Ottawa Senators founder says it’s too soon to celebrate arena deal

The dream for a downtown Ottawa arena has been resurrected with a new deal announced Thursday.

While some city officials are vowing this time will be different, the man who founded the Ottawa Senators cautions it’s too soon to celebrate.

Bruce Firestone said he wanted to build a home for the NHL team at LeBreton Flats 30 years ago, but was told by the then-head of the National Capital Commission (NCC) that it would never happen.

Now, just three-and-a-half years after a previous Sens-backed plan for the site fell apart amid duelling lawsuits, Firestone said he hopes those involved have learned from experience.

“When you deal with … the National Capital Commission, whose nickname by the way is the ‘No Commitment Club,’ you have to be cautious about clapping and partying and congratulating yourself on doing a deal,” he said.

The goal of seeing an arena near the city’s core has seen a lot of false starts, according to Firestone, though he said there are signs this latest plan could be the start of something new.

“I suspect it is, but the proof’s in the pudding.”

The NCC announced Thursday it had again inked an agreement that would see a new arena and mixed-use development built on roughly three hectares of LeBreton Flats alongside Albert Street and between Preston Street and City Centre Avenue.

The former working-class neighbourhood was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for federal development that never happened.

The bid from the Senators-led Capital Sports Development Inc. “checked all the boxes,” said NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum.

Ottawa Morning10:42Ottawa Senators bring new deal to Lebreton Flats

Tobi Nussbaum is the CEO of the National Capital Commission.

While plans are still being developed, the NCC said it has a goal of fall 2023 to reach a long-term land lease.

The city will also have to sign off on the plans. A timeline for the project wasn’t provided, but officials described it as both realistic and “aggressive.”

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Some Ottawa residents say they’re ready to be done with the drive to the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata in favour of a new downtown arena, while others say the money could be spent elsewhere.

That lack of details raised red flags for Moseh Lander, a sports economist and lecturer at Concordia University.

He said LeBreton Flats is the “perfect place” for an arena especially given the LRT access nearby at Bayview and Pimisi stations.

Bayview is where the Confederation Line and Trillium Line meet and will have a pedestrian connection to Gatineau when the Chief William Commanda Bridge is ready.

However, Lander pointed to the fact that a design, price tag and breakdown of who will cover what costs haven’t yet been provided and said he doesn’t seen any evidence of lessons learned from the last deal.

“This could easily drag on for another five years, seven years; I mean we could be talking in 2030 about opening night for the Sens,” said Lander. “All they’ve got at this point is that the location has been picked.”

The professor used the collapse of Calgary’s $600-million arena deal as a cautionary tale and said deals can become contentious unless there’s transparency and true partnership between all involved.

City can’t be taken hostage

Lander also said sports teams sometimes try to hold cities “hostage” by saying if they don’t fork over funding for an arena, the franchise will leave.

He warned councillors should “dig their heels in” and insist no money will go toward the project.

“From an economic standpoint I can say almost unequivocally, government money never delivers a return if it’s put into arenas and stadiums,” said Lander. ”The only thing that it does is make rich people richer.”

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Moshe Lander, a sports economist with Concordia University, says that while LeBreton Flats is an ideal location for an NHL arena, there’s still lots of work to do to avoid repeating the failures of the previous plan, which collapsed in 2018.

Somerset councillor and mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney called the arena agreement ”good news,” noting it would be just 60 metres from their home.

“This is public land, it’s being leased to the Senators, we expect a public benefit back from that and we expect that they will be able to fund that enterprise on their own,” they told CBC Radio’s All In A Day on Thursday.

One thing that is different compared to the deal that fell apart in 2018 is that this parcel of land is much smaller, something McKenney and others said makes it much more manageable than dealing with the entire site.

“It’s the difference between pushing a boulder straight up a cliff and carrying a bunch of rocks up in your pocket one at a time,” they said.

Mayor Jim Watson also supports the plan.

“We were very excited when the first proposal came and then really disappointed when it fell apart. Now we’re back up and I think we’ve got a winner here.”

This June 2022 rendering of a planned arena for the Ottawa Senators at LeBreton Flats is subject to change. (Capital Sports Development Inc.)

A chance to right a ‘historical wrong’

Firestone also referenced that difference, though he said the fact the Senators’ current home in Kanata included an entire development was a positive.

“I don’t have to tell you how important ancillary revenues are,” said Firestone, who said businesses, sports medicine clinics and land sales helped cover costs for the Canadian Tire Centre.

That arena was built for about $240 million in what was then its own city, said the founder. Both he and Lander estimated a new one will cost about $1 billion.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who Mayor Jim Watson had described as being difficult to deal with during past arena negotiations, died in March.

Firestone said Melnyk’s hand is still behind the effort to relocate to the city centre and his daughters Anna and Olivia want to rebuild the team’s relationship with the community and fans.

The man who founded the Senators said he wants to see them play downtown, too.

“It really will right, in my opinion, a historical wrong.”

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