When you make a mistake, you have to admit it and you have to fix it.
Council made a series of mistakes leading up to their decision to move Sudbury’s sports arena. They made a series of mistakes in the meeting where they made the decision. And they made a decision that was simply wrong.
Council members who claimed they were doing what their constituents wanted made three additional mistakes. First, they made a sampling error by assuming that the people who phoned them represented the general population. Professional pollsters know better. People who get fired up enough to contact a councilor may be representative. They may be egged on by a dishonest PR campaign. Think about the recent American election.
Second, councilors seemed to assume that the people who lobbied them on behalf of the Kingsway site were well informed. A proper poll clearly showed that more than half thought they were getting an arena for free.
Finally, they assumed that they had asked the right question. The question that people answered was like “Would your rather jump off the Eiffel Tower or the Empire state building?” or “Would you rather have a Tesla or a Lamborghini?” In the first case the missing alternative is “neither.” In the second case the choice wouldn’t matter because the majority simply cant afford to pay for either.
The question we now have for councilors is whether they have the guts to admit their mistake and the brains to fix the mess they made.
There are many ways can back away from a bad decision. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Council can call a referendum on allocating $1500 per household to build the arena on the Kingsway site. The motion only says Kingsway is the preferred location among a number considered for a stand-alone arena. Council, having selected a preferred arena, can say to the pubic, “This is the best we can find: do you want to buy it?” The referendum would fail, and council would be forced to consider renovations to the old arena.
2) Council could simply decide that the Kingsway site now has to be compared to renovating the old arena. It was simply bad thinking to consider a new stand-alone arena downtown without looking at combining a renovated arena with the Synergy center and even the library and art gallery. Since council failed to consider this cheaper and better alternative, council would be correcting one of its biggest procedural errors.
3) Council could simply drag its feet, avoiding any commitment until the council elections next year. The next council will almost certainly want out of this deal. It isn’t hard to delay. Council simply has to say will not proceed until all the necessary re-zoning is in place and then instruct staff to fight the rezoning applications. Ultimately the rezoning application has to go to the provincial board where it can easily be held up. It can refuse to support the environmental permits.
4) Council can pass a resolution saying “Whereas the decision to put the arena on the Kingsway has always depended on having an assurance that at least a casino and a hotel at the very minimum will be co-located, Council will not commit any money until construction plans are approved and all rezoning and permits are available.” This would simply be a clarification and not a rejection of council’s decision.
Mayor Brian Biggger apparently realized how risky it is for the City to spend $100 million to build an arena in the on the basis of Robert Kirwan’s unjustifiable assertion that it will create a huge amount of new construction and tax revenue and Dario Zulich’s handful of unenforceable letters of intent. Bigger tried to amend the motion to approve the Kingsway site to include some performance guarantees and was voted down.
The majority of council clearly did not understand the economic risk for the city, even though their consultants stated clearly that “Build-out of the entire site will, however, be dependent upon economic conditions in order to support future real estate investment decisions.” The necessary economic conditions probably include a strong northern economy and a growing population in the Northeast. Neither are expected.
5) Council can simply fail to pass a budget allocation for the arena. The financing motion put to council simply reads, “”THAT the City of Greater Sudbury approves a financing plan for inclusion in the 2018 capital budget that utilizes the following funding sources: a) Contributions from senior governments where available ….”. This appears to be nothing other than a statement that council will eventually consider and approve an item to be included in the DRAFT budget for next year. Council can still amend the draft. It would not take many council members to make the approval of this item very contentious.
5) Council can ask staff to report on how much federal infrastructure money might be lost if council goes with Kingsway instead of combining arena renewal with the synergy center and downtown infrastructure upgrades as part of a new arts district. Councilor Mark Signoretti has argued that the Kingsway stand-alone is almost certainly not eligible for federal infrastructure money while an expanded downtown project is. Even just putting the question on the table will make potential investors in the Kingsway site consider other possible locations. Who could criticize council for looking for free money?
6) Council can state that it has good reason to believe that a large casino is not good for the city economically, and that it supports a moderate expansion of the slots at Sudbury Downs. As an economist it is clear to me that a casino would be bad for Sudbury, so moving the arena out of the downtown in order to encourage Gateway to build a larger casino is both a mistake economically and a morally questionable action for council.
7) Council can delay action while it conducts a market study to see how large an arena should be built on the Kingsway site. Based on the experience in other communities and the expected decline in population it is very likely that the site will attract fewer spectators. That means that the site is likely to generate lower rents than downtown, and perhaps should be smaller than currently planned. It is even possible that the required annual subsidy will be in excess of $1 million.
Some of these suggestions are a bit devious. Deviousness in the public interest may be a virtue. Council has made an economic mistake. It made a series of procedural mistakes. Some councilors did not read the consultant’s report – Robert Kirwan actually bragged that he was not elected to read reports.
In the end, the motion that passed read:
“THAT the City of Greater Sudbury selects the Kingsway location, … as the preferred location to construct the Arena/Event Centre.”
It was not preferred by the half of the council that voted for the downtown location. There is no reliable evidence that it was preferred by the majority of Sudburians. All we really know is that it was preferred by a group of developers because it would help them sell a piece of nearly worthless land. The motion that was passed is not even true.