‘Kind of in the dump­ster’

What next for the Sens now that arena deal seems to be off the ta­ble?

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - CHURCH LISTINGS - SCOTT STIN­SON sstin­[email protected]­media.com

When the Ot­tawa Se­na­tors re­leased their im­pos­si­bly awk­ward hype video in Septem­ber, the one in which owner Eu­gene Mel­nyk de­scribed his team as “kind of in the dump­ster,” there was a mo­ment, other than that one, that stood out.

Mel­nyk tells de­fence­man Mark Borowiecki — who is os­ten­si­bly his in­ter­viewer but in prac­tice is a sound­ing board — that peo­ple have won­dered about the fu­ture of the team in Ot­tawa.

“The fran­chise is not go­ing any­where,” Mel­nyk parps. “That’s, like, to­tally solid.”

It turns out that as these as­sur­ances were be­ing ut­tered, the deal for a new down­town arena for the Se­na­tors was al­ready in a com­plete sham­bles. That would be the same arena, as part of the re­de­vel­op­ment of the LeBre­ton lands next to the Ot­tawa River, that NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman had said was “vi­tal” to the fu­ture of the team. The LeBre­ton deal isn’t tech­ni­cally dead, but all that’s left is to shovel soil over the corpse. When one part­ner sues an­other for $700 mil­lion, as Mel­nyk has done to de­vel­oper John Ruddy, that is pretty much the end of that. And so, while Mel­nyk con­tin­ues to in­sist that he has ev­ery in­ten­tion of keep­ing his team in Ot­tawa and pur­su­ing a down­town arena, Se­na­tors fans could be for­given for won­der­ing if this is the be­gin­ning of the end. Are­nas are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to fi­nance and build, for the sim­ple rea­son that the eco­nomic case for them, to use Mel­nyk’s phrase, is kind of in the dump­ster. You need a few hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars and in the end you have a build­ing that will be booked for 41 nights a year, plus some ex­hi­bi­tion games, and as many con­certs as you can sched­ule. Peo­ple spend money on this stuff, but it’s the same dis­cre­tionary money they would have spent any­way in the lo­cal econ­omy, so the net gain is min­i­mal, in terms of re­turn on in­vest­ment in the build­ing. Some­times gov­ern­ments will throw all that aside in hopes of lur­ing a sports team with a shiny new arena (hello, Que­bec City), but that is ob­vi­ously not part of the busi­ness case here. The Sens are al­ready in Ot­tawa. Well, Ot­tawa-ish.

The trick, as wealthy sports own­ers have fig­ured out, is to make the new-arena play part of a neigh­bour­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion or some such sales pitch, with the build­ing folded into larger plans that in­clude other com­mer­cial and re­tail de­vel­op­ments and maybe a casino (hello, Ed­mon­ton). That way the fact that the bil­lion­aire owner is get­ting a sweet­heart deal on the arena is lost in the glare of the Fab­u­lous Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Op­por­tu­nity. It’s not easy to get those pieces into place, but LeBre­ton Flats pre­sented just such a case — an un­derused piece of prime land that is ripe for a splashy de­vel­op­ment. The de­tailed fi­nan­cials of the prospec­tive deal had not yet been re­leased, and it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that Mel­nyk was dis­pleased by the way they were go­ing. He says he no longer be­lieves in the vi­a­bil­ity of the project be­cause of com­pe­ti­tion from an adjoining de­vel­op­ment owned by Ruddy, but it could also be that he was sim­ply un­happy with the amount of his own money that he would have had to kick in to the LeBre­ton pro­posal. One un­named source told Post­media col­league Jon Will­ing last week that the Se­na­tors owner’s ex­pec­ta­tions in ne­go­ti­a­tions were “spec­tac­u­larly un­re­al­is­tic.”

But with that deal stag­ger­ing to its demise, what next? Mel­nyk has al­ready said that he has no in­ter­est in be­ing a ten­ant in some­one else’s down­town arena, should LeBre­ton end up in the hands of a dif­fer­ent group en­tirely. There’s no guar­an­tee that the next plan for the area would even in­clude an NHL-size arena, given how this one im­ploded. Asked what the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion, which last week gave Mel­nyk and Ruddy un­til Jan­uary to sort their is­sues out, be­fore the law­suit blew up that idea, would do about LeBre­ton next, a spokesman said they will deal with that when the board next meets, in the new year. He also pro­vided a quote from Marc Sea­man, the chair of the NCC board, say­ing it was “fully com­mit­ted to the re­de­vel­op­ment of LeBre­ton Flats to the high­est stan­dards of de­sign, ac­ces­si­bil­ity, sus­tain­abil­ity and con­nec­tiv­ity.” You will note that among those stan­dards there is noth­ing cer­tain about a hockey arena.

The NHL, which has so far stayed silent on the LeBre­ton im­broglio, can­not be pleased. Bettman sup­ported the move down­town as key to re­vers­ing years of de­clin­ing at­ten­dance, a cred­i­ble plan to do it was pro­ceed­ing, and now this. Will the team try to stick it out in Kanata? That lo­ca­tion, aside from get­ting worse as traf­fic has in­creased, has been poi­soned by all the talk of mov­ing down­town. You can only tell peo­ple that re­lo­ca­tion is cru­cial so of­ten be­fore it sinks in that your cur­rent lo­ca­tion stinks.

Mel­nyk says he is game to try again. He told my col­league Adrian Humphreys in an in­ter­view last week that “the Se­na­tors re­main com­mit­ted to the hope of de­vel­op­ing a down­town arena and will con­tinue to ex­plore op­tions to make that hap­pen.” But, where, and with whom? There isn’t an­other par­cel of empty land handy, un­less the Se­na­tors are go­ing to put an­other rink on the lawn of Par­lia­ment Hill. And Me­lynk’s rep­u­ta­tion lo­cally, es­pe­cially af­ter this lat­est con­tro­versy is, well, kind of in the dump­ster.

The team’s fans may see this as the chance to fi­nally get Mel­nyk out of the pic­ture, if he doesn’t want to be in Kanata and no one wants to help him pay for a new arena. But he owns the team. Chang­ing that is even harder than build­ing a new sta­dium.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

An un­named source says Ot­tawa Se­na­tors owner Eu­gene Mel­nyk, above, had “spec­tac­u­larly un­re­al­is­tic” ex­pec­ta­tions when try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a deal to build an arena on Ot­tawa’s LeBre­ton Flats.

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