Edmonton’s downtown arena is finally approved; get on board and help make it a success

City Council voted in favor of the arena today by a vote of 10-3, and while there are some things still outstanding (final approval of the CRL, approval of the regional grant) the project is most likely going to move ahead. This one feels final. We could argue about the deal forever, but it’s now done. I’m not happy about all the specifics, but I’m happy that we can move past this endless debate and get on to more important things.

Now that we know there’s going to be a shiny new arena downtown, it’s time to get on board and help to ensure that the project is as successful as possible. The hard work doesn’t stop with approval of the deal…it’s really just beginning.

There’s a lot of outstanding questions that need to be explored, including:

  • How does the deal impact the City of Edmonton’s debt and debt servicing levels?
  • What will the marketing/branding partnership with the Oilers actually look like?
  • Will the Gretzky statue get relocated?
  • What happens to the Baccarat Casino?
  • What is the impact of this decision on Rexall Place and Northlands? Can we sustain two large venues?
  • I’d rather see local restaurants and shops in the new arena than chains. How can we ensure the arena benefits local?
  • How does replacing MSI funding with additional CRL funding impact other downtown projects? How can we ensure those still move forward?
  • Where is the list of property developers ready to announce projects in the downtown area? What else do we need to do to ensure that surrounding development goes ahead?
  • What happens if the CRL doesn’t result in the lift we all hope for? What’s plan B, C, and D?
  • If the arena is the carrot to entice speculators to do something with their empty parking lots, taxation/policy changes are the stick. How can we get the stick implemented too?
  • How are Administration and Council going to learn from this to ensure future large projects follow a much smoother process, with more communication and transparency, and less ambiguity?
  • How will construction of the arena impact residents and businesses downtown, especially considering it’ll take place alongside a number of other large construction projects like the LRT?  How can we reduce that impact?
  • What else is the City of Edmonton prepared to do to support downtown’s ongoing revitalization? How soon can we get other related projects off the ground?

And my favorite:

  • When will Mayor Mandel announce he’s not running in the October election?

In his closing remarks, Councillor Henderson noted that the downtown arena “is not a magic wand”. For it to work, a lot of other things need to happen alongside and around the project. It’s a big step, but it’s just one step, in ensuring our downtown continues to grow. We need to make sure we take those other steps too.

Edmonton’s downtown is being held hostage by the arena

Edmonton’s downtown hasn’t gotten its fair shake when it comes to capital funding over the last decade. There’s now a pretty pie chart that magically appeared to illustrate that (I’m not sure where the data comes from specifically, but it seems more or less accurate to me). I am totally on board with the idea that we should be putting our money where our mouths are. If downtown is so important to Edmonton, and I believe it is, we should be willing to back that up with dollars.

I think it’s fair to say I’m one of the biggest downtown supporters in the city. I talk about it all the time. I’ve organized plenty of events for downtown. I seeded the I ❤ YEGDT campaign. I built and operate the website. I work downtown. Sharon and I chose to live downtown and purchased a condo here.

With all of that said, I want to support what the newly formed Downtown Vibrancy Coalition is trying to do, but I’m finding it very difficult to get on board. Here’s what their backgrounder states:

“If we lose the arena – over a missing $55 million – approximately $3 billion in downtown revitalization projects will be shelved or scrapped. The arena represents only one-sixth of the proposed investment. But if the arena fails, Edmonton’s downtown will lose $2 billion of private investment in the related entertainment district – new hotels, office towers, retail shops, clubs – as well as downtown parks, a river valley promenade and Jasper Avenue streetscape enhancements.”

Every single time I read that, I can’t help but think: bullshit. Is downtown important or not?

This all stems from the August 2011 decision to make the proposed arena the centerpiece of the Community Revitalization Levy. I wrote in that post that I was worried we’d be doing more harm than good for downtown by tying the two together. Now, as we’re about the lose the arena, the impact of that decision is becoming clear. We’ve put all of our eggs in one basket, or at least that’s what it looks like.

But I see no reason why downtown revitalization has to die along with the arena. The notion that you need an anchor or catalyst project for a CRL to work is false (as proven by the existence of CRLs for The Quarters and Fort Road). Furthermore, we know that programs like housing incentives work and lead to the outcomes we want. There are ways to ensure downtown gets the funding it deserves with or without a shiny new arena. Why would everything need to be shelved or scrapped?

