In a few days, Rogers Place will open to Edmontonians after years of debate.
In July 2008, Daryl Katz finally spoke to the media in person after becoming the owner of the Edmonton Oilers. But even before that significant change, there was talk of a new barn for the beloved team.
“I was on the board of the Oilers Community Foundation; I was on the board of Northlands,” Lyle Best tells Global News, when asked to look back on the long arena debate.
Best, an Edmonton entrepreneur, chaired the arena feasibility committee which endorsed the idea of a new arena in downtown Edmonton.
“The vitriol and the stuff they would toss at me and other committee members, but particularly me, it was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think these people walked among us?,'” Best says.
“If anything, this is a tremendous deal for taxpayers,” former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel says.
Watch below: ‘It’s a great time for the city’: Former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel weighs in on opening of Rogers Place
Vitriol was also directed at Mandel. He became the political face of the project. Now, as a private citizen, he indicates no regrets about the deal.
“I’m excited, it’s a tremendous opportunity for the city,” Mandel says, adding one of the goals of the project was “to build cities.”
But before any building could happen, a deal had to be reached. The battle lines were drawn quickly.
The Katz Group pushed Northlands to the side, wanting no partnership with the non-profit to run the new facility.
Negotiations led to a trip to New York City in October 2011, where former mayor Mandel and a city team – along with Daryl Katz and his side – met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
About a year later, as negotiations dragged on, the Oilers’ owner and an entourage visited Seattle, a city without an NHL franchise, but on the hunt to secure one.
Many saw the moved as a veiled threat to move the team. Days after the trip, Katz issued an apology.
But the civic soap opera was far from over. After new demands were presented, city council unanimously voted to cease negotiations in October 2012, leaving Katz Group officials stunned.
“There were so many times during that period where I’d read a story or hear something and you’d go, ‘This is it,”’ Best says.
“Forming those public/private partnerships is never easy,” the Edmonton Arena Corporation’s Bob Black says.
Years later, overlooking Rogers Place as workers put the final touches on the facility, Black explains the debate was a “foreign process” to the company.
Executives were not prepared for the fact the public process required consultation and public oversight.
“It took us a long time to really grasp that process,” Black adds. “We worked hard at trying to really understand that process. But we had to come to a realization it was going to be slower than we’d wished for.”
By May 2013, a deal was reached just months before the 2013 civic election. Construction on the facility started in March 2014.
Watch below: Sarah Kraus got a tour of the nearly completed Rogers Place in May 2016.
The deal will see the Edmonton Arena Corporation – a Katz Group company – operate the city-owned facility and pay maintenance expenses. But the company will also get all the revenues.
“The critcism of the deal itself is that this is simply the privatization of public profit,” Jay Scherer, a University of Alberta researcher writing a book on the arena deal, laments.
“Council had a number of key opportunities to certainly push back and to demand a better deal for citizens of Edmonton,” Scherer criticizes.
“Luck and timing is always important,” Best says.
For the local politicians who supported the proposal, the deal was about two things: keeping the Oilers in Edmonton and finding a catalyst project to spark increased development downtown.
As part of the deal, the Katz Group had to commit to spend $100 million in new development.
Since arena construction started, the company and its partner – WAM Development Group – have announced the creation of Ice District with two office towers, a hotel, residences and retail. The investment stands at more than $2 billion within a couple of blocks of Rogers Place.
“It’s going to be a net gain if for no other reason than just the development around it and having a vibrant, live downtown,” Best says.