How the debate over Sudbury’s new hockey rink turned into a culture war

OPINION: Sudbury’s decision to build its OHL arena on the outskirts instead of downtown offers a microcosmic look at the urban-rural divide that plagues Ontario cities
By David Robinson - Published on July 12, 2017
Sudbury community centre
Sudbury will not rebuild its 65-year-old OHL arena downtown, which could potentially undo years of work revitalizing the city’s core. (Sean Marshall/Creative Commons)

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The question seemed straightforward enough: Where should Sudbury’s new OHL arena go? Yet it spurred a debate that turned into an all-out culture war over the future of the city, with urbanites on one side and suburban and rural residents on the other.

For planners and consultants, the obvious answer was to rebuild the Sudbury Wolves’ new home downtown, where the original arena stood for 65 years. The idea was to drive urban growth as part of the city’s transformation from a nondescript mining town to a would-be global centre for mining research and education.

But developer Dario Zulich proposed a different solution: make the arena part of a regional entertainment complex on his property, in the east end of the Sudbury. Add a new casino, a hotel, and a motorsport park. Call it the True North Strong Event Centre. Draw guests from all over northeastern Ontario, and create a bunch of new jobs.

Polls showed majority support for Zulich’s plan, even though the economics of it were shaky. Most respondents also believed Zulich was giving them an arena for free; only a minority were willing to pay higher property taxes for a new facility.

More than half of Sudbury residents live on just 3 per cent of the city’s land, an area similar in size and density to the GTA suburb of Pickering. The rest share an area larger than any other city in Ontario — covering more than 3,000 square kilometres. Many of these residents harbour strong anti-urban biases. One Facebook user wrote, “Downtowns are for hippies and there's not too many of them left.” Others described the urban streets as ugly, dangerous, and rife with drugs and prostitution. 

Zulich’s car-centric proposal appealed to suburban and rural conservatives anxious about perceived social decay. It offered a throwback to decades past, but with a side of Las Vegas flash. Hostility from the right on social media rattled Sudbury’s more liberal activists and revealed deep ideological divisions among residents.


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Those divisions grew wider during discussions about access to the new arena. Parking has long been a local obsession (in the 1940s, for example, Sudbury became the first city in Canada to install parking meters), and when council hired consultants to help choose a site for the new arena, it was of primary concern. On Facebook, many users complained vehemently about the proposed downtown location's lack of parking.

But although the consultants concluded that parking would not be an issue, and that access was much better downtown than on the city’s fringes, car-dependent suburban and rural residents remained stubbornly skeptical. (Eventually, Sudbury council supported Zulich’s proposal, if only by a hair.)

It makes sense: you are what you can do, and if you live in a suburban or rural area, most of what you do exists at the end of a road or on the edge of a parking lot. This divide, between drivers and non-driving downtowners, is a big problem in many Canadian cities. It got Rob Ford elected mayor in Toronto. It explains why Premier Kathleen Wynne chickened out on road tolls. And it’s at the heart of Sudbury’s current culture war.

People on both sides of the debate love their city. Zulich really believes his plan will create jobs, turn Sudbury into a tourist magnet, and help promote the arts. The Sudbury Downtown BIA and the Chamber of Commerce really believe building the arena outside the downtown core will undo 20 years of rebuilding work and cause an economic downswing. Which side is right remains to be seen.

David Robinson is a professor of economics at Laurentian University.

Photo courtesy of Sean Marshall and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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