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Edmonton’s ‘Sacred Cow': How Vital is a New Arena to the City’s Transformation?

When it comes to the Edmonton Arena debate, I admit I have not been thinking about it as a zero-sum game. I admire so many opinions on either side of the discussion, and although I have been mostly supportive of it as a project that can contribute to transforming the City, I don’t blindly accept Edmonton needs this above all else; or if we need the Oilers organization at all, to reach our full potential. In fact, considering the constant state of confusion that is negotiation with the Katz Group, the city is transforming nicely in spite of professional hockey.

Luckily our city leadership has made tough decisions on important things for the future of the city. Investments in the airport lands, LRT expansion, homelessness & safety initiatives and stunning cultural facilities; all so we don’t end up living in a visionless vacuum if or when the Seattle Oilers become a reality.
I wanted the arena more than I didn’t want it. I’ve been clearly on the pro-arena side of the discussion. Convincing myself that there was no dissonance in both wanting it and wanting everything else needed to be that “shining city on a hill”.

Lately I am starting to sense a shift in my personal and “the people’s” consciousness on how much of a priority this project should have among the others in a transforming City. Professional hockey, the biggest sacred cow in this town, to be under even the smallest amount of scrutiny from it’s citizens, ironically inspires me to think we might be really getting somewhere.

We’ve met the shepherds of the sacred cow. They have maps already drawn of a post-hockey Edmonton. On those maps, especially the international ones, there is no Edmonton. We’ll have become an asterisks or footnote to the “Heart of the New West” – Calgary. But in today’s modern World, the Internet delivers to our doorstep everyday examples of great communities where people can thrive and it doesn’t cost $200 a ticket. Let alone rip your heart out every 5-6 years in caustic labour negotiations or arena funding debates.

Today I was very moved by this New York Times article about a civic program that is so big and visionary in nature, it’s hard not to compare it to a $450 million investment in infrastructure; then wonder what the community return on investment might be from each.

The Kalamazoo Promise https://www.kalamazoopromise.com/

“Back in November 2005, when this year’s graduates were in sixth grade, the superintendent of Kalamazoo’s public schools, Janice M. Brown, shocked the community by announcing that unnamed donors were pledging to pay the tuition at Michigan’s public colleges, universities and community colleges for every student who graduated from the district’s high schools. All of a sudden, students who had little hope of higher education saw college in their future….

… It’s primarily meant to boost Kalamazoo’s economy. The few restrictions — among them, children must reside in the Kalamazoo public-school district and graduate…from one of its high schools — seem designed to encourage families to stay and work in the region for a long time….
Other communities invest in things like arenas or offer tax incentives for businesses or revitalize their waterfronts,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, which is located in the city. “The Kalamazoo Promise tries to develop the local economy with a long-term investment in human capital that is intended to change the town from the bottom up.” In this regard, the Promise can be seen as an exorbitant ante, staked by private funds, that calls to Kalamazoo’s better angels. It stokes hometown pride, prods citizens to engage and pulls businesses and their leaders into the public sphere.”

Kalamazoo had transformation forced upon it. We may not feel we need to think about these things now, but $50 oil or the loss of an NHL franchise should have us all thinking about our own transformation.

So where does this put me now? I am right back on the fence, with a growing group of citizens, who think the Katz Group needs to communicate exactly how they fit into a greater community. They’ll do that by making me trust their owner cares as much for the non-hockey fan than they do their direct customers and shareholder. I’d never ask for something so seemingly “social” from a business, operating under a privately funded model. But the Oilers are not that. They are asking for us to make a $350 million investment, so they can “remain profitable”. They don’t deserve to function entirely in secret. It’s especially bad, at least from my personal outsider’s perspective, that they seem to prefer negotiating tactics taken from a used-car lot, a couple generations of sophistication ago.

If they can’t get that right, then maybe we need to take start thinking about our own “Edmonton’s Promise”.

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