I would love to see a new arena built downtown, and I do agree that $55 million seems like a surmountable barrier. But I don’t like that MSI funding is being used to help pay for the arena and I really don’t like that our downtown is being held hostage by it.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and of ONEdmonton.

LRT Construction Downtown: Short-term pain, long-term gain!

I’m excited about the expansion of our LRT network and what it’ll mean for Edmonton. It’s going to take a while until the entire network is completed, but work is already underway. While I would definitely fall into the YIMBY camp on LRT construction, that doesn’t mean there aren’t annoyances along the way. I just keep reminding myself – short-term pain, long-term gain!

The North LRT to NAIT is a 3.3 km extension from Churchill Station to NAIT with a total estimated cost of $755 million. Construction began in 2011 and over the last couple of years there has been a lot of activity along 105 Avenue and 105 Street in particular. The new line runs right through Sharon’s route to work, so she has experienced first-hand the inconveniences caused by the construction. The City has been proactive about meeting with affected stakeholders, and they even have an interactive map online, but that doesn’t completely make up for the ongoing issues.

North LRT to NAIT Construction

Closures might mean a slightly different route for motorists or a few extra minutes of travel time, but the impact on pedestrians is often much larger. Closed sidewalks can mean large detours into unfamiliar and poorly marked territory. When it’s cold out, a few extra minutes in a vehicle isn’t such a big deal but for a pedestrian it can be (and that makes jaywalking an attractive option). You’re also much more likely to find signs for vehicles than you are for pedestrians. Other issues include construction noise and, thanks to our up-and-down weather, treacherous and messy conditions.

North LRT to NAIT Construction

The new extension is slated to open in April 2014. Short-term pain, long-term gain!

The Central Station LRT Rehabilitation is a renewal rather than an extension. It will repair issues with the roof and ensure the station is functional for years to come. The City is also taking the opportunity to make streetscape improvements to Jasper Avenue between 100 and 102 Street. I work in the Empire Building at Jasper Avenue and 101 Street, which is basically ground zero for the project (and there’s also the First & Jasper construction right across the avenue).

Central LRT Station Construction

The construction team has been good at keeping everyone in the area up-to-date, with notices in the mail and electronic updates delivered through our property manager. That doesn’t mean the daily maze is any less annoying, however. I try to go through the back of the building to avoid the mess altogether, but every few days I need to use the front entrance for some reason, and determining how to navigate through the ever-changing array of fences gets old fast. There’s always construction noise to deal with too, though thankfully there have only been a few occasions when it has been disruptive.

Central LRT Station Construction

I know that travelling down 101 Street for vehicles sucks because traffic moves so much slower through the construction, but at worst you’re looking at a few minutes of delay. Compare that to the impact on pedestrians. Walking from the Empire Building to Scotia Place used to take a few seconds, we’re talking probably 30 steps or so. Now because of the fencing and detours, it takes probably ten times that! That’s a significant impact (though a little extra walking never hurt anyone).

The project isn’t expected to be complete until October 2013. Short-term pain, long-term gain!

Edmonton City Council and Katz Group move forward on new downtown arena

Today was the latest episode in the downtown arena saga and it was a weird one. Council received an update from Administration on negotiations with the Katz Group and ultimately voted 10-3 to move forward with an altered deal, though one that still closely resembles the framework that was approved in October 2011. Today is being called a “landmark” day for Edmonton, and supporters of the arena are understandably happy that the project is moving ahead, even though they may not be entirely sure why.

Let’s start with what’s new. The price of the arena has gone up $30 million to $480 million, and that pushes the total cost of the project (including the community rink, land, and other elements) to more than $600 million. The other changes include:

  • The additional $30-million for the arena over the previous framework will be split between the City and the Katz Group
  • The LRT connection, solely funded by the City, has been reduced from $17-million to $7-million
  • Katz Group will pay for the slightly increased costs of the Winter Garden
  • Under the new framework, the City will own the arena and land, and the Katz Group will pay all operating costs and receive all revenues

There are some other changes too, such as a property tax clause that no one seems to understand. But the biggest difference? Congratulations and optimism all around. Speaking to the media afterward, Mayor Mandel declared:

