CP-Web. Dallas Stars Alex Goligoski (33) checks Edmonton Oilers Ales Hemsky (83) during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday November 13, 2013. The Ottawa Senators picked up Hemsky Wednesday in exchange for a third-round pick in this year's draft and a fifth-rounder in 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson ORG XMIT: CPT113
The Rogers Place arena in Edmonton.
A view of downtown Edmonton.
EDMONTON — Having squinted at tea leaves — very well, the fishwrap — I am beginning to think it likely that Edmonton will become one of the “hub” venues for an improvised end to the 2019-20 National Hockey League season. Alberta and city politicians have been talking about the possibility with increasing enthusiasm , and the Oilers are squirting out ever-increasing volumes of detail on their scheme to have televised games in a quarantined Rogers Place.
It seems as though we are coming to the end of a period of watchful waiting, and Edmonton is to be rewarded, sort of, for having avoided a COVID-19 setback that would have derailed the logistics and set the public against the plan. As of Wednesday this is a city of close to a million people with 50 known active COVID-19 cases .
The concept made immediate sense when it began to be discussed back in the early virus era. Edmonton’s still-new rink is physically joined to a fancy 55-story hotel that is presumably using about three of those stories right now. Even assuming you couldn’t easily fit 10 hockey teams, support staff and broadcast crews into the Ice District Marriott, there are other hotels just around the corner. Cordoning the Hockey Zone in the downtown won’t involve major interruptions to unrelated businesses. Probably the main problem, if there’s a postseason push or a Stanley Cup tournament involving the Oilers, will be preventing people from congregating elsewhere in the city.
Other city rinks are closed to the public, and can be used for training and practices without annoying anyone. These are of typical Canadian quality — after all, they’re just the sort of place where most NHLers learned their trade. It is hard to think of U.S. cities that would work as well outside the Minnesota-to-Maine hockey belt.
The Edmontonian instinct will be to celebrate the attention that results, with a touch of self-congratulation about the city eluding the worst of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is hard to know how much of the smugness is deserved. I get a certain amount of correspondence from lone geniuses who think they have got the various correlates of local COVID-19 severity all worked out, but I’m afraid I don’t.
It seems Edmonton benefited from its relative remoteness, and probably from its aversion to public transit. The flight of the meat packing industry at the turn of the century, much lamented at the time, has been paid back in human lives. But study of infection rates in older age groups also indicates that our facilities for the aged experienced little of the Gothic horror seen elsewhere. Someone deserves credit for that — probably not collective, general credit, but that won’t stop us from taking it.
I suspect, however, that once the whole thing is “go” for launch, there will be a bit of a letdown. The whole reason Edmonton is a desirable destination for this kind of project is precisely that it can be made all but invisible to the rest of us. It’s not like we’ll get to go to the games. The broadcasters won’t even be able to shoot a bunch of new scenic B-roll of Edmonton.
The cordon around the city-within-a-city is likely to mean that even the secondary economic gains will mostly be limited to the Oilers themselves and the hospitality trade. Sporting goods retailers will be ordering a lot of extra tape. These lines of business can all really use the help, but there won’t be the kind of hedonic overflow or consumer spending that a town would get from ordinary hockey games.
Oilers executive Tim Shipton told the Edmonton Sun Wednesday that the virus tests necessary to bring off the whole show won’t have to come from the public supply in Alberta. It presumably won’t be hard to convince the Edmontonian public, in general, that the “hub city” scheme can be executed with a minimum of public expense or inconvenience (or mortality).
What the team and the league won’t be so careful to bring to our attention is that Edmontonians are already on the hook for the space-age arena, financed mostly from the incremental increases that the downtown property tax base is supposed to enjoy in the coming decades. As an owner of downtown property, I can’t say I have seen any such thing as an increase in my assessment value yet. I was slightly behind in nominal dollars, over nearly a decade, even before the economy got put in the freezer.
Mayor Don Iveson probably did some minor additional injury to my portfolio by spitballing a total summertime shutdown of public transit in the city on Wednesday. He quickly retreated when his brain got wind of what had come out of his mouth. But why complain about a dent in your fender when the astronomers of the housing market are warning of an approaching asteroid ?
No matter: if you bring anecdata like this to the doorstep of the city administration, they will reassure you that the property tax increment that supports Rogers Place is extremely secure because of all-new commercial buildings in the downtown, ones whose tax revenue is 100 per cent devoted to paying for the rink until we can burn the mortgage. Why, there’s that giant hotel by the arena, which may have tourists at some point or other in the future after the NHL players are cleared out. And there are glamorous new corporate offices to which we are not quite sure anyone will want to return after COVID-19.
I have a dim memory of the tax increment being declared safe as houses (ha!) in a variety of revenue scenarios contemplated by city economists. What I don’t recall is whether the phrases “novel coronavirus” or “negative prices for Alberta oil” appeared anywhere in those documents. But I’m sure it will all be fine. We’ll have hockey here! Before anyone else! Or at least the comforting inferential knowledge that hockey is being played nearby!
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