Time for action on new arena in capital city

Published on February 18, 2016

Eastlink recently announced a multi-year deal to take over naming rights to the Charlottetown Civic Centre. The entire building, including the trade centre component, will now be known as the Eastlink Centre.

©Guardian photo by Nigel Armstrong

The giant blue elephant that has bedeviled Charlottetown and its city council for the past 30 years may finally be approaching the end of its controversial life span. There is a general consensus that it’s not before time. The city has approved a modest $75,000 to enable a task force to hire consultants and determine the feasibility of building a new, multi-use facility to replace the Eastlink Centre.

The civic centre complex was built primarily for the 1991 Canada Winter Games, yet the accusation was levelled at the time and for years afterwards that the arena was more suited for livestock than hockey games or entertainment shows.

It was easier to get a prize Holstein into the building at ground level than have the animal delicately tip-toe down a dizzying descent from an upper promenade. Thus, the error in the bottom loading of fans and the feeling of being inside a concrete coffin.

A fractious group was assembled around the boardroom table to finalize plans for a new arena in the late 1980s. The city favoured a waterfront location, while the province and Ottawa wanted to appease the regional racing and P.E.I. agricultural community at the Charlottetown Driving Park.

The final design and location were a compromise. The civic centre did open a year early and thousands of young athletes, coaches and mission staff marched into the building almost exactly 25 years ago — February 17, 1991.

The arena has been undergoing renovations and upgrades ever since in order to welcome the P.E.I. Senators, the Rocket/Islanders franchise and most recently, the Island Storm.

Deficiencies that kept Elton John from appearing in Charlottetown are well known. The English rocker had serious security concerns. The singer didn’t want to compete with fans in the bowels of the arena trying to get to their seats while he was trying to find refuge in a dressing room.

And the list goes on.

Charlottetown is falling off the scale of event sites. Truro has just opened a new arena complex, Moncton is building a new facility to replace the aging Coliseum and Halifax is moving forward on a new convention centre.

The city wants to proceed cautiously. The key question is money — who pays to build and operate such a facility?  Conservatively, it would cost at least $40 million, and more likely, closer to $60 million. Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee is right. Just because a task force is exploring a multi-use facility does not mean it will be built. The business plan make no sense.

As for the location, everything seems to point to building on the site of the provincial government garage between Park Street and Riverside Drive, along the bypass highway.

Options exist to incorporate other attractions into the facility to bring more dollars to the table such as a hotel, provincial museum, commercial outlets and dining options. The Charlottetown Curling Club would welcome a chance to leave its cramped, outdated facility.

Simmons and Cody Banks arenas could be decommissioned as hockey rinks and used for summer events or sold. There will be cost advantages in a new facility.

An independent consultant’s report released in June 2009 stated the Civic Centre was poorly designed, already out-dated and fixing the problem would cost as much as $34 million. Building a new facility would cost over $40 million. That report has collected dust over the past five years.

The sesquicentennial of the Charlottetown Conference in 2014 has come and gone without any permanent legacy. It was an opportunity squandered. Now the next best chance is to tie in with the 150th birthday celebrations of Canadian Confederation in 2017. If the city and province come on board and leverage the lion’s share of dollars from Ottawa for a legacy project, plus pry money from private donations — the facility might become a reality. The harness racing industry and Atlantic Lottery must play an important role in what happens as well.

The question facing Charlottetown is whether the capital city and its residents are content with a second-rate facility.

Patrons want amenities and attractions to convince them to attend games, trade shows or musical acts. There are lots of options for the entertainment dollar. Fans want comfort — not cramped, hard, plastic seats and obscured sightlines. They will stay home and watch the game on their computer or cable TV.

If the present facility remains in use, they’ll likely be watching games from Moncton and Halifax while scratching their heads and wondering why Charlottetown can’t attract or keep quality entertainment shows or sports teams.

If we want to accept mediocrity, so be it.

If we want a modern, vibrant multi-use facility to rejuvenate this city and province, it’s time to overcome challenges with some vision and risk-taking.