Tourism Saskatoon added that sports are not recession proof but they do weather economic recessions better than other industries due to the participation of all age groups.

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As the city’s growth plan and population come to fruition, Tourism Saskatoon is working on hosting a sports summit to add to its cause.

“An additional building, a couple ice surfaces or a building at SaskTel Centre to accommodate the after-festival activities of major sporting events and cabarets,” Fernets said.

“We’d love to have, in the next couple years, some additional services at SaskTel Centre. Specifically to be able to host national, international events.”

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