“It’s 100%, a deal is done. All the other stuff is just going through some steps. I’m absolutely totally confident that we will go ahead…”

And here’s the statement from the Katz Group:

“This is a milestone agreement for a world class facility that will drive the ongoing revitalization of downtown Edmonton,” said Daryl Katz, Chair of the Katz Group. "It also helps to ensure the Oilers’ long-term sustainability in Edmonton. This has been a challenging process for all concerned but we are confident we will all look back on the end result with pride and satisfaction at what we have achieved. I want to thank City Council and City Administration for their work on this file. This is a great day for Edmonton and we are excited to get to work on realizing this incredible opportunity.”

You may recall that when the original agreement was passed in October 2011, there was quite a bit of optimism then too. But it wasn’t along the lines of “the deal is done” as much as it was about moving forward. To be fair, it’s not like there was cheering in Council Chambers today, as Paula noted:

“After all the years of negotiations, the vote was greeted by silence — followed by an awkwardly belated round of quiet applause from the Katz Group and their supporters.”

But for Mayor Mandel and Daryl Katz in particular, their comments represent a complete turnaround. Last September, the mayor was “frustrated” and issued a statement calling for “the Katz Group to clarify its full position.” In response, Daryl Katz wrote a letter in October in which he called for “more time and political leadership.” He said negotiations had “gone backwards” and noted there were 15 open issues. In December, the Mayor said “we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go” and said a deal had to be reached within six weeks.

My read of the report suggests fewer than 15 changes were made, but maybe Katz was just grandstanding in his letter. What’s most interesting of course are the things that have not changed.

There’s still $100 million missing from other orders of government (plus another $14 million for the community rink). Mayor Mandel today said he is “very confident” that the province will come to the table for that amount, but no one knows when or how. There’s also no guarantee that that province would approve the proposed downtown CRL (though it seems unlikely they would reject it) nor that the Katz Group will actually invest in the commercial development surrounding the arena (it’s all “subject to commercial viability”).

I don’t see much of a difference between today’s deal and the agreement from October 2011, but apparently it was enough for Mandel and Katz to declare that we’ve crossed the finish line.

So what’s next? Well someone needs to come forward with $114 million, for starters. Given that the City expects construction to start as early as August 2013, getting the remaining funding issues sorted out would seem to be the priority. But perhaps more importantly, this agreement significantly increases the likelihood that Mayor Mandel will decide not to run again in the next election. As Paula noted, that means “a new political game is just beginning.”

I’ll give Don Iveson the last word on today’s proceedings: “I don’t want our city to fight about this anymore. It’s been an open wound in Edmonton.”

We need to improve public transit between downtown and Old Strathcona

Living downtown, I have excellent access to public transit. The Bay/Enterprise Square LRT stop is just down the block, and major bus routes like the 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9 are all just a short walk away. As a result, I try to take transit whenever I can. While most of my activities and appointments are downtown, the other two key areas for me are 124 Street and Old Strathcona. Travelling to 124 Street or nearly anywhere in-between is quick and easy, but the same cannot be said for getting to Old Strathcona.

If I want to meet with someone who is on the southside, Old Strathcona is an ideal location. It’s also a popular spot for evening events, and of course the unique shops and restaurants along Whyte Avenue are a draw. But I always dread travelling to the area from downtown because it’s almost always easier to drive. Given that Old Strathcona is very central and not very far from downtown, I find that hard to swallow.

If I want to go to High Street, I have a number of options. Google Maps tells me that getting from the Sobeys on Jasper Avenue at 104 Street to the Mountain Equipment Co-op at 124 Street and 102 Avenue should take about 5 minutes to drive (it’s about 2.6 km). If I wanted to walk, which I have done in the summer, it takes about 35 minutes. The bus falls in-between those two, at anywhere from 13 minutes to 21 minutes, depending on the route. More importantly though, I have a number of options, and never have to wait very long. Here are two scenarios.

Let’s say I wanted to get there by 2pm on a weekday. There are many options to choose from:

  • Route 135 departs at 1:35pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 111 departs at 1:40pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk
  • Route 5 departs at 1:42pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 1 departs at 1:43pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 2 departs at 1:47pm and takes 6 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk

And if I miss those, I’m not waiting around forever. At that time of day, route 135 comes every 15 minutes. So does routes 1 and 2. Route 5 and 111 run every 30 minutes.

