New arena for St. Catharines: Missing piece of the puzzle or unaffordable luxury?

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by Peter Conradi, Bullet News,


John Bragagnolo acknowledges a new arena in St. Catharines would be good for business. His business, to be specific.

As general manager of the Pen Centre, he says the project would be counted on to bring more people into the city and region. And what do visitors like to do when they come to a new place? They shop.

But Bragagnolo insists that’s only part of the equation. He says his involvement as founder of the New Garden City Complex Advocacy Committee is more about getting behind a project ‘that makes a lot of sense’ than anything else. Business is business, he says, but so too is community building.

“It is the missing piece in what I would call the Renaissance of St. Catharines,” Bragagnolo says. “St. Catharines has a history of saying we can’t do this or that, and that has translated into a lot of lost opportunities.

“This would be one last step in the many positive steps we have been taking: the new pool, the Brock centre for the performing arts downtown, the parking garage, the new hospital. I think is the last piece of the puzzle that make people will look back at this time no differently than they way we look back at the mayor and council (in the 1930s) making a decision to build an arena in the middle of a depression. They showed foresight and courage. Now we have to do the same. We are talking about the future of our community here.”

Back in May St. Catharines council approved in principle building a facility to replace historic Jack Gatecliff Arena, current home to the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs. Since then, politicians have been inching along in what it calls a due-diligence process, arguing about costs, size, location and referendums. One important step was the hiring of SMG from Pennsylvania, a management company with lots of experience building and running similar venues.

SMG is to provide advice on what to build and how much it will probably cost. Estimates are anywhere from $40-56 million, although some have said a 5,000-seat centre the type of which council seems to be eyeing won’t come in for much under $70 million.


That will all be determined at a meeting later this month or early December when council will actually decide whether to proceed with the building. In the meantime, as that vote gets closer, groups like Bragagnolo’s are continuing to beat the drum for the facility, meeting with jittery councillors and providing information to worried taxpayers.

“It’s a lot of money,” says Bragagnolo. “We can’t deny that. But there are costs to doing nothing, too. Our approach is that we can’t afford not to do this. It’s wrongly portrayed in some circles as a hockey arena, or a puck palace. It’s not. It’s a multi-use facility for sports, arts, culture and entertainment that will be an economic driver for all of Niagara.

“Yes, the IceDogs will be an important part of that. We are lucky we have them as an anchor tenant. We couldn’t even consider this without that anchor tenant. We wouldn’t have the Pen Centre without anchor tenants.

“The prospect of replacing the Gatecliff Arena has been on the city’s radar for 30 years. It’s time to stop talking and get it done; because the opportunity erodes the longer we wait. If we don’t do this now the IceDogs will leave, and then there won’t be a reason to build. It will be another opportunity lost.”

Mayor Brian McMullan has been a consistent defender of the new arena. He points out that council indentified it as its top priority during a planning session last February, and that a task force has been studying the proposal since 2008.

“We aren’t moving hastily. We are doing this in a fiscally responsible manner,” McMullan said, admitting that he remains a proponent of moving forward. “We have committed to the IceDogs to have an answer to them by the end of the year on where we are with this.”

Currently, the IceDogs are leasing the aging Gatecliff Arena, opened in 1938, for $2 a year, but IceDogs owner Bill Burke said he will sign 20-year-lease with the city that would see him pay $10,000 a game, or close to $400,000 a year, in a new arena.

“There are a lot of questions we still have to answer, but I am hopeful we can overcome the obstacles. Everyone agrees the Gatecliff Arena is too old and too small for an OHL team to continue to play there. We just have to find a way to get this done.”

But how? That continues to be the concern of opponents who argue the new arena is too expensive and an unnecessary luxury in hard economic times. Oshawa has a 5,400-seat arena with 27 luxury boxes, the General Motors Centre, that opened in 2006. It is owned by the city and managed by Global Spectrum, a division of the company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers NHL hockey team. Sources said six months ago it would cost at least $65 million to replicate the Oshawa building in St. Catharines. Numbers like those scare people in a city with one of the highest unemployment numbers in the country.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be the same facility as they have in Oshawa, but would be one that meets our community needs,” McMullan said. “There is a lot of work to do. Ultimately it will be a decision made by council.”

The city’s task force is still hopeful a big chunk of the cash, 25 per cent or about $10.6 million, will come from P3 Canada. That’s a $1.2 billion program the federal government has set up to foster the development of public-private partnerships on infrastructure projects. To qualify for such funding, the city will have to come up with an acceptable private-sector partner.

The PPP Canada website does mention sports facilities as being potentially eligible, as long as they are not being used primarily by professional athletes.

A staff report suggests the rest of the money could come from the civic project fund, which currently holds $37.8 million from the merger of St. Catharines and Hamilton hydro companies. McMullan said the city is also hoping to generate $5 million from local fundraising and $1 million from the federal gas tax allowance. The city plans to borrow about $6 million.

Coun. Greg Washuta and Coun. Bruce Williamson have consistently voted and spoke against the new arena. Neither sits on the arena task force or advocacy committee. They could not be reached for comment.

The task force is comprised of St. Catharines councillors Jeff Burch, Dawn Dodge, Bill Philips, Mathew Siscoe and Peter Secord. Others on the committee are former St. Catharines Stompers baseball team general manager John Belford, Bill and Denise Burke, owners of the IceDogs, Steve Cook from the St. Catharines-Thorold Chamber of Commerce, Pat Darte, Wayne Gates from the CAW and also a member of Niagara Falls council, Dave Howes, owner of Lincoln Fabrics, Barry Katzman, president of Mike Weir Winery, Garry Lariviere from the St. Catharines Falcons junior B hockey team, Kevin Legros of the Local Sports Report, Mike Mays, Angelo Nitsopoulos from the Quality Parkway Convention Centre, Andy Panko from Brownfields Associated, Jim Richardson, and Mick Wolfe from Meridian Credit Union.

The New Garden City Complex Advocacy Committee says it is separate from the city, although several of its members also have seats on the task force. The advocacy group, in addition to Bragagnolo, includes Legros, Jan Cook and Steve Cook of Credit Bureau Services Canada, Archie Katzman from the St. Catharines Club, Rick Woodward marketing director at the Pen Centre, Alex Digenis, owner of Henley Honda, and Bill Burke.

“I’m really passionate about this,” says Bragagnolo, adding neither he nor the company he works for have any financial stake in the IceDogs. “I keep coming back to this as a discussion about the type of place I want to live in. That’s what is at stake here. The Gatecliff Arena has served us well. Now it’s time to build something that will do the same thing for future generations.”


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