Friday, June 23, 2017

An Open Letter to My Ward Councillor, Fern Cormier, Regarding the Events Centre

I am writing to you today to express my thoughts on the matter of a new events centre for our community, which I understand Council will be discussing at its upcoming meeting on June 27, 2017.  I am writing to you today as a resident of Ward 10 (and in no other capacity).  I am copying your Council colleagues this email for their information.

I have been following this matter since the November 27, 2015 Large Projects Public Input and Information Session (see: “Big ideas and big projects get public airing,”, November 26, 2015), and I have been engaged in discussions taking place throughout the community – and especially on social media sites.  I highlighted some of the issues which I felt our local decision-makers should consider when looking at locations for a new events centre in a column that I wrote for the Sudbury Star, (“Sudbury centre would attract creative class,” the Sudbury Star, March 11, 2017), including the need for a community facility to act as a catalyst for supporting the individuals who will be taking up the jobs that our City needs to attract to prosper and thrive in the future.

While my preference for an events centre would be to repurpose the existing Sudbury Community Arena, I understand that option is not presently on the table, and I acknowledge that Council has expressed its intention to pursue the construction of a new events centre.  With that in mind, I’ll focus these comments on one of the decision’s that Council may be making on June 27th – on the location of a new events centre.  However, I feel the need to express my dismay that the decision facing Council next week will not be one informed by a public consultation a process – a very obvious and troubling omission for those who have wanted to engage in a discussion about the location of an events centre – or whether a new events centre should be pursued at all.

I have read both the report to Council of February 22, 2017, which included the February 21, 2017 “Proposed Sports and EntertainmentCentre Feasibility and Business Case Assessment” from PWC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), and the more recent report to Council dated June 15, 2017, which includes the “GreaterSudbury Event Centre Site Evaluation” report from PWC. I am also familiar with many of the City’s strategic documents, including the Official Plan (2006), the Downtown Master Plan (2012) and the City of Greater Sudbury Community Development Corporation’s community economic development strategic plan, “Fromthe Ground Up, 2015-2025” (2015) and the Downtown Community Improvement Plan.

All of these documents benefited from significant levels of public consultation, citizen engagement and city-led stakeholder discussions prior to their adoption by Council. All of these documents articulate a clear vision for the City’s downtown – a unique location in the community described as being “the vibrant hub of a dynamic city” (Official Plan, page 34) and which “plays a key role in defining the City’s image and quality of place, perceptions that are essential to the success of a number of City initiatives” fulfilling “its important function as a local and regional centre of government services, business, retail, sport and entertainment uses, arts and culture, and community and institutional uses” that “services a large catchment area that extends beyond Greater Sudbury.” (Downtown Community Improvement Plan, page 1).

The provision of cultural amenities, including institutional uses, in the City’s downtown has been an on-going feature of planning efforts in our City for at least the past decade.   An events centre has been in the downtown is championed by many of these strategic documents.  The Downtown Master Plan contemplates the retention of the Sudbury Community Arena (in an up-graded form) due to its function as a catalyst for new business and economic development, along with other community amenities, including a four-star hotel and conference centre.   Our economic development strategy builds on the Downtown Master Plan, calling for a new multipurpose facility for arts, culture and sport in the form of a new community arena in the “Heart District” (downtown), and specifically in recommendation 7.1.1 , it calls for the development of a new “arena/sports complex” in the downtown core.

Clearly, the retention of a community facility (a community arena / events centre / multi-purpose facility) in our downtown forms a keystone of the strategies which have been endorsed by Council and citizens to promote economic development, well-being and livability in our City.
On Tuesday evening, our elected officials will be facing a choice – one it arguably should have never been put in a position to have to make.  You will be asked to choose between the vision that the City has been working on developing for over 10 years, or to reject that vision and adopt in its place an alternative vision that has never received the benefit of public input and consultation – one that is fraught with risk and uncertainty, centred on lands that have never been evaluated for the types of uses included in this vision.

In contrast to the option of putting a new community events centre in the downtown, the proposal coming forward from a local developer is very problematic. The vision is grandiose – quite different from what Council directed staff to prepare a report on.  Yes, the developer’s vision includes a new community events centre – but it is far more than that.  The developer’s intention is to use the events centre as a lynchpin for future development, including (that we know of ) a casino, hotels, a motorsports park and (possibly) a water park.   

Not one of these uses has ever gone through an evaluation of any sort for appropriateness on the developer’s lands, save for the recent site selection report from PWC which looked only at whether the lands might be able to support an events centre.  And the findings of that report raise doubts, as it indicates the lands are not currently zoned for the use proposed (unlike the downtown).

While it is often thought that rezoning lands is a fairly straight-forward regulatory matter, that won’t be the case with these lands.  The PWC report highlights a number of constraints, including the proximity of a municipal landfill site and its potential impacts on proposed sensitive uses; the costs of site preparation for the uses proposed; and the acquisition of Crown Lands – an issue which is out of control of either the City or the development proponent.

