The entire Pan Am stadium saga has been like watching a classic Grey Cup game. Our G.M., coach, and starting quarterback, Hamilton Mayor, Fred Eisenberger, has done a fine job.
By Kevin Somers
Published September 03, 2010
Like many Hamiltonians, I've never paid as much attention to municipal politics as I have during The Great Stadium Debate of 2010. The decision of where, or if, to build our Field of Dreams will impact everyone in this city for decades and rarely has an issue been so cantankerous, divisive, public, and secretive.
For a billion reasons, I think the West Harbour, close to downtown Hamilton, is the only site worth discussing, but some people reject that notion entirely and claim the stadium should be built on elsewhere, like the East Mountain, or the McMaster Innovation Park, or Confederation Park. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team, for example, insist that their very survival depends on everyone driving to a suburban stadium engulfed by parking spots.
I'd argue that type of backwards thinking is why the team and its league are in such a perilous position, but some people don't think I'm even worthy of an opinion. Ron Foxcroft, for one, was on CHML's Bill Kelly show and said West Harbour proponents and / or East Mountain opponents are "unemployed" "activists," who shouldn't have a voice. Foxy went on to admonish Bill, and all the media, for allowing a few of us to be heard. Bill seemed to agree. It was crazy, but the tip of a crazy iceberg.
The entire saga has been like watching a classic Grey Cup game: West vs. East: the lead has changed hands often; it's entirely compelling; I boo and cheer and hope and pray and hypothesize and sermonize; both teams are in it to win it, scrapping and scraping until the last second; I'm on the edge of my seat and it's fascinating.
From the get-go, there's been an abundance of information, misinformation, withholding of information, and dispersing of information regarding where to house the beast and it changes instantly, or faster. (Big props to RTH for coverage, by the way; TSN would be proud.)
In fact, all the data, figures, and statistics are overwhelming and I rely on instincts, experience, and personal observations more than studies and reports. Numbers don't lie, but people presenting them do all the time, so it's mostly propaganda and not worth listening to, in my mind.
Flutie, Gizmo, and Pinball, for example, were statistically too small to play professional football. All one had to do was watch them play once to know those facts were false. (How did cavemen and pioneers survive without consultants and rich dudes telling them what to think?)
Nobody really knows what the best location for the stadium is or how big it should be. There are educated and uneducated guesses, and there are many opinions based on facts, evidence, emotions, or self-serving interests, but no one can see into the future.
One of the funding requirements for building the new stadium is having an "anchor tenant." The Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team won that designation, by default, and have been leveraging it since Pan Am declared, "Game on, Hammertown!"
I imagined the Cats and their owner would be appreciative of tax money helping them build a new facility in a more picturesque part of Hamilton. The West Harbour location, after all, is only a few kilometres straight west from where they've played for decades. It seemed that way at first, as Cat's owner, Bob Young, declared he was willing to go wherever the city deemed most appropriate. Yea!
Seven times. SEVEN TIMES! Hamilton's city council voted in favour of a West Harbour location seven times: seven times. I'm a big West Harbour booster, as are most of my employed friends and family. Hamilton Mayor, Fred Eisenberger, once declared, "It's full steam ahead for the West Harbour." Yea! Things were looking up, but this is Hamilton, home of the Tiger-Cats, and my cynical senses were tingling. I knew a fumble, turnover, or flagrant foul would derail the victory.
Right on cue, just before kick-off, Bob Young announced he was not, in fact, going to play with the city and he'd never set foot(balls) in a West Harbour Stadium. He'd rather leave town, he declared.
"What?! Boo! It's a little late for that, Bob!" I screamed, inaudibly, from cheap seats I could barely afford.
Bob and his team dug in. They had high profile friends calling us clowns, idiots, jokes, unemployed, unwashed, and unworthy. It was as if they expected City Hall and Hamilton citizens to roll over and capitulate, like little kittens before a mighty Tiger Cat.
We had a little more spunk than they expected, I expect, and, until Tuesday, The West Harbour location was still in play. Sadly, the city surrendered to The Cats and has taken WH off the list of potential stadium sites. Boo! In a contracting economy, it seems ridiculous to allow a poorly run, money-losing, subsidized football team with foreign ownership to override domestic democracy, but what do I know.
I also wondered how long professional and amateur football can survive in Hamilton / Canada, at all. Between insurance and equipment, football is prohibitively expensive and, as such, is exclusionary; only thirty-five or forty boys from a high school with hundreds of students can play. People enjoy familiarity and football is up against rugby, soccer, and basketball, which are infinitely less expensive, more inclusive, and increasing in popularity.
