I didn’t live in Saskatoon when SaskTel Centre was built in 1988, but from what I’ve read the location was as controversial a point then as it is now.
Saskatoon City Council recently commissioned a report to investigate the feasibility of a downtown arena development, which will be researched by the group which helped Edmonton develop its Ice District.
To figure out why the discussion has come up, it may be prudent to take a look back.
The original name of Saskatoon’s largest sports arena was SaskPlace. I, like many people, still refer to it by its first moniker despite sponsorship name changes over the years.
Ironically, it was built to replace an existing concrete block downtown arena nicknamed the Barn.
There were really only two sites in the running at the time: near the original site approximately where the Persephone Theatre stands, and where the arena was eventually built in AgriPlace Industrial.
Accessing what we have
The site was criticized from Day 1 regarding transit access, as well as for planned interchanges to improve access which never transpired.
Just in 2015, the traffic lights at the intersection of Marquis Drive and Highway 16 showed up 27 years after SaskPlace was opened.
It should be pointed out SaskTel Centre is one of two facilities the report identified. The other is the already centrally located, but considerably smaller, city-owned convention centre TCU Place.
Both are getting up there in years.
When SaskPlace was built, there were very few businesses in the area and not much has changed from a service-provider perspective.
A Motel 6 was built in 2004 and includes a Tim Hortons; a second hotel was added in the last decade.
The arena hosts 20-25 concerts per year and approximately 120 days of events annually.
Sooner rather than later
As with any large municipal investment, a project of this scope will take years to develop. According to the report, however, there are already building deficiencies that will start to limit certain tours or events from stopping in Saskatoon.
The cost to renovate is high, at $101 million, and won’t solve the biggest gripe to many taxpayers: the location we just can’t bring ourselves to love.
The impact a new arena could bring to downtown retail, hospitality and restaurant services could be the catalyst Saskatoon needs to really spur an already buzzing downtown core.
The price tag is not for the faint of heart with a new arena alone estimated at $179 million. Combining the facility with TCU Place to create an arena and convention centre increases the price tag to $330-$375 million.
There is one piece of recent good news; the owner of the National Lacrosse League’s Saskatchewan Rush has agreed to pony up the first $20 million. We just have to find a few more bucks . . .
Where would we put it?
A new arena or convention centre would require a large parcel of land. Ultimately, it would likely mean repurposing a tract of land already occupied by buildings or occupants.
The report didn’t point out specific locations they suggest we develop, but there are “ideas.”
With the announcement of the Toys R Us bankruptcy in the U.S., it’s unlikely the company will need its Canadian stores for the long term.
This could open up redevelopment plans for the owners of Midtown Plaza, who are already saddled with a 160,000-square-foot vacancy left behind by Sears Canada.
The downtown core is a relatively finite area, being bordered by the riverbank on two sides, but the City of Saskatoon has determined it could still grow.
With the recent news regarding rerouting of the downtown trains, I wonder if the North Downtown Master Plan might be a suitable location. STC will be disposing of its property in the immediate area of this plan, so there could be some good re-use options to kick off the 25-year vision for this area.
There are also some tracts of land currently occupied by surface parking lots which could be assembled.
Unfortunately that does bring me to my next point, namely that we won’t all be driving to the new arena. The idea of a downtown relocation is visitors would utilize transit to minimize the impact of traffic.
Is Saskatoon ready for this?
As with anything of this magnitude, the idea of the downtown arena is a long way from being decided.
I’d love to hear some feedback on where you think a new arena makes sense.
Everyone in Saskatoon will get their say, likely via a public vote. Let’s hope we cast the right vote and don’t lose out like we did a few years ago, turning down a casino!