Markham councillors expect a boisterous overflow crowd at its civic centre Tuesday night in a showdown over whether the city should provide taxpayer money for a proposed $325-million, NHL-size arena.
“It will probably be a no-holds-barred meeting,” said veteran councillor Jim Jones, who has led opposition to the idea of public financial aid for more than a year.
“People should come out because it will be educational, entertaining and maybe confrontational.”
The debate over the 20,000-seat multi-purpose building near Highway 407 and Kennedy Rd. will precede a crucial council vote on a motion to rescind the project’s “financial framework.” It features a cost-sharing formula between taxpayers and a private developer.
A group of builders, who support the proposal, entered the fray last week with a full-page ad in the local newspaper, urging residents to attend the meeting and encourage their ward councillor to reject the motion.
“If this motion passes, our community will be forgoing millions of dollars in economic activity and the opportunity to anchor Markham Centre with a marquee tenant and possibly the GTA’s second NHL team,” they said. “We can’t let this happen.”
Most of the 13-member council expect a close vote and a large crowd to assert their views. The chamber and an adjacent room can hold about 400 people.
Councillors voted overwhelmingly for the proposal last year but that support has eroded as they learned more details and heard complaints from residents.
Reflecting some of the vigorous opposition, Karen Rae, president of the Markham Village City Ratepayers Association, responded to the builders’ push by telling them to bring cheques for the arena developer so it can remain a private venture. Her group has also pressed residents on its website to “urgently attend” the meeting.
“There will be some fireworks,” added the feisty Rae who has openly sparred at meetings with Mayor Frank Scarpitti, a big project supporter.
The ratepayers’ association and other residents say the city shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars for the benefit of private business people. Opponents also argue that if the arena doesn’t attract a major tenant such as an NHL franchise, the project will expose the city to steady losses and tax increases.
Colin Campbell, who initiated the motion to rescind the funding formula, said he thinks the city is approaching the project “backwards” without a guarantee of an NHL franchise to generate critical operating revenues and protect taxpayers.
“If the NHL indicated it would be coming here and the private sector expressed an interest in building an arena, then it might be worth looking at,” Campbell said. “Right now, we need to put this to bed.”
But Scarpitti has described the project as “an incredible opportunity” for Markham and a catalyst for economic growth in the city’s new downtown and beyond. He also emphasized earlier that the funding formula may need some work and is only one part of a process to turn the project into reality.
The project’s funding formula proposes Markham borrow $325 million while a private sector partner, Remington Group, would pay back half of that amount over 20 years. The city would pay back its half through development fees on builders and ticket surcharges on arena guests.
In a worst-case scenario of no local growth, homeowners would face small gradual increases in their tax bills annually to a peak of $160 in the fifth year, according to city estimates.
Scarpitti has also noted the private sector contribution actually represents about $292 million, including $162.5 million from Remington and another $130 million in development fees from various companies.
Remington has not indicated whether it will seek other investors or shelve the project if council rejects the funding formula.
Meanwhile, council will also consider a motion from Jones to defer site plan approval for the arena until Markham completes a secondary plan for the downtown area, just east of the arena site.
Jones said council needs to look at a master development plan for the area rather than approve individual projects such as the arena without considering how they can function with other places in the new downtown .
In recent years, he has promoted the idea of “Markham Live,” a world-class destination including high-end retail and office space, top-notch hotels, condominiums, a convention centre and entertainment and sport venues such as an international athletic training facility.
The intrigue around the project increased during the weekend when former Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett shared his expertise in a private meeting with councillors and a later session with Rudy Bratty, who heads Remington.
Gillett said he wasn’t pitching any proposal to them but in an interview later he expressed some interest in participating in the Markham Live concept at a future date if it gains traction.