It is what it is, however, and I've accepted defeat regarding the West Harbour location, but I'm proud of how my team played. Our G.M., coach, and starting quarterback, Hamilton Mayor, Fred Eisenberger, did a fine job. We live in Ward 1 and our councillor, Brian McHattie, has played impressively, too.
At first, I was a little skeptical of Fred's ability against the opponent; a veritable old boys club bloated with performance-enhancing substances like money, influence, connections, Rogaine, Grecian Formula, and Viagra. Similarly, no one has ever accused Mayor Eisenberger of flamboyancy and I wasn't sure if a quarterback as low-key as he could withstand the barrage of blitzes, stunts, junk, questionable tactics, late hits, and dirty tricks the opponents kept throwing at us.
Over time, however, I realized Fred has his own brand of somnambulant charisma. Like Aikman, Brady, Calvillo, Elway, Mannings (Eli and Peyton), Marino, Montanna, and Moon, Eisenberger is calm, but sees the game well. He's fast on his feet and armed with a precise wit and quick release.
'Unflappable Fred' stood tall in a constantly collapsing pocket. He was sacked, hurried, and knocked down often, but he always got up, huddled with his team, and returned to the line of scrimmage a little smarter and more determined. He's played hard, but fair.
Mayor Eisenberger's leadership, demeanour, and consistency have won me over. The West Harbour Stadium might be dead, but I think Fred did all he could and I'm grateful for his efforts. It was Peyton Manning, but Fred's my man, now.
Last week, I was trying to keep up with the latest stadium developments when it occurred to me - again - to wonder: "What does Eisenberger make of all this?"
I was also curious about his perpetual tranquility. Sometimes, the temptation to tell someone exactly how I feel about their behaviour boils over and I embarrass myself with both barrels. "How does he do that?" I marveled.
On Thursday August 26, at 4:04 pm, curiosity compelled me to send Fred an email requesting an interview. Fred and his staff were prompt, polite, and professional and, the next afternoon, I was in the Mayor's office, picking his brain and taking notes. (City Hall looks great, by the way. "On time and under budget," Fred said, proudly. Good job, everyone.)
As expected, Fred looked tired, but he was friendly and engaging. One of his staff, a pleasant, young man named Eddie Lee, sat unobtrusively through the interview. Given shenanigans and death threats, I expected it. The first thing I said to Fred, after introductions, was, "What's it like being the mayor of Hamilton, right now?"
Without hesitation, Fred said, "It's a privilege." Perfect answer, I thought. It was Friday afternoon and Leonard Cohen was playing quietly in the background. I asked if it was a CD or a random radio song. Fred gave me a peculiar look, but answered. "A CD," he said. Groovy, again, Fred.
His office and desk were tidy and well organized, which is beyond my skills set. I was also impressed because there were no interruptions the entire time: no surreptitious glances at screens or a colleague; no one came in or out; there were no ringing phones or vibrating gizmos; the mayor looked me in the eye, answered all my questions, told stories, and cracked jokes.
His opinion on the stadium's best location and why he feels that way is well documented. I already knew where he stood; I was curious about how he got there and asked about his past.
In 1960, when Fred was seven, he and his family came to Canada from Holland. His father had been here for a year, finding work at International Harvester and getting things ready for the brood. Saying good-bye to family and friends, Fred, his three brothers, sister, and mother, set sail for Canada. "At the time," he said, "we weren't sure if we'd see them again. It wasn't expected."
"Why did your family make the move?" I asked.
"To make a better life," Fred said. "There were more opportunities in Canada."
"Did you speak English?"
"Not a word," replied the Mayor, with a smile.
He recounted how the family moved onto Stanley St. and he went to St. Joe's, which is the school my daughters attend. "I was seven, but they plopped me into Grade 1," Fred said.
Unsure of what was going on, Fred would regularly take off for the security of home. Usually, the nuns caught him before he got there. "Some of them were really quick," he said, making a comical nun-running motion.
To put an end to Fred's nonsense, the school took his brother, who is a year older and was in Grade 2, and dropped him back to Grade 1, to mind Fred.
Disarmed by the immoral decision of the school, I lost my mind and swore in the Mayor's Office, "&^%!" I said. "That must have p!#$ed him off."
"Oh, yeah. It's been fifty years and he still brings it up," Fred replied, shaking his head. "He's forgiven me, but he hasn't forgotten." I didn't say anything, but it's not Fred who will burn in Hell for that; he was 7.
Fred has done well, obviously, and I asked about his siblings. His brothers are all well, too. Sadly, after a year in Canada, Fred's sister, who was only five, died of complications from a surgery to try and remedy her cerebral palsy.
"That must have been awful," I said.
"It was torturous for my parents," Fred said and I could tell it still bothered him, too.
