Whatever happened to Hamilton's goals of progressive development and urban revitalization? Mayor Fred Eisenberger talks about the sudden change in fortunes over the city's negotiations with the Ticats over a Pan Am Stadium location.
By Ryan McGreal
Published July 09, 2010
Last night I conducted a telephone interview with Mayor Fred Eisenberger over the sudden shift in momentum in the city's Pan Am Stadium plans from the already-chosen West Harbour location to a new East Mountain location on a provincially-owned parcel of land framed by the Red Hill Valley Parkway/Lincoln Alexander Parkway, Stone Church Road and the Mud Street interchange.
At a late stage of the conciliation process between the City and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats over the location, Metrolinx and the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC) proposed the new location. Facilitator Michael Fenn drew prominence to it in his report, and the Ticats immediately responded with a generous-sounding offer of $74 million, which actually turned out to be only $15 million in new money.
With the exception of Councillor Brian McHattie, who dared to point out, "this is all about private interest trumping public interest," Council quickly fell in love with the new location, which promised a "driveway-to-driveway experience" for Ticat fans.
This sudden change flies right in the face of the process up to now. Council and staff undertook a careful, two-year assessment with related traffic studies and public consultation, only to abandon it all literally overnight for a new location that violates every one of the city's objectives.
The Mayor has long been a champion of the West Harbour location and the broader goal of urban revitalization, and this defeat is a pretty devastating blow. During the interview, the Mayor was diplomatic as usual, but it was impossible not to notice the deep frustration in his voice while we discussed the issue.
On April 13, the Mayor came out strongly in support of West Harbour, calling the Ticats "minority" partners and stating, "We can't let [the investors attracted by West Harbour] down by wavering on" the location. Then on May 6, he forcefully reconfirmed the city's goal of "building community" and "what's best for the people of Hamilton - today and into the future" by investing in the West Harbour.
So what happened? How did this resolve crumble into the the negotiations that resulted in the East Mountain location?
Mayor Fred explained:
I've maintained and I still maintain my resolve that the West Harbour site is the best possible location. My hope in the facilitation process was that we'd dismiss the sites that weren't suitable and that the West Harbour would come out on top.
All the research showed this, and I was hoping that the Tiger-Cats would come to understand the benefits of the West Harbour location for them. As for the benefits of our city building initiatives - we were led to believe they were important to the Ticats as well.
He concluded, "That's just not where we ended up."
I shared my strong sense from reading the facilitator's report that the Ticats seemed flat-out unwilling to accept any of the city's arguments, no matter how much evidence the city put forth in their defence.
I was thinking, for example, of this line from the report: "The parties disagreed on the ability of the West Harbour site to provide the appropriate level of local roadway access, despite the macro-level analysis provided by transportation consultants IBI Group indicating that the site could meet transportation demands."
I suggested that for a mediation process to work, both participants have a responsibility not to be intransigent. He responded, "I don't disagree with that.
It was a surprise to me that Bob Young was not going to play in the West Harbour in any way, shape or form. It was a real departure. In terms of where we ended up, Michael Fenn was left with trying to find a solution that tries to satisfy both sides.
I think Michael Fenn's thinking is - and I wouldn't disagree with it - that the objective is to get a stadium landed and city building initiatives at the same time. He put forward a location that might have an opportunity for a stadium and some development around it, and the city building initiative on the West Harbour should be part of the arrangements that we put forward at the end of the day.
Do I think the West Harbour site is the right site? I absolutely do. I continue to believe that, and I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary from a city building perspective. But the Ticats had different imperatives.
Their vision was a singular destination for football, and they were very mindful of the sustainabilility of football over the long term, and the revenues that could be generated. They believed those revenues couldn't be generated at the West Harbour.
Their imperatives are different from the city's imperatives. I don't think we should totally cave to the Ticats' imperatives, obviously.
Given Michael Fenn's suggestion to grant the Ticats their stadium on the East Mountain and then proceed with acquiring and remediating the West Harbour location, I asked Eisenberger where the money for that remediation is supposed to come from.