And there are other constraints.  The Greater Sudbury Source Protection Plan highlights issues with salt contamination in one of our City’s primary drinking water sources, Ramsey Lake.  Salt contamination occurs from the spreading of winter road salt on streets and in parking lots, where it merges with groundwater and eventually ends up in streams and lakes.  Lands owned by the Kingsway developer and proposed for an events centre are located in the Ramsey Lake watershed.  His development proposal requires the construction of a massive new surface parking facility of approximately 1,200 spots (and that’s just for the events centre – other proposed uses will have additional surface parking requirements).  In contrast, the downtown option is not anticipated to generate the need for any new parking spaces – and even if new surface parking were to be contemplated, our downtown is not located in the Ramsey Lake watershed.

We also know that the developer’s lands on the Kingsway may contain habitat of species at risk.  In a report to Planning Committee for the rezoning of these lands in 2014, the City identified species at risk as an outstanding red flag that required further evaluation.   It is not clear that any action has been taken to address this matter, even though it was flagged by the City in 2014.

The clustering of sports and entertainment uses at the Kingsway location may ultimately require Council to re-evaluate its priorities for road maintenance and upgrades, given the considerable vehicular traffic that is likely to be generated by these uses.  Unlike the downtown, where options exist for alternative transportation and transit, the Kingsway will be largely accessed by personal vehicles, along a single road.  Existing road priorities, such as widening MR 35, may need to be delayed or canceled in favour of needed work to make this area of the Kingsway accessible to traffic.  The good news, however, might be that dubious road projects like MR 35 widening may be reassessed by the City, given that there will be a shift in jobs and entertainment facilities from Azilda/Chelmsford to the Kingsway corridor, particularly if the casino were to co-locate on the Kingsway property.  At a time of population and economic stagnation, road projects like MR 35 are difficult to justify anyway.

There is also the matter of the appropriateness of lands set aside for industrial uses in the City’s Official Plan for the uses proposed – most of which, including a casino and a community events centre - do not appear to be in keeping with industrial area policies.  With specific regard to the community events centre, institutional uses and other community facilities do not appear to be contemplated in industrial areas.  To rezone these lands for a community events centre facility will be to ignore the policy direction of the Official Plan as it pertains to industrial uses – along with the other policy sections of the Plan that relate to the Downtown (Section 4.2.1 ) and Healthy Community (Section 16) policies, which promote the clustering of community facilities in walkable areas of the City.  In his desire to see a community events centre built on his Kingsway lands, the developer is asking Council to turn its back on our Official Plan – our guide for developing a strong future for all Greater Sudburians.  While PWC’s site assessment report indicates that the rezoning of this property may take as much as a year, given the significant and relevant policy issues and technical challenges that the uses proposed for this industrial property face, I suggest that zoning may take longer than a year to complete – and ultimately, changing the zoning on these lands to permit those uses may never come about.

Further, the ultimate costs of the developer’s vision have not been assessed.  While I understand that there are some numbers floating around with regards to how much the City might accrue through new taxation should all components of the developer’s vision come to fruition, I caution that those numbers appear to be dubious at best, and certainly nothing that I’ve seen takes into consideration the anticipated costs  of development in this location.  Basing a decision on anticipated benefits alone just isn’t sustainable – and anyone promoting even a back-of-the-envelope fiscal analysis that fails to consider both anticipated benefits and anticipated costs is doing our community an injustice.

I understand that the City is currently working on a report that will assess the costs of development in various parts of the municipality. Moving ahead with a massive new development proposal on the Kingsway at this time is incredibly premature, given this outstanding report which at least may provide some additional guidance regarding municipal cost expectations for development in this location.

And these are just the issues that are known. There are likely to be others which will only become apparent once necessary technical studies and evaluations of the site for the appropriateness of the proposed uses are made.  What is astounding is that no action to address any of the known issues by the developer appears to have occurred since his location was pitched to Council back in 2015.  There does not appear to have been any zoning by-law amendment application made.  Nor do the issues pertaining to traffic, species at risk and costs/benefits appear to have been addressed, at least based on information available to the public.  That these known issues have remained dormant and unaddressed by a developer who has insisted that he is sincere about his desire to develop is, frankly, difficult to understand.

For all of these reasons, Councillor Cormier, I ask that you consider that the best location for a community events centre is in our City’s downtown.   A downtown location is consistent with the city-building vision articulated for more than a decade in our strategic planning documents.  It’s a vision that has received significant public buy-in.  And it’s based on what subject matter experts have long insisted – that a strong, vibrant downtown core acts as the economic engine of our City.  Let’s keep that engine well-stoked, going forward.  At a time when our population is not expected to increase by very many people, the choices that are made now will resonate down through the decades.  Choices must be sustainable – fiscally, socially and environmentally. 

That’s why the downtown is the only viable option for an events centre.  The risks associated with selecting the other sites are just too great.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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