Moncton could learn a lesson from the T Dot and its big white elephant.
Back in the 1980’s, a group of investors suggested that they could build an architectural masterpiece in Toronto that would be the envy of cities the world over. It would be the “world’s greatest entertainment center” – the SkyDome, with an original price of $125 million quoted to the residents of Toronto. Trevor Eyton, the businessman heading up the project, assured that the SkyDome could be built with very little public funding. To say he was wrong would be an understatement, as the final price tag for the completed venue came in just shy of $600 million, with taxpayers on the hook for at least half of the total cost.
On June 3, 1989, the SkyDome was opened to the world. If you were to believe the hype, Toronto had a license to print money! For a while it looked like the huge gamble was going to pay off, with the Toronto Blue Jays – the SkyDome’s highest profile tenant – pulling in over four million fans alone each year, and many marquee entertainment events being held there to packed houses. For a while, the SkyDome was the place to be and the astronomical price tag attached to it started to look like mere pocket change when one regarded the potential for future profit.
That’s when things started to go south. Blue Jays attendance dwindled, big concerts started to go elsewhere, and the venue started losing money at an alarming rate. It lost so much money that in 1993, the provincial government that heavily subsidized the concrete monolith sold it to a private company for $150 million; a company headed by none other than Trevor Eyton. A mere six years later it was sold through bankruptcy proceedings for $80 million. In 2004, Ted Rogers snapped it up for an unbelievable $25 million – roughly four percent of the original cost to build the venue – and stuck his name on the side.
To recap, an entertainment venue that was partly built as a home for the Toronto Blue Jays was heavily funded by public dollars. In roughly fifteen years, the venue fell into the hands of the ridiculously wealthy owner of the Blue Jays for a mind-numbing fraction of the cost that the taxpayers who paid for it were originally saddled with. This, dear readers, is how the rich get richer.
Sure, the SkyDome (I refuse to call it the Rogers Centre) is still a pretty cool place to visit. It’s a decent place to watch a ball game on a June evening with the roof opened and the CN Tower stretched overhead. I caught a football game there a few years back and it was home to one of the greatest WrestleMania events of all time. If I was the one footing the bill for it, though, by way of increased taxes and funds diverted from more important things like health and education, I’d be less than happy.
The fellow I talked to was of the firm belief that there was a hard lesson to be learned with the SkyDome’s failure – entertainment venues should never be built with public money. They should be funded by private enterprise; the ones who preach how profitable these meccas will be before the costs start soaring to astronomical levels on the backs of Jane and John taxpayer. I’d have to say I agree with him.
Imagine how I felt when I I came home and saw that Moncton city council approved a motion to borrow $95 million to build the new Events Center on Main Street. At a time where teachers are being cut, our hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed, and the province is in the worst financial shape it’s been in since I moved here ten years ago, we’re building a new stadium?
I can’t be happy about this. As much as I like seeing top notch entertainment in a great venue, the fact of the matter is that this is the equivalent of me going out and buying a brand new Cadillac when my kids don’t have clothes on their backs or food in their bellies. The assurances that this building will be a ‘money making venture’ and will bring untold riches and new life to the downtown core don’t compute. Knowing the history of the SkyDome debacle certainly doesn’t instill faith in council’s promise that they ‘won’t spend the whole $95 million’ they’re asking to borrow either.
I ask the same question my hot dog peddling pal asked me – “if these things are the goldmines they claim they are, why aren’t the fat cats getting in on the ground floor and spending their own money on them? It’s always the people like you and me that pay for these playgrounds!” Why can a guy selling wieners for a living see this while our politicians fail to?
What can you do, though? My voice is lost in the storm of the people pushing this through. I will say one thing, though. If I’m paying for this, I at least want a retractable roof with a breathtaking view of the Bell Aliant Tower.