Let’s say I wanted to get there by 7pm instead. Again, on a weekday, we have a number of options:

  • Route 120 departs at 6:38pm and takes 14 minutes
  • Route 5 departs at 6:42pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 1 departs at 6:43pm and takes 11 minutes
  • Route 2 departs at 6:50pm and takes 5 minutes, followed by a 5 minute walk

Again, both routes 1 and 5 run very frequently (actually less than 15 minutes according to Google Maps).

Now let’s compare that with travelling to Old Strathcona. According to Google Maps, the trip from Sobeys on Jasper Avenue at 104 Street to Starbucks on Whyte Avenue at Calgary Trail should take about 9 minutes to drive (it’s about 3.9 km). I haven’t actually tried it (at least not directly) but walking should take about 45 minutes.

Now how about taking transit? Here are your options:

  • Route 52 departs at 1:19pm and takes 20 minutes, followed by a 3 minute walk
  • Route 7 departs at 1:20pm and takes 21 minutes
  • LRT to University departs at 1:32pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 57, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • LRT to University departs at 1:42pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer (gets you there 4 minutes late)
  • Route 57 departs at 1:44pm and takes 17 minutes, preceded by a 9 minute walk (gets you there 1 minute late)

Two of those options include a transfer from the LRT to the bus, which is less than ideal. But the real issue is that these routes do not run that frequently. If you miss the 7, you’re waiting half an hour. Same thing with the 52. And those two routes are only 1 minute apart from each other, which means you really are waiting another half hour.

For completeness, let’s look at 7pm again. Here are the options:

  • LRT to University departs at 6:23pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • LRT to University departs at 6:33pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 5 minute ride on route 7, plus 1 minute to transfer
  • Route 7 departs at 6:39pm and takes 22 minutes (gets you there 1 minute late)
  • LRT to University departs at 6:43pm and takes 7 minutes, followed by a 6 minute ride on route 4, plus 1 minute to transfer (gets you there 6 minutes late)

Aside from route 7, which only runs every 30 minutes, you basically have to take the LRT and then transfer.

The numbers only tell part of the story. There’s also the actual experience of taking both trips. Going from downtown to High Street is a breeze – with so many routes running down Jasper Avenue, you don’t have to wait long until a bus comes that you can get on. Going from downtown to Old Strathcona is the opposite, especially if you decide to wait at the main stop across from Hotel MacDonald – you see sometimes half a dozen route 8 buses go by before your bus ever comes. It’s depressing.

I definitely feel that travelling between downtown and Old Strathcona on public transit should be better. Is ridership an issue, is that why we don’t have more options or more frequent service? It does seem like a route that could be popular, and it certainly seems like a route that should be easier to travel.

Tomorrow a report on the LRT Central Area Circulator is going to the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The Circulator would essentially cover the route I’m talking about – downtown to Old Strathcona. Here’s a look at the map:

The highlighted section would extend from the current Health Sciences Station west to the Bonnie Doon Station on the Southeast LRT line. The alignment for this extension has not been identified yet, but it looks from the map as though it might run slightly south of 82 Avenue. The report highlights the importance of this segment:

Lack of clarity regarding this segment of the LRT network creates public uncertainty. Developing an alignment in full consultation with community stakeholders will improve public understanding around the network, particularly regarding the alignment through the Strathcona and University areas and how the line will cross the river near 109 Street. Designation as a future LRT connection to the Southeast and West LRT line would clarify land use expectations and improve the likelihood of densification and other transit oriented development.

While the recommendation is simply to receive the report, it sounds like funding may finally be coming to allow Administration to move forward:

In order to complete this planning exercise, a one-time budget request is included in the 2013 Operating Budget as an Unfunded Service Package. This budget would be used to retain a consultant to develop an alignment recommendation for the Central Area LRT Circulator.

I think this extension to the LRT would make a lot of sense, but it’s still a long way off. In the meantime, I think either more frequent bus service or additional bus routes between downtown and Old Strathcona would be welcome.

