Last week City Council was again discussing the proposed downtown arena. Though Administration provided an update at the Wednesday meeting, it certainly didn’t feel like much new information was brought forward. Details on the proposed Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) were delayed yet again, this time until the first week of April. The meeting did not go well.
Mayor Mandel seemed to be upset that progress had stalled. He wants Council to make a decision in the next month or so:
“It’s enough already. I think we’re going around too many circles and let’s make a decision.”
But there was another comment he made that stood out:
“Either we build a new arena or we become a second-class city, which in my mind we don’t want to be.”
I’ll admit that comment even surprised me. Does Mandel really think we can’t be a first-class city without building the new arena? Is the project really a make-or-break one for Edmonton? Boosterism has long been a part of this debate, something Dave covered back in January. And as our Mayor I think Mandel needs to be Edmonton’s greatest champion, a role he has definitely not shied away from while in office. But is there no hope for Edmonton if the arena project doesn’t go ahead?
“My choice of words probably wasn’t right,” Mandel admitted when I asked him about it. “It’s just that when opportunities come up, you have to make a decision. Edmonton in the past hasn’t made an effort to seize opportunities that have come up.” It’s a good point, I think. You can’t simply wait for things to come along, you have to go out and get them. If we want to take Edmonton forward, we need to make a concerted effort to do so. “You’ve got to fight for things,” Mandel said.
Mandel stressed the need to improve our downtown. “Cities are evaluated by their downtowns, not their suburbs. Edmonton’s downtown has a long way to go.” I asked if that meant we had to have the arena. “There’s millions of ingredients that go into it,” he said. The arts community and our IT sector were just a few of the examples he cited. He of course thinks the arena is one of those ingredients, however. “The arena with a good financial deal will make Edmonton better.”
When discussions get intense, people say things without fully thinking them through. I think that’s what happened to Mandel last week with the second-class comment, but he’s certainly not the only one who has made regrettable comments. Is it true that “the anti-arena faction is out in full force” as David Staples suggested (archive) a couple of weeks ago? I think it is, and there have certainly been some puzzling comments from them as well. The debate needs people on both sides, to help us tease out the details and ultimately arrive at the best decision for Edmonton. Mandel has decided to support the arena. Others have decided to fight it. A good debate is healthy for Edmonton.
On Saturday, Gary Lamphier writing in the Edmonton Journal reminded us that there are many key questions about the project that have yet to be answered (archive):
Although Mayor Stephen Mandel seems determined to wrap up the Seinfeldian arena "debate" — such as it is — in early April and push the project ahead at Mach speed, it’s hard to see why with so many key questions unresolved.
With weeks to go before a pivotal report on the project is presented to city council — following which councillors may have little time to reflect on it before they vote — it’s puzzling that so many key questions remain unanswered.
Today, Danny Hooper writing in the Edmonton Sun offered some compelling reasons to move ahead with the project (archive):
We are not the arctic outpost some think of us. This is a vibrant, energetic, resourceful, caring, and fun community, yet I don’t think our downtown best makes that statement. And I think it should.
Where some see a downtown that feels dull, disjointed, and at times lifeless, I see a blank canvas. The Katz group have at least brought out the paint and offered their vision of what our city centre could be. Of what it should be. And we’re all welcome to pick up a brush.
Maybe it comes down to perspective, as is so often the case with difficult questions such as this one. Do you choose to see the arena as Mayor Mandel does, as an opportunity to enhance our downtown that we should at least make an effort to capitalize on? Or do you choose to see the arena as those against the project do, as an expensive pet project that will do little to help Edmonton’s core?
There are no guarantees in this debate. Edmonton will not be relegated to “second-class” status if the project dies, nor will Edmonton automatically be world-renowned if it goes ahead. There’s obviously no secret recipe either, or we’d have already turned downtown around. Whether you support the arena or not, it’s important to recognize that revitalizing our downtown and becoming the city we want to be will take much more than any single project.