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Markham arena deal gets messy as NHL looks on

Artist's rendition of the proposed

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Artist's rendition of the proposed "GTA Centre." (BBB Architects)

My guess is that a 20,000-seat arena will be built in suburban Toronto and at some point it will attract either an existing or expansion NHL franchise to the world’s most underserviced hockey market. But what we’re seeing now in this whole process is the nasty side of local politics. And until that gets cleaned up, the thought of Toronto getting a second NHL team will be a pipe dream.

Anyone who thinks the NHL hasn’t been keeping close track of the goings-on in the Toronto suburb of Markham is kidding himself. The league knows it will need a landing place for troubled teams or expansion options in the future. And when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sees what has been happening there lately, you know he can’t be pleased.

The main problem at the moment is municipal politics can often be about as straightforward as the salary tagging rule in the CBA and about as pleasant as a George Parros punch in the face. And things couldn’t be much more convoluted or nasty as they are right about now.

As first reported by thn.com on Saturday, former Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett was invited to speak to local politicians on Sunday about the current proposal to build a $325 million arena, which would be funded by a loan by the city of Markham. Half of that would be paid back over 20 years by a group headed by former Bauer chairman Graeme Roustan and the other half would be raised in levies on developers and through a ticket surcharge and parking. Those working on the deal maintain that property taxes would not be raised because of the project and no money would be diverted from other city services to fund the building.

But people are skeptical. And they should be. Unless they can receive a 100 percent guarantee they will not be on the hook for this, they should be questioning the project.

But unless and until this council and city can get its act together and decide what it actually wants and how it’s going to go about getting it, the NHL will stay away. Far, far away.

Take this past weekend, for example. Gillett was invited to Markham at the behest of local councilor Jim Jones, who has long opposed the site plan for the GTA Centre and the financial framework. Part of that opposition is that he doesn’t believe the local government should be involved and that the arena can be built privately. But one person who was at the meeting Sunday morning said Gillett made it clear that in order for the project to go forward, there would need to be a public-private partnership in place. He also reportedly told them that supporting a motion to kill the financial framework it previously approved with Roustan’s group would be a mistake.

Jones claims Gillett never said anything about a public-private partnership, but another councilor who was in attendance, Howard Shore, said Gillett did speak about that.

“I think it’s about being intellectually honest,” Shore said. “If Jim wants to stand up to council and say,  ‘Hey folks, I will fight to have this 100 percent privately funded,’ that’s fine. But let’s also put it on the table that the guy he brought in at the last minute, who has a lot of experience with this sort of thing, gave us this advice. That would be being honest to me.”

What the people at Sunday morning’s meeting also didn’t know was that Jones set up a meeting the previous day between Gillett and Rudy Bratty, the billionaire developer who is putting up the money for Roustan’s group. One source said Gillett told Bratty that he could deliver Markham an NHL team and Roustan could not, but changed his tone after being admonished by Bettman. Jones said that was not the case and no such promise was made by Gillett.

“He’s not inserting himself into this process,” Jones said.

A backdrop to all of this is a crucial vote Tuesday night that will go a long way toward dictating the future of the project. There is a motion to essentially kill the arena project as it stands, with the city of Markham withdrawing its offer to borrow the money. As of Saturday, six of the 13 councilors said they would support that motion, four said they would vote against and three did not respond to repeated queries by thn.com.

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Meanwhile, the area’s 10 biggest developers, who would be subject to paying a fee for each home or condo built to fund the arena, took out an advertisement in the local newspaper urging the city council to keep the arena project alive.

“Let’s not miss this chance to attract an NHL team!" the ad says. “If this motion passes, our community will be foregoing millions of dollars in economic activity and the opportunity to anchor Markham Centre with a marquee tenant and possibly the GTA’s second NHL team. We can’t let this happen!"

For his part, Jones said he’s not against building an arena at all. In fact, he said that was a major component to his proposal to build Markham Live, which would be patterned after L.A. Live and feature a revitalized downtown with an arena, a casino, a high performance athletic training center and a university. But he said the current arena proposal won’t support the increased traffic or need for more public transportation.

“If we start screwing this up and all the arena does is drive trains from 5 o’clock to 7 and then again at 10 o’clock, it won’t work,” Jones said. “I’m not against the arena itself. I’m against the lack of integrated planning and they should have solved that problem. These are things we’ve got to fix because this is forever.”

My take? The people of Markham need to do this right. And if that means delaying this project until they get what they want, then that’s exactly what they should do. If they can find someone to build this arena with 100 percent private money, they should find that person. But he or she hasn’t come forward yet.

They have to get this right and they have to do it in a way in which they feel comfortable. But they should also know the NHL is waiting and the longer they dither with local turf wars and flip-flops, the longer it will be before they get a team, if at all.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.

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