Fred looks fit and I'd heard he was an athlete, so I asked which sports he played growing up. He visibly perked up and said, "All of them: hockey, baseball, football, soccer, water polo..."
Because I thrash awkwardly and inefficiently in water, I quickly become exhausted and, if I can't touch the bottom, drown, so I view all swimmers as extraordinary athletes. "Water polo!?" I exclaimed.
"Oh, yeah," he said and a dreamy look came over him. "I could kick a guy in the nuts..." and his voice trailed off as he feigned blissful reminiscences. Fred was kidding, of course, and we had a good laugh.
"I play a lot of individual sports, too," he said.
Dedication, teamwork, practice, effort, community, commitment, winning, losing, fitness, fitting in.... I think sports are more instructive than school, so I'm glad my mayor is well educated in that regard.
"How do you stay so calm," I asked.
He laughed, gave me another look, and then answered. "I was given advice when I first started in politics, 'Stay calm,'" he said, "Emotions are good, and I certainly get emotional, but you have to have a level head to see the entire picture. I always try to be the calmest guy in the room and I usually am." Cool.
We talked, of course, about the stadium and Fred emphasized the importance of communication, cooperation, and collaboration with all the stakeholders, including the Tiger Cats. I asked about questionable tactics employed by West Harbour opponents and he dismissed the idea immediately. He said there were differences of opinion, but nothing underhanded or nefarious had taken place and he was confident a location suitable to everyone could be found.
Diplomacy is a prerequisite for politics and this dude has it in spades, I thought.
I asked him if his sporting background was the source of the skills and values he brought to the office. He thought, agreed, and then noted his upbringing. "There were six of us in a small house," he said. "We learned to appreciate efficiency and economize. I hate wasted space," he said and then quickly edited himself, "I hate waste."
I told him about my Dutch friend who jokes that two Dutchmen fighting over a penny can stretch it into 10 feet of copper wire. Fred laughed then raised his hands as if to surrender and said, "I know a lot of generous Dutch people." I think he realized another group calling for his head wouldn't be fun, so he repeated himself, "A lot of generous Dutch people," and we moved on.
"What do you read?" I asked.
Another queer look. "Do you mean books?" he asked.
"Obviously, you have to read mayor-stuff," I said and gestured to piles of files.
"I read biographies of world leaders. I'm a political junkie and have been for 30 - 40 years. The book that most stands out most for me is Robert F. Kennedy's Profiles In Courage," which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. "I read it when I was 16 and it's the path I've been on since."
Interestingly, Profiles In Courage survived a massive book purge at my house and was sitting on a shelf, waiting for an occasion to be read. It begins:
"This book is about the most admirable of human virtues - courage. "Grace under pressure," Ernest Hemmingway defined it. And these are the stories of pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them - the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamations of their characters and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles."
The stadium fiasco has put Fred in a few crosshairs and several pundits claim his career is dead. I hope not. Once derided as being wishy-washy, Fred is now under fire for being too stubborn in the stadium standoff. At least he took a stand.
Robert Kennedy wrote the foreword to my edition of Profiles of Courage and this quote jumped off the page: "President Kennedy was fond of quoting Dante that 'the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of crisis, maintain their neutrality.'"
I live near Aberdeen and Longwood, which is the most recent proposed stadium site all parties "might" agree to. Tuesday evening, after the West Harbour was eliminated from contention, I was at a local watering hole with friends, all of whom are intelligent, sensible, and employed. They had all favoured a West Harbour location, as well, but none of them were upset by the decision. I was the only one with a tear in his beer.
The others pointed out that Longwood and Aberdeen is a far better stadium site than East Mountain. It might mean a Go Station in the hood, as well. "You could go to Toronto without a coat in January, if your wife drove you to the station," said Jim "the character" Mcheriker, who, despite appearances, is worth listening to on rare occasion.
I was bemoaning the loss of land designated for Innovation Park, as well. The world class comments on RTH keep me coming back and someone wrote that an IP is as much a concept as a place and, as James pointed out, we can always go up; build a sexy, sleek, stunning 20- story, state of the art, sky-scraping masterpiece in Innovation Park, throw out a "Welcome" mat for all innovators, and sell naming rights: win, win, win. Humans have been going up for years, it's hardly innovative.
I also think a failure to get a stadium or the loss of the Cats will mean the end of Mayor Fred and that's not a scenario I'd like to entertain, so I hope a deal is reached for the Longwood / Aberdeen area.
Watching The Hamilton Stadium Show has been entertaining and informative, but I'm sick of it and want it over. There's one silver lining, at least; I know who to vote for in Hamilton's upcoming election: Brian McHattie for Ward 1 and Fred Eisenberger for Mayor.
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