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I am hesitant about attending hypnosis shows, convinced that if I were goaded onto the stage, the mesmerist would have me clucking like a chicken within minutes.
It’s because I believe I’m subject to the power of suggestion; I’ll often break out into a song spontaneously, and upon reflection, realize it was triggered by something I had just read or heard or thought about.
That happened recently after interviewing Dean MacDonald.
Driving back, I started humming, then singing, an Oscar-winning tune from six decades ago, penned by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, made famous by Frank Sinatra.
“High hopes. He’s got high hopes. He’s got high, apple-pie in the sky hopes.”
In this case, McDonald’s high hopes relate to Mile One Centre. The St. John’s businessman and owner of the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers wants to purchase the arena, despite the fact the owner — the City of St. John’s — hasn’t hung out a “For Sale” sign, He also is certain he can turn the facility into at least a break-even entity and eliminate the millions of dollars of municipal money now required to make up for its annual operating deficit. This, even though he admits there are those who are skeptical of the possibility of his success.
Or as McDonald puts it laughingly. “Pretty much everyone thinks I’m crazy.
“But that just makes me think it’s probably a good idea.”
However, even if you see this as some sort of Quixotic quest or something metaphored by the first stanza of “High Hopes,” which chronicles an ant’s attempt to tip over a rubber tree plant, there wouldn’t appear to be any point in doubting McDonald’s resolve.
Fifteen minutes of listening to his plans might not be enough to have you come away truly believing he can make this scheme work, but there is no way you won’t conclude that he himself believes he can pull it off.
Not that he hasn’t tried before.
MacDonald’s interest in Mile One as more than as a team-owning tenant has been long-stated. In fact, last year at this time, it seemed as if he and owners of the National Basketball League of Canada’s St. John’s Edge would be combining to take over management of the building, but the City eventually chose not to act on a memorandum of understanding outlining that plan.
“Pretty much everyone thinks I’m crazy. But that just makes me think it’s probably a good idea.” — Dean MacDonald
So why is he making another run and why now?
Some of it is persistence, but the greater part of the reason for the timing of MacDonald’s latest lobby effort is the pandemic.
Recently, the City said it will cost an extra $1.77 million to cover operational overhead costs at Mile One and the St. John’s Convention Centre (SJCC) this year, this despite neither building is hosting any events because of gathering-size restrictions related to COVID-19. In an interview on CBC Radio following that revelation, Coun. Jamie Korab, who is also chairman of St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), which operates the facilities, said the City was willing to listen to any suggestions about how to better address that deficit.
“Council says it is open for suggestions. Well, here is our suggestion. We’d like to buy the building, put money into the building, bring it back to prime time, because it isn’t any more,” he said, citing “congested concession areas and a poor sound system,” and adding “it’s not band-friendly.”
In summary, MacDonald says 19-year-old Mile One “needs work” and that he is willing to put in at least $10 million for alterations and improvements. That includes extensions to the main building, a new common concessions court, improvements of sound quality, better amenities for suite holders and acts, and a special eSports studio to take advantage of the market growth in organized video gaming, both for streamed and attendance-based events.
“The arena business has changed since that building opened (in 2001), whether it’s the way customers are served, all the way to stadiums being venues for eSports,” said MacDonald, who is invested in an eSports platform
“To make that building successful, those are the sorts of things that need to be addressed.”
The pandemic also plays into MacDonald’s desire to expedite the sales process, if it ever begins. He sees Mile One’s operational downtime, expected to extend into 2021, as somewhat of a positive when it comes working on the facility — just as it is easier to renovate a house when there is nobody living in it.
But while MacDonald has a figure in mind for the upgrades, he hasn’t specified one for a sale price.
“I’ve carefully listened to every interview he’s had on this recently, and I haven’t heard him mention it one time,” said Korab.
That might be seen as the first problem, because Korab also hinted the City would want a much more specific pitch before it would begin talking about selling Mile One.
But MacDonald, as the ant, could see this as an opening to a rubber-tree tipping success story, that if the City has conditions for sales talks, it is really an indication the City isn’t averse to selling.
It’s also clear any proposal from MacDonald would have a core theme of offering the City the opportunity to eliminate its annual subsidy of Mile One.
“My gut says no,” he answered when asked if he could envision a scenario when he would own Mile One and also receive an operating grant while doing so., “… and that brings it back to the price discussion.
“I want to sit with the city and have that discussion, because if they’re losing $3 million in operating costs a year, (Mile One) frankly would be worth what someone would pay for it.”
He estimates that in the last two decades, it has cost the city (above revenue) $30 million to operate Mile One, not including capital costs.
