Monday, 5 March 2012

Fiacco Steps Down: Will There Be Any Change for Regina?

Act Up in Saskatchewan
March 5, 2012

On Valentine’s Day Mayor Pat Fiacco held a press conference to announce that he was stepping down and would not run in the fall municipal election. A week later he announced that he would be supporting city Councillor Michael Fougere to replace him. Fougere, who has represented Ward 4 for fifteen years, is the president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association.

Both Fiacco and Fougere stated that their primary commitment for the future of Regina was the building of a new domed stadium. This is the central focus of Fiacco’s dream for the development of the old CPR yards on Dewdney Ave. The existing stadium, known to the people  as Taylor Field, is located in the North Central inner city area. Mayor Fiacco has proclaimed that the existing stadium would be torn down and the land would be redeveloped with “affordable and market-rate housing.” This latter part of his plan would begin in 2020.
Taylor Field to be Upgraded 2012

The new domed stadium
The new stadium, with a retractable roof, would have seats for 33,000 fans. In the winter the dome would be closed and it would host major events like rock shows. While no serious studies have been completed, two years ago the estimated cost of the stadium was set at $431 million. The Mayor said then that 75% of the cost would come from the private sector. To break even on operating costs, it was estimated that the stadium would have to host around 31 major events each year to be able to turn a profit of $1 million.

Brad Wall’s provincial government announced support for the stadium. However, it has yet to commit any funds. An appeal was made to Stephen Harper for federal money. It was hoped that PPP Canada would come up with 25% of the cost or at least $100 million. However, the Harper government pointed out that PPP Canada does not provide funding for professional sports facilities. Mayor Fiacco has yet to reveal who from the private sector might invest in the project. It is not clear how much will come from Regina taxpayers.

Even among those who support the domed stadium there were early criticisms. The original estimate did not include the cost of acquiring the land from the CPR. The draft released to the public called for the site to have a hotel and another casino; many asked why this was necessary.  It was quickly pointed out that the original plan does not include any parking facilities! Many supporters want any new stadium to be built out of the city, similar to the hockey stadium in Saskatoon, the Credit Union Centre.

Brad Humphreys, a University of Alberta economist who specializes in researching sports facilities, has warned the people of Regina that many stadiums end up losing money. The Skydome in Toronto was a disaster; originally costing over $800 million, it was sold to Rogers Communications a few years ago for $25 million. His research has indicated that there is no evidence to show that building sports stadiums results in any local net increase in income or jobs. It is widely recognized that professional sports are in competition with other businesses in the entertainment industry for peoples’ discretionary spending. They are not productive enterprises.

Revitalizing Taylor Field
From the beginning many people argued that a domed stadium was a gross waste of money. The obvious alternative was to upgrade Taylor Field. It is often mentioned in the mass media that this could cost $100 million. Many fans pointed out that a domed stadium would remove the home field advantage - the weather - which has always helped the Roughriders. But Mayor Fiacco and Councillor Fougere are adamantly opposed to any plan to permanently upgrade Taylor Field.

On February 25 the management at the Saskatchewan Roughriders held a press conference to announce plans to upgrade Taylor Field. This was necessary because the team and the city had agreed to host the 2013 Grey Cup. Previously, Edmonton and Vancouver had upgraded their stadiums before hosting Grey Cup games.

The cost of the upgrade will be $14 million, all coming from the team itself, which in recent years has been quite profitable. The provincial government has loaned the Riders $6.2 million to help get the renovations started. Construction has already begun so that the additions will be available for the 2012 football season.

The Legacy Project, as it is called, will include the construction of 10,000 additional seats in the end zones, along with new concession stands and new washroom facilities. The second phase of the upgrade calls for the construction of a second level of temporary seats. This will increase the seating capacity to 50,000. As a comparison, the new Investor Group Field in Winnipeg will have 33,500 seats with the possibility to expand to 40,000 for major events like the Grey Cup.

The irony is that the Legacy Project provides a solid example of an alternative to the vision of the Mayor and the City Council. Most likely an additional investment of perhaps $15 million could make all the renovations permanent.

But Roughrider CEO Jim Hopson has been quick to argue that the Legacy Project is no replacement for a new stadium. Mayor Fiacco has proclaimed that “construction on the new stadium will begin in 2013 and there will be a new facility by 2016.” Michael Fougere, the Mayor designate, agreed.

Regina’s housing crisis
It is pretty obvious that Regina has a serious housing problem. There is a painful shortage of affordable social housing; there are fewer units available today than there were fifteen years ago. Few apartments have been build over the past twenty years, and most of those were in the high end. Rents in the remaining older apartments have risen dramatically. There are plenty of expensive condominiums around, but that is not what the city needs. With the average price of a single family dwelling now around $290,000, the large majority of people in the province cannot afford to buy a house in Regina.
Not close to Wascana Lake

Mayor Pat Fiacco’s legacy to the people of Regina will clearly be Harbour Landing, the new suburban development project next to the airport. Yesterday when I checked there were a number of houses for sale in the project, between $439,000 and $799,000. Who says there is a housing shortage?

In addition, Harbour Landing includes one of those infamous Power Centres, where we find large transnational and national corporations, like Wal Mart and Lowe’s, which suck capital out of the community and out of the country. They constitute a major attack on locally owned and operated businesses. They are the exact opposite of the newer “smart growth” alternative.

The one bright side of this outmoded model of housing development can be found in the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States. As the bubble peak of 2007 has depleted, the biggest price declines have been for the larger, more expensive houses in the new suburban areas. In areas like Harbour Landing the prices have often dropped by 50%. Houses have been abandoned by their “owners,” as the balance due on their mortgage was higher than the potential market price of their house. As a result there are now many houses to rent in almost all markets and rents have fallen to one-half of what they are in Regina. Eventually, the price of housing must follow family income.

Is there an alternative?
Not everyone is on side with the Fiacco-Fougere vision of the future of Regina. A group of local citizens has announced that an open meeting on Regina issues will be held on March 26, at the United Way at 8th Ave. and Scarth St., 7 pm. All are welcome. The meeting will contemplate what can be done to create an alternative for the October 2012 municipal election.

John W. Warnock is a Regina author, political activist and is a supporter of the March 26 movement.

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