Council needed to be prepared to walk away from a bad stadium deal. That they weren't prepared to do this is why we look like such fools today.
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 21, 2010
Say what you want about the Pan Am / Hamilton Tiger-Cats stadium site selection process (and most of the complaints I've heard about it amount to: the process is bad because site X was rejected!) - compared to the current fiasco over the CP Rail Yard site, the site that was originally chosen, affirmed and reaffirmed by Council is holding up pretty damned well.
In the poor, much-maligned West Harbour, we know exactly how much the land acquisition costs - we've already paid it. We know how much the environmental remediation will cost. We know how much construction will cost. We even know that a number of third-party businesses were interested in investing in and around the stadium. Indeed, the West Harbour area is shaping up to be a promising location for new investment.
We spent years putting the West Harbour together, doing our due diligence, conducting studies on accessibility, traffic implications and economic impacts, and setting the proposal up for success.
Now compare our increasingly frantic lurches among the string of increasingly harebrained last-minute compromise sites as we try to throw something together.
As recently as yesterday, Mayor Bob Bratina is still tossing around Confederation Park as the site that should have been - a position, in fairness, that a number of Hamiltonians share.
There's some lingering uncertainty over the extent to which the Ticats were included in the process that led to the West Harbour. Former Mayor Fred Eisenberger insisted that the Ticats were at the table the entire time, that there was never any question which direction the city was moving, that the Ticats had ample opportunity to kibosh the proposal before it went to press.
The Ticats, on the other hand, insist that they privately raised objections about the West Harbour, that the City ignored them, and that they only went public when it became clear to them that the City was going to plow ahead regardless. Owner Bob Young believes he negotiated with the city in good faith.
Early this year, the Spectator quoted Ticat owner Bob Young saying, "We will make it work, whatever the site." Young later claimed that his statement was taken out of context and that he had really said something along the lines of, "we will make a variety of sites work as long as they they have the attributes necessary for a successful stadium."
Young said during the summer that he would share the team's economic studies showing that the West Harbour did not have those attributes. Instead, we heard a lot of FUD, easily debunked, about how the West Harbour had a shortage of parking and was somehow inaccessible because it wasn't right on a highway.
Councillor Brian McHattie asked Chris Murray and Rob Rossini point blank whether the City had seen the Ticats' studies: "Have they actually opened their books and demonstrated why this doesn't work for us? The only reason we're moving away from the West Harbour is the ticats don't want to go there."
Murray and Rossini punted. "The Ticats shared with us a critique of the West harbour site showing in their opinion why that site does not work for them. The original assumptions in the business case would have to change significantly to let them turn a profit."
To this day, the Ticats still have not produced an actual economic study demonstrating why the West Harbour cannot work.
I've maintained that the Ticats are mistaken in their opposition to a downtown stadium more than a stone's throw from the highway: that they're reasoning from an obsolete set of assumptions about what will make a stadium successful.
Indeed, the main problem with the West Harbour, from the Ticats' perspective, is that it has the potential to provide real public benefits in the form of increased economic vitality in the area around the stadium.
For a team that loses money on its main product and hopes to make up the difference selling ancillary concessions, their best bet is to locate the stadium at a site remote and isolated enough to prevent anyone else from benefiting. That way, they can mop up all the spinoff revenues themselves.
They decided they could do better than the West Harbour and gambled on a tough game of Chicken with the City, safe in their assumption that Council would quickly lose its nerve.
Proposed East Mountain stadium location
The Ticats dangled a bit of money, and our Councillors fell over themselves to throw out the West Harbour and direct staff to investigate the East Mountain.
What the Ticats never counted on was the groundswell of outrage that greeted Council's decision. Thousands - literally thousands - of citizens spoke up with passion and optimism in support of a more visionary approach that would put city building first. Council was inundated with calls, emails, and letters from citizens looking for real leadership.
Support came from across the city and a variety of stakeholders, including: the Jobs Prosperity Collaborative to the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, the Hamilton Economic Summit, medical doctors, urban revitalization experts, the Downtown BIA, architects and designers, McMaster University students, the Globe and Mail, other city mayors, and the Future Fund board of Governors. (Predictably, the Chamber of Commerce punted.)
CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon penned a threatening letter warning that it would be "the end of the CFL in Hamilton" if Council didn't give the Ticats their East Mountain stadium.
At one point, the Province announced that the Feds would only fund an East Mountain stadium, only to have the Feds retract the claim that a day later and reaffirm that their funding was not contingent on a particular site - all during a very well-attended public rally for the West Harbour.
It later transpired that on the day the Province said Ottawa would only fund an East Mountain stadium, someone from Premier Dalton McGuinty's office called Mayor Eisenberger and offered the City some kind of West Harbour development money in exchange for Council picking the East Mountain. Eisenberger asked for more details, but then the Feds reversed position and the Province never followed up.
(This issue came up again when someone leaked the story to mayoral candidate Larry Di Ianni, who was running against Eisenberger. Di Ianni accused Eisenberger of covering up the Province's offer so that it would not influence Council's decision. Eisenberger retorted that there never was a firm offer from the Province, only a trial balloon that went nowhere.)
This outpouring of support from a broad spectrum of citizens and stakeholders across the city helped Council discover their backbone. When staff reported back what everyone already knew - that the East Mountain was more expensive, produced limited economic spinoff and diverted funds from more promising sites - Council managed to reaffirm, again, their support for the West Harbour.
It was a rare, truly optimistic moment in Hamilton's political history.
It didn't take long for the Ticats' supporters to start undermining Council's decision and chipping away at their resolve. The citizens who had participated in the Our City, Our Future campaign - an intense public engagement that lasted over a month and was sustained entirely by volunteers - sat back after the August 12 Council vote, assuming that the decision was made and the campaign was over.
Between endless potshots from CHML 900, "the Voice of the Ticats", political pressure from some well-connected Ticat supporters and the loudly expressed fears of fans that they might lose their beloved football team, Council started backpedaling furiously from their own decision.
This, incidentally, is a recurring pattern in Hamilton. Once the political pressure drops off our Councillors, the voices of the detractors, squelchers and exceptionalists take over and Council reverts to an uninspired status quo of fearful pandering.
In the case of the Pan Am stadium, Council's resolve dissolved over the rest of August, and it wasn't long before the City Manager was pulled off his normal duties and dedicated to finding some site - any site - that the Ticats would find acceptable. After such an impressive show of principle, Council went back to being desperate to close a deal with the Ticats at any cost.
That stink of desperation puts the City in a terrible bargaining position, which CP has exploited by boosting its asking price for the Rail Yard at Aberdeen and Longwood by tens of millions of dollars.
Consider CP's position: they're not the ones trying to sell the land. They have paying tenants and the facility itself is in active use. I'm sure their thinking, and I have a hard time finding fault with it, is: If you want this land badly enough, you're going to have to make us an offer we can't refuse.
Of course, the only reason we're at the CP Lands at all - and in a weak bargaining position, to boot - is that Council folded like a TV table when the Ticats threatened to pick up their toys and leave.
Council should have told - and indeed, still should tell - the Ticats: We went through a long, detailed process and selected the site that best meets our city-building objectives. If you want a new stadium in Hamilton, you'll find a way to make this site work.
That is, our Council needed to be prepared to walk away from a bad deal. That they weren't prepared to do this is why we look like such fools today.
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