There are two other options worth mentioning. The first is that you could cycle the trip from downtown to Old Strathcona, which Google Maps estimates would take 18 minutes. That’s less than ideal in the winter, but it could be done. Cycling is definitely something I’d like to do more of next year, and it’s exactly this kind of trip that cycling would be perfect for.

The second option is the High Level Streetcar. From the May long weekend until Labour Day, it runs daily every forty minutes (between 11am and 3pm, except during the Fringe when it runs until 10pm). I think the Edmonton Radial Railway Society does a great job running the line, but perhaps we should operationalize it. The track is already there, and while there’s not much in the way of stops along the way, the route is great for getting from downtown to Old Strathcona and back again.

It shouldn’t be so hard to take transit across the river!

The arena deal is dead, but the City of Edmonton came away the victor

After a heated discussion on the arena yesterday afternoon, City Council voted to cease all negotiations with the Katz Group and directed Administration to explore alternatives. Here are the three motions they passed:

  1. As a result of Mr. Katz’s letter and unwillingness to have an open discussion with Council and the frustration of the Interim Design Agreement, all negotiations and ongoing City work related to the October 26, 2011, framework cease immediately.
  2. That Administration provide a report, as soon as possible, to City Council to report on the completion of the cessation of negotiations and the status of the City’s current, transferable investments in a potential downtown arena project.
  3. That Administration provide a report outlining a framework for Council to explore potential avenues to achieve the long term goals of sustainable NHL Hockey in Edmonton.

That means the arena as we know it is dead, but it doesn’t mean that a new arena is completely off the table. With that third motion, Administration is empowered to explore alternatives to working with the Katz Group, which could mean the City builds a new arena by itself. Here’s the full video of Mayor Mandel and City Manager Simon Farbrother answering questions about yesterday’s meeting:

Supporters of the arena will no doubt lament the fact that we appear to be no further ahead than we were four years ago, but I don’t think that’s true. Here are some of the reasons that I think the City and Council came away the victors in this whole debacle:

  • The City owns the land. No matter what happens with the arena, that land was a great investment. And I’d much rather have the City own it than some speculator who is just going to sit on it.
  • The City owns the design of the arena. Last October, Council directed Administration to spend $30 million to get the design completed to 60%. The City can take this design to a new partner or use it as the basis for building the arena itself.
  • The City now has a head start on a CRL for downtown. I think a case could be made for a downtown CRL even without the arena. Maybe it would be scaled back, but all the work that has already been done to develop the CRL plans could be reused.
  • Council no longer look like the bad guys & gals. I’m no fan of the way that Council handled the negotiations over the last couple of years, but fortunately for them Katz handled things even more poorly!
  • It may seem as though Katz has the upper hand with the ability to move the team elsewhere, but that has always been an empty threat and remains so. The NHL still wants hockey in Edmonton, and I honestly believe that Katz wants to keep the Oilers here too. If anything has changed, it’s that the NHL would be even less likely to allow a move now that Council has done everything it can to work with the Katz Group.

I’m less confident this will actually come to pass, but I was encouraged by comments made yesterday by one of the Councillors that the “unprecedented” use of in-camera sessions should be avoided in the future. It’s clear that the private meetings did more harm than good in progressing the deal and getting Council what they wanted, and I hope that means Council will avoid in-camera sessions in the future.

The arena is getting all the attention right now, but in the grand scheme of things, there are far more important issues for Council to be dealing with. More than 150 neighbourhoods need renewal and it’s going to take billions to maintain all of that infrastructure. At the same time, Edmonton’s population and economy continue to grow much faster than the national average and that means big pressures in terms of where we put new infrastructure, how we move people efficiently throughout the city, etc. As soon as they were done with the arena issue yesterday, Council starting talking about the LRT.

Back to business.

Should MSI funding be used for Edmonton’s downtown arena?

Even if you’re optimistic and think the Katz Group and the City can resolve their current differences, let’s not forget that the arena project is short at least $100 million. Under the current agreement, that amount is slated to come from “other orders of government” such as the province. Over the last year or so, various ministers have stated that the province will not be providing any new funding for the arena. In May, Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said:

“The province is not going to write a separate cheque for a particular project. We provide MSI funding for every municipality in the province, which is $896 million this year. We have proposed that’s going to increase. The reason why we do so is municipalities can choose what their priorities are.”

