Sudbury at a crossroads: build downtown or build outwards?

Sudbury politics has been seized by a debate over where to build a new sports arena. All sides agree the outcome will shape the Nickel City for decades to come
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 23, 2017
Sudbury Community Arena
The fate of Sudbury's sports arena has become a proxy for much bigger questions about the city's future. (Sean Marshall/Creative Commons)

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The biggest city in northern Ontario has a decision to make next week, and while it may seem like a routine planning matter, the stakes are substantial.

“There’s a small chance this ends in a tie,” says Jeff MacIntyre, chair of the Downtown Sudbury Business Improvement Association. “This” is the question of where the city should build a new arena for the Sudbury Wolves, the local OHL hockey team.

It has also become an argument over what kind of city Sudbury wants to be in the future, and how to achieve that: focus on a more densely built, amenity-rich downtown that can attract younger, white-collar talent to complement its industrial base, or continue to spread further outside of the core, with more traditional, car-focused development.

City council will vote on Tuesday, and it’s far from clear what councillors will decide. As MacIntyre says, a tie is possible, a narrow win by either side is plausible, and some observers have suggested the issue could even go to a referendum.

The Sudbury Community Arena was built in 1951, and, notwithstanding renovations in 2007, the city is looking to replace it. The two leading contenders are a site downtown, close to the existing arena, and another one further out in the city’s southeast, on the Kingsway closer to the Trans-Canada Highway. True North Strong, the company behind the Kingsway site, is owned by local developer Dario Zulich, who also owns the Wolves. Zulich’s proposal includes not just building the arena but a convention centre and casino, and comes with a signed letter of intent from Gateway Casinos, the company that won the rights to build a new casino in the area.

The two sites are less than 10 kilometres apart, but the decision about where to put a relatively modest sports facility has become a heated proxy for that larger battle about Sudbury’s future. Each side accuses the other of trying to defend a status quo.

Proponents of the True North Strong site argue that the choice to build outside of the downtown core simply recognizes the reality of where Sudbury has grown and continues to grow. “We’ve got a location that’s close to the fastest-growing commercial and retail space in northern Ontario,” says Andrew Dale, vice-president of marketing and development for the Sudbury Wolves (and a partner in True North Strong). “The reality is the workforce isn’t downtown, the workforce is spread out. They live outside of the urban core.”

For McIntyre and other advocates of the downtown site, that’s exactly the problem: Sudbury has spent its entire modern history sprawling ever-outward, and more of the same will just get … more of the same: more sprawl, more expensive and more extensive infrastructure, but not the kind of city centre they think will better withstand the changing economy. The City of Greater Sudbury, amalgamated by the province in 2001, has an area five times that of also-amalgamated Toronto, with a population of just over 160,000 (compared to Toronto’s 2.6 million).

“From a downtown perspective, Sudbury has a massive opportunity. We’ve got a lot of creative businesses downtown, and even in the mining sector there’s a growing white-collar workforce,” says MacIntyre. “The people who want those jobs — the young, millennial, digital work force that’s necessary for Sudbury to be a leading industrial city of the future — is attracted to a strong downtown.

“There’s not a lot of places in the world that have a vibrant urban environment and a heavy industrial sector. There’s an advantage that exists in Sudbury that doesn’t exist elsewhere, and if we make the investment to bring those people to our city, we have the chance to be a global player,” he adds.

Advocates for the downtown site were buoyed this week, as consulting firm PwC, which the city had commissioned to screen four possible sites, endorsed the downtown option for its potential to help develop the economy. The city’s chamber of commerce has also back the downtown site, for the same reason.

The report is by no means a slam dunk, though: PwC awarded True North Strong top marks on cost and parking availability, two factors that may carry the day at council.

On Thursday, True North Strong owner Zulich held a press conference which added another wrinkle: He announced that if the city chooses his Kingsway site, it would be possible to retrofit the current arena as a downtown music and performance space. Instead of a debate between downtown or the Kingsway, Zulich says, the city can make both spaces better (though he did acknowledge that the music space is still in the “dream stage,” and hasn’t been costed — nor has anyone specified who would pay for it).

MacIntyre, for his part, says the addition of the music space makes his argument for him: if downtown is the right space for a live music venue, why isn’t it also right for the arena?

The debate has been intense, and occasionally personal. Former mayor Jim Gordon told the Sudbury Star  the city was being “railroaded” into choosing the True North site, and critics have said a recent agreement with the city to let Zulich run the existing, money-losing arena is a sign that council is setting the stage to simply rubber-stamp his plans.

Zulich strenuously denied any underhanded intentions at his press conference on Thursday, saying everything he’s trying to do is for the good of the city.

But the debate has also highlighted the divisions that exist in cities across Ontario.

“For many of the people in the suburbs, they may depend on the core city for employment but they really dislike the central city. They see it as ripping them off,” says David Robinson, an economist at Laurentian University. “There’s a great deal of hostility to the central city, and that’s coming out in remarks about how much people hate the downtown, how ugly it is, how there’s no parking.

“There’s a whole culture war going on here, and one of the thing that’s at stake is undermining the central city instead of building it up.”

Robinson calls Zulich a friend and says his proposal is “visionary,” but nevertheless prefers the downtown site, both for its potential as a magnet for white collar workers and to attract more students to Laurentian — which has added thousands of jobs and people to the city.

One way or another, Robinson says, the city is driving into an economic headwind. Northern Ontario is projected to see its population shrink over the next 20 years, and there’s a limit to what an arena can do to stem the tide, no matter where it’s built.

Which isn’t to say that Robinson thinks the current debate is a sideshow, or unimportant.

“The arena isn’t a big deal for white collar workers or university students. Frankly, they don’t go out to hockey games that often. But they’re less likely to go if they have to drive across town to do it,” Robinson says. “I’m not sure that we can actually hold the city up or expand it on those two markets, but I do know that if we don’t do this properly, you can fall down pretty quickly.”

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

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