Funding sports venues

Using public money to fund a professional sports stadium or arena invariably incites great passion either for or against.

In the past, Winnipeg has endured countless years of debate on publicly-funded sports facilities. For example, prior to the Winnipeg Jets’ departure in 1996 for balmy Phoenix, a new arena was seen as the only way to keep the team in town. 

Thousands of Manitoba children emptied their piggy banks to keep the Jets and former CJOB radio talk show host Peter Warren toured the city on a “Save Our Jets” float, trying to solicit contributions to purchase the team and build a new arena. (Jets owner Barry Shenkarow’s asking price for the team was $110 million.) The senior levels of government were asked by the local business group Manitoba Entertainment Complex to ante up $37 million each, as was the city. Facing an election and a public that viewed saving the Jets as a cause worth fighting for, then Premier Gary Filmon committed $10 million in provincial funds to appease voters — he won a majority — and then announced the government was on-side for the entire $37 million. Noting the rising groundswell of support for the Jets in Winnipeg, the city also promised to kick in its share. Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government was less committed, keeping a tight fist on taxpayers’ money.

More vocally than any other dissenting group, Thin Ice opposed using public funds for a new arena. Thin Ice stuck to its message, although it felt marginalized by the media which fanned the flames of support for the Jets.

Problems also arose when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seemed to periodically change the rules of the game. Shenkarow felt trapped into selling the team locally when the commissioner announced a fee of $15 million if the team was moved. 

On May 12, 1995, when Shenkarow set a deadline for raising a $60-million down payment, MEC approached the public for a hand-out. CJOB announced its “Operation Grassroots” campaign to raise the money that was also supported by the Free Press and Sun.

There was no room for argument. Jennifer Beever, in an article for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, wrote that local reporters admitted they had lost their perspective when reporting on the campaign. But they still had little impact on the eventual outcome, which had essentially already been decided. Even 35,000 avid supporters appearing at The Forks could not stem the tide and prevent the relocation of the Jets.

In the end, MEC said it was $28 million short of its goal, although the federal government did finally come on-board for $20 million, this despite having raised $62 million from local businesses and a further $13 million from the public.

Shenkarow then said he would sell the Jets to Minnesota and MEC, renamed Spirit of Manitoba, said they were prepared to make a counteroffer. But the fans were tapped out and the media began to suspect that the renamed group was unable to deliver on earlier promises of major corporate contributions. It also didn’t help that Shenkarow and the group were constantly at each other’s throats.

It wasn’t pretty and it was a lost cause — the Jets were eventually sold, not to Minnesota, but to Phoenix.

For a few months in 1995, passions on both sides of the issue were inflamed to the point of potentially igniting a major conflagration. The province became a no-holds-barred battleground that pitted citizen against citizen. It was ugly and it was intense.

Fast forward a few years and the fight for a new arena was more staid. Manitobans had vented all their anger in the previous conflict and were prepared to listen quietly to both sides of the issue. Even those who said the former Eaton’s building was structurally unsound and not worth saving, listened intently to arguments in favour of keeping the building as a heritage site. Passions were still stirred up, but all debates occurred in a civilized manner. The media again supported a new arena, but its reporting was more balanced, giving equal time to both sides of the debate. 

It also helped that Mark Chipman and his group had a good business plan and were willing to compromise when  designing their arena. They  incorporated red bricks from the old store, original store windows and a Tyndall stone surround mounted in the arena concourse housing a collection of Eaton’s memorabilia.

A comprehensive business plan was lacking in the previous arena go-around — the short timeframe was a major factor in prohibiting adequate preparation — and this eventually had a disastrous effect on the Save Our Jets campaign, causing it to lose steam; ironically, at the height of its popularity.

All levels of government had also learned a lesson. As Premier Gary Doer said, when commenting on the recent David Asper proposal for a new $145-million stadium/retail development, no figure is cut in stone and the province will negotiate any future stadium deal as it did when helping to build the $133.5-million MTS Centre. The  three levels of government ended up committing around $37 million towards the cost of the arena complex. CanWest Global Park, the home of Goldeyes baseball, was built with just $1.5 million each from the province and Ottawa, and roughly $400,000 from the city.

The government contributions toward the ballpark and arena were significantly smaller percentages of total construction costs than what Asper is proposing — $40 million each from the province and Ottawa, and the city contributing the land at Polo Park. 

Asper will kick in $40 million of his own money for the stadium and $25 million for retail development.

It should also be noted that Asper’s plan is potentially one of many, since the Bomber board is expected to release its own new stadium feasibility study in the coming weeks.

What past experience has clearly shown is that a strong business plan coupled with  strong vision can result in new state-of-the-art facilities being built in Winnipeg. CanWest Global Park and the MTS Centre are the “good news” examples that need to be followed when debating the pros and cons of a new stadium.