While the downtown arena project would certainly be eligible under the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI), I have long wondered if it would really make sense to use our limited funding for that purpose. How much MSI funding do we have? What have we already spent? Can we really count on an increase? These are some of the question I’ll explore below.

What is the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI)?

MSI is a way for the province to provide cities, towns, and other municipalities in the province with funding for infrastructure projects. From the MSI website:

In 2007, the $11.3 billion MSI program was announced to provide predictable, sustainable funding for our province’s municipal infrastructure projects to keep our municipalities strong.

The objectives of the program are:

  • To work in partnership with municipalities to manage growth pressures;
  • To provide municipalities with sustainable funding; and
  • To support infrastructure needs.

All eligible municipalities in the province receive an amount each year that is calculated based on the following formula:

  • 48% is allocated on a per capita basis;
  • 48% is allocated based on education property tax requisitions;
  • 4% is allocated based on kilometers of local roads.

A wide range of municipal projects are eligible for MSI funding, which means that each municipality can decide where the money is best spent.

How much MSI funding will the City of Edmonton receive?

Edmonton is slated to receive a total of $2.1 billion by the end of 2021. From 2007 through 2011, we received about $567 million. In order to take advantage of favorable economic conditions, Council also decided to fast-track another $250 million or so, which means we have used roughly $850 million in MSI funding already. This chart shows the amount of funding per year (with FT designating the fast-tracked amount):

That means we have roughly $1.3 billion still to come over the next ten years. The projected amounts for 2012-2021 take into consideration repayments on the fast-tracked amount. The City’s fast-tracking strategy requires an annual repayment of $57 million, including interest for five years, reducing the amount of MSI available in 2012-2016 by $285 million.

What have we spent our funding on so far?

The MSI website provides a list of accepted projects by year for each municipality in PDF. I extracted the data for Edmonton, and organized it in a spreadsheet. Based on the description, I categorized each project as either “new” or “existing” to indicate whether it was for a new asset or to rehabilitate/upgrade/repair an existing one. I also assigned each project a category such as “Parks” or “Transit”. Here’s what we have spent per year:

The total spent is roughly $850 million. The big jump in 2009 was the fast-tracked funding, which allowed us to take advantage of lower construction costs.

Here’s the breakdown of new vs. existing:

As you can see, roughly 53% of our MSI funding has been spent on “new” projects.

Here’s the breakdown by category:

The bulk of our MSI funding has been spent on transit and roads. Parks and recreation facilities are the only other two categories that have received more than $100 million in funding.

A total of 82 capital projects were listed, with an average project cost of $9.9 million. No project has cost more than $100 million. The largest project we have constructed so far was the new Centennial Garage in southwest Edmonton, which had a total project cost of $99 million ($89.3 million of which came from MSI). It would be fair to call that project an anomaly however – only one other project, to rehabilitate several roads for $61 million, came with a price tag greater than $40 million.

Can we count on an MSI increase in the future?

MSI funding has always been tied to the economy. The amount allocated to municipalities over the first five years of the program was reduced due to weaker than anticipated revenues. The City of Edmonton had expected to receive $802 million over the 2007-2011 period, about $235 million more than the $567 million it ended up receiving. That does not bode well for an increase in the future.

Both Calgary and Edmonton have been pushing for an improved funding framework with the commitment to develop a big city charter. The outcome of that initiative, slated to be considered by the Legislature in the spring, could impact the way Edmonton receives funding from the province.

Should we use MSI funding for the arena?

According to the City, the average age of Edmonton’s infrastructure assets is 30 years. At the end of 2011, more than 150 neighbourhoods required renewal. An average annual reinvestment of $400 million over the next three years, plus an average annual reinvestment of $450 million over the 2015-2021 period, is the minimum amount of funding required to renew Edmonton’s existing infrastructure to achieve a reasonable state of repair. This is a big challenge, and MSI funding provides only a piece of the pie.

As shown above, our MSI spend has been more or less equally split between new projects and upgrades or rehabilitation of existing assets. A total of $87.5 million was spent on seven new recreation facilities (either brand new, or additions to existing) from 2007 through 2011. Would we have rather spent all of that on the arena? A number of new projects would need to be postponed if funding was allocated instead to the arena. A total of $384.8 million was approved by Council for recreation and cultural projects in the 2012-2014 Capital Budget.