“That’s taxpayers’ money. It would seem to be a good thing if that would stop,” he said.
“Not too be elusive, but I think that would be a fair trade. But we’re open-minded. We see that as a negotiation that ultimately has to satisfy taxpayers. We know (a deal to sell Mile One) would have to pass a test of what the public would expect.”
“We see it as a well-maintained structure and one that is valuable to the taxpayers." — Jamie Korab
MacDonald has also suggested an independent appraisal of the building.
Whether valuation would be an issue, Korab objects to what he sees MacDonald’s characterization of Mile One being a rundown building, noting the last stage of remediation work on the arena’s roof is underway, that a switchover from halogen to LED lighting has been made. and that a contributor to additional operational costs this year was a decision to retain staff, including maintenance workers, during the pandemic.
“We see it as a well-maintained structure and one that is valuable to the taxpayers,” said Korab,
Other potential issues include whether the convention centre, also a big money loser, would be part of any talks.
MacDonald hasn’t shown any interest in taking over SJCC, although he agrees it would likely come up. And Korab points out the two structures are not only tied together physically by a pedway, but also operationally under SJSE.
And even if the City considers divesting itself of Mile One (and perhaps) SJCC, it would have to determine if it would deal with one bidder exclusively or whether an RFP or "request for proposals” is required, meaning the City would want to learn about any other potential buyer.
“If you went over everything with a fine-tooth comb, then perhaps you would discover an RFP wouldn’t be necessary,” said Korab, “but I think it would behoove the City, and taxpayers, to find out how much interest there would be if we ever decided to explore this further.”
Given he was rebuffed in previous forays, the potential hurdles and the fact Mile One isn’t officially for sale, MacDonald was asked if he’s ever considered building his own arena locally.
“I have,” he answered, but added to do so “within the confines of St. John’s” would probably be impossible because the City wouldn’t likely approve a competitor to Mile One.
“I could go to an outside community, but I am a believer a facility downtown is best, because of the spinoff effect,” he said. “Overall, it’s better for the community.
“Mile One is the best location.”
MacDonald’s is involved in other arenas. He’s in the process of clewing up an agreement that would see his company, Deacon Sports and Entertainment, manage and hold entertainment rights at a new rink in Trois Rivieres, Que., where he would own an ECHL franchise, in addition to the Growlers. And he will soon unveil a deal that will see him own “a professional sports team” — he’s not saying whether it’s in the ECHL — that will play out of another new facility somewhere in the United States, while securing entertainment rights for an associated facility.
While he won’t characterize it as a network, he sees St. John’s and Mile One as “the pod” for all the operations.
“We’re here and we want to be based out of here,” he said. “In fact, I know if we have Mile One, we will create more jobs there than are there right now.
“At the end of the day, the risk is on me, but I’m it for the long haul and I believe we can accomplish something the city will be proud of.”
Still, he knows he’s “ticked some people off.” What might be described as relentless can also be coloured as irritating. What can be seen as a steady, long-term effort to erode obstructions could be termed the steady drip of water torture for others.
There will always be those suspicious of his ties to former premier Danny Williams, who seemed always to be at odds with Mile One when he owned the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps. And there will be those mistrustful about someone in private enterprise anxious to buy a publicly-owned asset, even when insisting to be satisfied with breaking even.
He has decided not to expend energy on attempting to change minds or opinions that probably won’t be changed, at least in the short term.
“To me this doesn’t seem like hard stuff, that it should be easier,” said MacDonald.
“Unfortunately, it hasn’t been. But I’m not giving up.”
"High Hopes" is a popular song first popularized by Frank Sinatra, with music written by James Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn. It was introduced by Sinatra and child actor Eddie Hodges in the 1959 film A Hole in the Head. @franksinatra https://t.co/Pgd0E2znQN— 50+ Music (@50years_music) August 18, 2020
In that way, there are those who might view him as the “silly old ram” of “High Hopes,” although we will avoid that comparison here since the ram’s appearance in the song’s second stanza involved the destruction of a “billion-kilowatt dam,” perhaps not the best image in this province at this time.
Let’s just move on to the song’s final line, which compares problems to balloons.
Think of MacDonald as someone with a pin and perceived by some — in his own words — as a “pain in the ass.” (If that’s the case, you can guess where the pin goes.)
The guess here, however, is that a pin-wielding MacDonald probably would prefer to see himself as a balloon puncturer, declaring, as in the last few words of the song, “there goes another problem, kerplop.”
Because when you have high hopes, even when something is deflated, it might just be a good thing.