In response to today's RTH blog entry on the myth of the inaccessible West Harbour stadium, a dispirited commenter asked, "Why is this still being discussed?" The context of the question was the writer's belief that a stadium will probably not be built in Hamilton without the Ticats as tenants. I started to write a response but my comment grew into a full essay so I'm posting it here.
This is still being discussed because the issue is still in play. Bob Young and company have been threatening since mid-July that the Province and the Feds won't fund a stadium unless the Ticats commit to playing there, but the Province and the Feds have indicated differently.
Liberal MPP Ted McMeekin confirmed this in an email in which he wrote, "The Province is committed to a Pan Am stadium for Hamilton and will support whatever decision the City Council, in its infinite wisdom, finally makes." Liberal MPP Sofia Aggelonitis reconfirmed this in a later email in which she wrote, "For our part, we've tried to be clear that the province is committed to help fund a stadium for the Pan Am Games, that we want this stadium to be in Hamilton, and that we will support the outcome of the site location process currently in place."
More recently, after a bizarre claim emerged that the Federal government would only fund an East Mountain stadium, Ottawa also confirmed that "Federal funding is not contingent upon the location of the stadium."
Of course it's Hamilton Tiger-Cat owner Bob Young's right to seek whatever arrangements he believes best serve his interests; but it's also the City of Hamilton's right - indeed, its most basic responsibility - to ensure that a public outlay of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars be so conceived as to serve the broadest public interest.
I'm firmly of the opinion that the best choice of stadium location for the City can also be the best choice of stadium location for the Ticats. Young, Ticat president Scott Mitchell and their supporters insist that the West Harbour cannot work for them - and Mitchell flat-out stated that the team will "never" play there - but nearly a month after Young promised to release his business analysis proving the West Harbour cannot work, we're still waiting to see that study.
The studies we have seen conclude that the West Harbour is accessible by multiple transportation modes and multiple lanes of traffic from several directions, has plenty of parking, and can form part of a larger strategy to revitalize the waterfront; whereas the East Mountain would be tens of millions of dollars more expensive for the city and would produce far less public benefit.
Ultimately, the Ticats made a big gamble by categorically refusing to accept the West Harbour (after previously agreeing to play in whatever location the city chose) and by warning that a vote against the East Mountain was really a vote against any Pan Am stadium at all.
They gambled that the City - and even the Provincial and Federal governments - would be so afraid of alienating a sports franchise that they would capitulate to the most outrageous terms to build a facility at massive public expense that was designed specifically to cater to the most narrow private interest.
It was actually a pretty reasonable gamble. Wealthy sports team owners are accustomed to getting their way with governments and securing concessions that in any other context would be considered downright extortionary. Certainly they went into their endgame confident that Pan Am HostCo and the government would back them up. Young warned the nascent Our City, Our Future campaign: "If you win you will commit Council to a path that will ensure nothing gets built anywhere in Hamilton for the Pan Am games."
But something happened that the Ticats didn't expect: a massive upwelling of intense, broad citizen engagement on a scale few Hamiltonians have ever seen before. Our City, Our Future managed to focus the passion - the anger, the hopefulness, the determination - of literally thousands of citizens no longer willing to sit by and watch our city governed by fear and intimidation.
After the Province indicated that it was listening to the campaign and would support Council's stadium decision - thus undercutting Young's threat - the team apparently turned to the Federal government, hoping to pull the plug at that level. It took less than 24 hours for the Feds to "clarify" their position and get behind the Province in agreeing to support the City's decision.
When the Ticats realized just before the vote that their bullying and intimidation hadn't worked, they chose to withdraw altogether from discussions with the city rather than soften their position on the West Harbour. Now they and their apologists are trying to discredit and heap ridicule on the brave Councillors who stood firm against the threats and reaffirmed their commitment to the public interest.
While major city mayors and national press editorials applaud Council for standing up to the incredible pressure brought to bear against it, detractors would have us believe that Hamilton is somehow a laughing-stock.
It's deeply unfortunate that Young and the Ticats remain so committed to their course that they would rather HostCo deny stadium funding to Hamilton altogether than try to work with the city to find ways to be profitable at the West Harbour.
It's not like there's a shortage of ideas beyond make them all drive and charge them to park. Progressive cities around the world have thriving sports franchises in downtown stadiums that form part of the fabric of city life.
But the Ticats bet the farm on getting their own way with the East Mountain location and have left themselves no way to back down from that position without losing face. Even so, the city, the fans, and the supporters of a progressive stadium legacy remain prepared to sit down with the Ticats and make this work.
Perhaps the most amazing factor in this whole affair has been how positive and respectful, by and large, the Our City, Our Future campaign has remained, despite the increasingly desperate tactics of the Ticats and the increasingly meanspirited interjections of a few of their supporters.
On August 11, the day after the Committee of the Whole vote that decisively reaffirmed the West Harbour, an RTH reader wrote a moving comment, which read in part:
We may believe that Bob Young was misinformed about the EM. Let's prove him wrong in the most positive and supportive way, because we all know how much he has put into this city and how much he has lost doing so.
The comment was strongly upvoted and led to some constructive follow-up discussion. It also turned up yesterday in Paul Wilson's Street Beat column in the Hamilton Spectator, sadly unavailable on the newspaper's website.
Reading this on my phone on the path leading to the camp bathroom in Gatineau (there was a 200 metre stretch by the water where I got a couple of bars of 3G signal), I actually felt tears coming. In a flash I understood: This is a campaign built on love and optimism, not fear and cynicism.
When we chose the "Our City, Our Future" campaign title, I liked it because it sounded catchy and evoked the hopeful community engagement that energized it. It wasn't until I was following the late stages of the campaign intermittently from seven hours away that I came to appreciate just how prescient the name was.
Against the threats, bullying, back-channel dealing and desperate rationalizing of the narrow interests opposing the West Harbour, the open, public, broad movement to reaffirm the choice of a full community has only grown more positive, more focused and determined. In several years of observing and participating in civic affairs in Hamilton, I've never seen anything like it.
What a shame that the Ticats still can't see their way to becoming a part of something this exciting.
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