Who will benefit from the city providing financing and approving a zoning bylaw for a new arena district in downtown Edmonton?
Will it just be the Katz Group and Oilers fans who can afford to attend games?
This question might be reframed as: How can the city create wider community benefit by financing the arena and approving the arena district?
So far the arena debate seems to be more oppositional than imaginative. There are obvious competing interests from those of the Katz Group, to the role and future identity of Northlands, to the impact on the downtown plan. And there is an election in the fall. This adds to the drama of councillors standing up to a billionaire in defence of the tax dollars of the 99.99 per cent of Edmontonians who are not billionaires.
While these interests and their evolving nuances have been fairly well articulated and analyzed, it seems what is lacking is a real spirit of win-win.
It appears much easier for the Katz Group to tell us what they want than it has been for the city to name its interests in this regard. If things continue along as they are, the Katz Group will remain in the driver's seat of this "negotiation." Daryl Katz has the leverage of having a clear vision. He also has the leverage of owning the beloved Oilers and being able to do with them whatever he pleases, including moving them.
The great thing about the City of Edmonton, however, is it does have a vision. It's called "The Way We Live," which has been developed over the past couple of years via numerous community consultations across Edmonton with a wide range of community leaders and residents. It is intended to be a 10-year strategic plan for our city.
This leads me to question how construction of a new arena downtown in Katz's preferred location fit into "The Way We Live" and the overall 30-year strategic plan: "The Way Ahead?"
Katz has indicated that if the city agrees to fund the project within the proposed Community Revitalization Levy model, he would sign an agreement not to move the Oilers from Edmonton. Is it possible that within the spirit of the city's vision documents a number of other "community benefit agreements" could be developed?
Community benefit agreements are not new to the public financing of facilities that are on the surface beneficial only to a narrow group of people, such as hockey fans with disposable incomes. Community benefit agreements can create a wider return on any public investment by achieving important goals developed by the city based on the needs of our citizens. Here are a few possible examples:
Within both "The Way Ahead" and "The Way We Live," the principles of economic prosperity, overall afford-ability for citizens and families and sustainability are paramount.
One of the recognizable opportunities both in the construction and operations of major facilities is the ability to raise the standard of living for all those who work there by agreeing to living wage policies and apprenticeship programs.
On the construction side, rather than relying on the old boys club tendering process, the city could insist the Katz Group work to create new apprenticeship opportunities for young people who need a leg up.
A great target group would be the youth of the Boyle Street Co-op, an inner city agency that would be displaced by the arena. By providing significant financing the city could maintain influence over the tendering and contractor agreements.
On the operations side, many employees of entertainment facilities are typically among the lowest paid in our society. There needs to be a living wage policy that ensures all facility employees, particularly concessions, security and cleaning staff, are paid enough to be able to claim some of that "economic prosperity." Living wage agreements are increasingly common within publicly financed entertainment facilities all across the U.S. and U.K.
A living wage, not to be confused with minimum wage, is most simply defined as a wage that allows a family to meet its basic needs, and provides it with some ability to deal with emergencies, and to experience some recreation without resorting to welfare or other public assistance.
So not only are there increased opportunities for young people to build prosperous futures through education and apprenticeships, you are ensuring hundreds and perhaps thousands of decent paying jobs.
In terms of sustainability, does the construction of a publicly financed arena create an opportunity to model a truly sustainable built form, which exceeds the highest degree of energy standards? Could the arena additionally create an "energy district" whereby any surplus energy from the arena be used to heat, cool and power the proposed adjacent developments?
Tying this back to the apprenticeship program, this kind of sustainable green construction is an added benefit to the skills being learned by new apprentices.
Another example of the kind of community benefit that would make public financing more palatable, would be the inclusion of a significant percentage of affordable housing within the arena district.
The city has done a lot of great work over council's past term to create strong visions and strategies for the coming decades. The construction of a new downtown arena, much like the development of the airport lands and the development of the Northeast Agricultural Area, are huge opportunities to get our city right and to create enduring marks upon our increasingly disposable civilization.
We need to move past the broken-record rants of the Canadian Tax Payers Federation and past the disorganized chatter of those who don't trust rich people or oppose everything.
We need to demand that our primary criteria for anything we do as a city, whether it be to finance a new arena or not, be about achieving the vision for sustainable communities that citizens and elected leaders have collectively called for in Edmonton's vision and strategy documents.
If the arena development is not aligned with our long-term vision as a city, then we shouldn't finance it. Yet, it behooves us to use our imaginations and search hard for opportunities to collaborate with an entity such as the Katz Group who are passionate.
Michael Walters is a local community organizer and writer. Find "The Way We Live" and "The Way Ahead" on the City of Edmonton website.