In a poll earlier this year, two-thirds of Edmontonians opposed provincial funding going toward the new arena. An equal number supported fast-tracking the southeast LRT line to Mill Woods. It would seem that the use of MSI funding thus far more or less aligns with the desires of Edmontonians, with the largest share going toward transit projects (though not all of that was LRT-related).

This decision would ultimately need to be made by City Council, and as we approach an election next year, I’m not sure many councillors would be willing to take money away from important neighbourhood renewal projects or new facilities like libraries and parks for the arena.

Was today’s downtown arena news a setback or a setup?

Today behind closed doors City Council discussed a request from the Katz Group for more public money for the downtown arena project. In a letter to City Manager Simon Farbrother, the Katz Group’s John Karvellas wrote:

“…we believe the City has significant capacity beyond its commitment of $45 million to help fund the arena, which by all accounts is the catalyst for the CRL itself and which can help to fund so many other important projects to benefit downtown and the entire city.”

Council voted simply to reaffirm its commitment to the funding arrangement that was agreed upon nearly a year ago. Though the Katz Group letter outlines rising costs, it seems as though the request was actually for new concessions. And that didn’t sit well with Council. Only Councillors Sloan and Diotte voted against the motion (they had also voted against the funding deal).

Much of the discussion about today’s news has focused on the absurdity of a last-minute request from the Katz Group. Many have been critical of Daryl Katz’s decision to remain quiet and unseen, suggesting the approach has led to distrust among Edmontonians. And of course, Mayor Mandel’s statement that “frustrated” is a better word than “optimistic” has for many turned the arena from a done deal in to a big question mark.

But I’m not so sure. What if instead of a major setback, today was actually a major setup?

There’s a few things that don’t sit well in my mind. First, the timing is highly suspect. Two weeks ago the Downtown Business Association released a report that suggests $4.8 billion of investment could take place downtown in the next five years. Last week the Chamber of Commerce warned of a “massive setback” if the arena is not built. In between all of that, the province announced its financial outlook and said that revenues will fall short of projections, so a boost from that level of government doesn’t seem any more likely now than it did a year ago. Were the DBA and Chamber announcements simply well-orchestrated PR efforts designed to try to force the City’s hand? One wonders how much influence the Katz Group exerted.

Secondly, there’s much more than just the arena riding on the CRL. Municipal projects including the arena make up half of the DBA’s forecasted $4.8 billion, and most rely on the downtown CRL being approved. If there’s no arena, there’s no CRL, and if there’s no CRL, it’s back to the drawing board on how to fund all of the other initiatives. Talk is cheap yes, but I really do think that most on Council believe in the importance of a strong downtown. The prospect of putting all of the positive momentum and recent progress at risk must not be sitting well with them.

Thirdly, I just can’t get past that suggestion in the widely-circulated Katz Group letter that the City actually has the ability to contribute more money than previously agreed to. That seems like an odd thing to bring up now, at this juncture. Whether it is true or not, the seed has been planted.

Lastly, I think the Katz Group’s statement from this afternoon is quite strange. It focuses on the amount of time and money the organization has invested into the project, but remains optimistic about getting the issues resolved:

“The Katz Group is committed to continuing to work with the City to find creative solutions that work for both sides so that we can get on with the business of ensuring the Oilers’ long-term sustainability and accelerating the revitalization of the downtown core.”

Even more interesting, the statement seems to leave open the possibility that a larger deal can still be arranged:

“We have also offered to pay a fair share of arena construction costs above $450 million as part of a comprehensive package that makes economic sense.”

All of these things have me feeling as though today was more of a setup than anything else. Definitely to position the agreed upon $450 million limit as too low, and maybe even for a white knight to swoop in and save the deal, as I tweeted this afternoon. Could Katz himself now come forward in public with an increased financial offer and make Council look like the bad guys for refusing to match the increased funding requirements? Could someone on Council, perhaps someone angling for the Mayor’s chair next October, have a trick up his or her sleeve? Or perhaps most intriguing of all, could this finally be an opening for the province to step in and look like the heroes for salvaging the deal?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Edmonton needs more venues for art exhibitions like Capricious!