We're still working with two streams. We must continue to assess both streams, and be mindful of the possibility to make something good and solid from the West Harbour, having the ability to remediate at a standard that allows development. We should absolutely insist that this be part of the outcome.
That actually lends us to the kind of development that might have been envisioned in [the] Setting Sail [neighbourhood plan for the North End]. There are some positives. It's not perfect in my eye, but I think there's still an opportunity to get some positives out of this scenario if we maintain our focus and commitment.
He added that the Province and Pan Am HostCo need to share this goal. "We mirrored our goals on Places to Grow, and I'm going to speak long and hard to making sure that their commitment to those policies will be fulfilled."
If council had maintained its resolve, could it have called the Ticats' bluff? If Council have said, "We're going with the West Harbour and we're building a Pan Am stadium. If you want to participate, we'll help you make it work. If you refuse, then best of luck to you," would the Ticats have accepted West Harbour?
That's what I would have done, but there are fifteen members of council who have different views, and people in the broader community who have different views.
Frankly, I think we're going to hear more of the silent majority now who didn't say much because they thought the issue was in hand. They're going to voice their displeasure. But there's another part of the community, a vocal part, that believes in highways and car culture.
I asked him flat out: did Council get played?
The fact that we could never get a financial commitment from the Ticats from the get-go until just a few days ago tells me they were holding out to have influence at a late stage of the game.
The Ontario Government has made it clear that rapid transit investment decisions are political and flow out of Queen's Park, not the Metrolinx board. If we're not willing to invest in revitalizing our own downtown, I asked, how can we expect the Province to invest in our downtown with light rail?
I've got to tell you that the Province has been involved in all of this.
I believe everything you say - progressive development means you interconnect developments, you do it in the inner city, you promote intensification and that's the philosophy I follow. I'm not happy we're moving in this direction. I think it's the wrong development that may suit the Ticats very well, but does not suit our city building needs.
The Province needs to answer to why they would allow funding to flow to that use.
I hearken back to the days when we brought in the PASO [Pan-Americano Sports Organization] team that came to Hamilton to look at our preferred location in the bid book. They came in by GO Train, and their comments were, 'Look how easily this is connected by public transit.' The province said, 'We're going to extend public transit to make this even more connected in the future.' That commitment made this site viable for the Province.
The Province is well in the loop on this one. Clearly they're aware of the new direction. I've communicated with the Premier's office and other ministers, and the local ministers. They understand where I stand on the issue and where Council's preferred location has been. But something in the last couple of weeks has changed and the Province is aware of it.
I asked: after taxpayers have to pay for all the necessary upgrades for the new location - including potentially a new highway interchange - how much will the Ticats' $15 million deal-sweetener really be worth? He said:
My fear now is that we won't do the proper assessments on the new location in time to make the decision - that we'll take the Ticats' numbers at face value. From what I've seen, it doesn't tell me they're putting in enough to make the stadium hold 25,000 plus [seats].
There must be no more than $60 million on the table from the City of Hamilton. If the city benefits aren't there at the ORC lands, there ought to be a declining commitment from the city so we can reserve some funds for the West Harbour.
I finally asked: Is there still a possibility of changing Council's mind before the August 10 vote? Eisenberger said:
I can't answer that question. The community needs to speak up. I've been saying this for some time: people need to state their views of what they think progressive development is, the value of a stadium on the harbourfront, that it's the right thing to do.
Sadly, we haven't heard this until now. We've heard from Ticats fans that a highway location is better. We did some community engagement on the West Harbour site but there hasn't been community engagement on the ORC lands.
I'd always prefer to have more time. I think it's unfortunate that all of this has ben left by the Ticats to the very end. We would have been better served, if they had this view, that they would have said this earlier on in the process.
They were involved the whole way up and never once stated any concerns about the location of the West Harbour as a place where they would not play. Things evolved after that, I guess.
Progressive cities don't put stadiums on highways. They interconnect them to the inner city. They understand that intensification and vibrant inner cities are not only good for the tax base, but also for the vibrancy of the city, and for creating an entertainment district that invigorates a neighbourhod that needs a lift and provides more value to the waterfront.
I don't see that from ORC.