It was viewed by some as a catalyst for invigorating Edmonton’s downtown core and a way to lock in the city’s storied Oilers franchise. Others argued it was a gift to a billionaire businessman and the presumed result of backroom deals and public threats to move the team.
Now, a new book sheds light on how Edmonton City Council reached the arena deal.
“We wanted to provide as full of an account as possible, particularly about the debates that occurred behind closed doors, because a lot of the discussions took place there,” says Jay Scherer, one of the authors of Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development.
“The amount of information reports — crucial reports in particular — that were never made public, I think was a surprise, perhaps even for Linda,” says Scherer. The ‘Linda’ he refers to is former Edmonton city councillor Linda Sloan McCulloch, who co-authored the book along with retired history professor David Mills.
Sloan McCulloch says there was pressure on council to pass the deal, and that it might have unfolded differently had council received more information.
She cites a report into potential arena sites that ranked the current location as the fifth-best choice.
“That would have dramatically changed the overall capital costs because we wouldn’t have had to make the investments in additional LRT legs and things like that,” she says. “That report wasn’t released in its entirety, and we even had trouble getting it after the fact through the FOIP process.”
Scott McKeen wasn’t on council during the arena debate years, but from his current position as the councillor for the downtown area, he says the arena kickstarted much-needed development.
Like the book’s authors, he recognizes the power of professional sport.
“If you want an NHL hockey team, you will be held to ransom,” McKeen says.
“You will. Part of the deal is professional sports teams do not want to pay for arenas or stadiums.”
When it comes to what taxpayers pay, McKeen says the CRL and ticket tax pay a considerable amount of the cost.
“The general taxpayer’s taxes do not go into paying for the arena,” he says.
McKeen notes the city was also subsidizing operations at the former arena.
Scherer maintains there are other costs to the taxpayer, like increased policing, the forgiveness of a loan to Northlands and the pending cost of demolishing the old Northlands Coliseum.
Sloan McCulloch hopes the book proves valuable for other communities facing similar debates.
“We’re hoping the book will make a contribution to the debate across Canada, about how much public money should be put into these types of buildings when, largely, the beneficiaries are very highly paid people involved in that industry.”