Does Edmonton need more venues for showcasing and enjoying local contemporary art? Miranda Sayer thinks so. She’s an independent curator and is the organizer of Capricious!, a month-long pop-up art exhibition that would feature the work of a number of local artists, if only it had a venue.

Miranda got in touch with me a few weeks ago to talk about the project, and highlighted the crowdfunding aspect. She is using RocketHub, a platform similar to Kickstarter except that it is focused on “creatives” and works in Canada. The RocketHub mission page boldly proclaims that the platform is “the foundation for the new creative economy.” While that might be a bit of a stretch, it is a smart way to fundraise. So far Capricious! has raised $595, or about 14% of the goal ($4500). All of the funds raised will go toward making the show happen and each funding level from $10 and up features a variety of rewards.

Miranda Sayer
Miranda Sayer, the independent curator behind Capricious!

While I was indeed interested in Miranda’s use of RocketHub, I was much more intrigued by her thoughts on the lack of viable spaces for art in Edmonton, and especially downtown. “It’s surprising to me that the downtown core doesn’t have more in the way of venues offering local contemporary art, as we have no shortage of talent locally,” she told me. Just a few days before Miranda and I got together for coffee, I had spent an evening visiting Dirt City, Dream City, the transitory public art exhibition in The Quarters (which runs until the end of the month), so her point about the amount of local talent we have really hit home for me.

There does seem to be a shortage of venues, however. Of course the Art Gallery of Alberta and Latitude 53 come to mind, but what else? There’s the Gallery Walk in Oliver, the gallery space at ArtsHab One, the gallery at the Stanley Milner Library, and probably a few others. But the list is not exceptionally long. And how many of the venues that do exist are really available to local up-and-coming artists? Or to curators like Miranda?

This discussion has actually been going on for quite some time. The Mayor’s Arts Visioning Committee noted in its final report last November that “City Hall must plan for arising opportunities to expand and enhance Edmonton’s inventory of arts facilities.” A number of the recommendations in the report talked about the lack of space:

“The need for arts spaces of all types is mentioned numerous times in this report. The repetition is purposeful. It is a high priority need today and the demand for places to create, rehearse, perform and exhibit will only grow in coming years.”

In March there was significant discussion about what should happen to the gallery space at Enterprise Square, which served as the temporary home of the AGA while the new building was constructed. The University of Alberta proposed a $500,000 partnership with the City, which many felt was too expensive. Council should be receiving an updated report on the issue next month.

Arts spaces need not be traditional buildings, either. The Alley of Light has become a gallery space on a number of occasions, and other similar projects have happened throughout the city. In a post last year, Latitude 53’s then-Writer-in-Residence Megan Bertagnolli highlighted the Royal Bison Craft & Art Fair as an artist run centre. “Edmonton needs more points of engagement between art and the public at large and alternative venues like the Royal Bison aim to fill that need,” she wrote. Latitude 53’s Executive Director Todd Janes agreed in a comment on the post: “I have often felt that Edmonton needs more artist-run or artist-initiated spaces and projects – the Royal Bison is just but one and perhaps one of the more successful and similar to the precursor of today’s ARCs (Artist-Run Centres).” Clearly artists are trying to find ways around the lack of venues.

The hope with transitory projects like the Alley of Light or Capricious! is that their success will help make the case for more permanent spaces. “Edmontonians are in fact very receptive to and supportive of contemporary art when it’s offered to them, so having more exhibitions showcasing local talent will hopefully lead to more permanent gallery spaces,” Miranda told me. She is keen to have the show take place downtown, and after no luck trying to find a suitable venue for free, decided to try the crowdfunding approach. The bulk of the money will go toward rent, though some would be used for the opening reception and some promotional materials.

Coy Fox (2011)
“Coy Fox” (2011) by Megan Stein

Here’s the description of Capricious!:

“The show is an opportunity for a number of emerging and established Edmonton artists to present their work in an exciting way (the pop-up gallery — we’re going to occupy a space that ordinarily isn’t for art) so they can encourage Edmontonians to engage and connect with contemporary local art. We have a wonderful and thriving arts community, but unfortunately less in the way of venues for viewing the work, especially in the downtown core.”

There are nine days left to contribute to the project at RocketHub. As a fan of utilizing unconventional spaces for projects that make Edmonton better, I have, and I look forward to seeing the exhibition come to life in the near future!