The new Winnipeg arena

So many questions, so few answers
May 16, 2001

As far as I can figure it, our governments think Winnipeg is a city full of birds, who all fly together and are easily distracted by bright, shiny things.

They are counting on something like that happening with the new arena. Everyone mesmerized by a shiny new toy on Portage Avenue ("... oooooh, look, it's like the Northern Lights projected onto a cheesy glass building ..."). Too entranced to ask any questions.

Questions like, why this, why now? Why spend the money? Of all the challenges the city faces, of all the battles that need to be fought, why this one?

Part of the answer, as it always is with the Doer government, is cold political calculation.

Gary Doer heard a ghostly voice that said, "If you build it, you will get to cut the ribbon just months before you go to the polls." And so build it they will.

The other part of the answer is just a failure of imagination. The downtown's biggest building is empty, and the important work of renewing the area is far from simple.

Rather than asking the public what should be done, the province fell back on doing what governments always do -- hold a year's worth of meetings behind closed doors with rich men in suits.

They emerged, made an announcement, and fired up the bandwagon.

Did the public get a good deal? Well, it sounds like it's better than it could have been. But we have not yet seen the numbers.

City council does not have nearly enough time to make an informed decision -- and Councilors fear getting run over if they don't jump on the bandwagon.

It all smells pretty bad.

While $125 million sounds like a lot of money, that's cheap for an arena like this one. So cost overruns are likely, and they can't be absorbed by cutting back somewhere else.

We've been told the private owners will be on the hook for overruns, but as soon as construction starts, they've got the big stick they need to get more public money. After all, no government wants to end up with half an arena.

Remember last time around with the arena debate, when we were told that a new arena offered enough economic spin-offs to send the economy over the moon? Notice that's not happening this time?

That's because everyone now acknowledges that an arena is no economic magic bullet.

All the evidence shows that a new arena will not generate new economic activity in a city. The best it can do is support nearby businesses -- maybe.

So what kind of businesses will be supported under the new plan? The government very proudly announced that the new building will also include a sports bar and -- get this -- fast food restaurants.

Just what the downtown needs. For those of you who feel that the nearby food courts in Winnipeg Square, Portage Place, and Eaton Place are not enough -- your prayers have been answered!

There are other, less important, questions.

For example: after the naming rights are sold, what kind of stupid corporate name will it end up with? The Burger King Centre? The Ti-D-Bowl Bowl? Or, since Izzy's ego requires him to splash his name around as much as possible, the Asper Arena?

So many questions. So few answers.