The 2020 municipal election in Saskatoon has brought into the limelight many conversations about the future of the city, what investments should be made in this future, and even what the city can afford to invest.
With the current realities of COVID-19, it is easy to lose sight of this future by only thinking as far as the end of the pandemic. It is easy to think “let’s get a vaccine and then will figure out what we have left.” But, like it or not, thinking of and planning for the future of the city is also extremely important.
At the NSBA, we believe that visionary leadership will be required to take us into this future and that part of that vision needs to include the possibility of a downtown entertainment district that is anchored by a multi-use arena and convention centre.
It is easy to make a case for a new arena and convention centre in Saskatoon. The existing facilities are aging—SaskTel Centre turns 33 in 2021 and TCU Place is 20 years older and will be 53—and by the time shovels are actually put in the ground on such projects the existing facilities will be nearing or past their recommended replacement dates. Arenas are typically replaced about 35-45 years into their lifespan and convention centres are replaced at around 50 years. Regardless of other factors regarding location or growth, this is a problem that will need to be resolved as the current facilities fall short of the expectations of conference organizers, concert tour planners, and event attendees.
The case for a downtown location can also be easily made. Saskatoon’s population and the population of the surrounding CMA (Census Metropolitan Area) has been growing rapidly over the past decade and is projected to continue to grow in the decades to come. Much of this growth, projected to double the city’s population to 500,000 over 40 years, is expected to be housed via infill development along rapid transit corridors and in a future north downtown neighbourhood in the location of the current city yards. The downtown location complements these growth strategies and patterns perfectly in addition to supporting existing businesses in the downtown core.
However, the real argument for this type of project is the economic spin-off of a downtown entertainment district. The success of this type of project cannot and should not be measured by the profit margins of the anchor facilities (i.e. the arena and convention centre) alone. Instead, success is measured by how much spin-off economic activity can be generated in the form of development of the surrounding district (for both commercial and residential uses), boosts to businesses in the surrounding area (e.g. restaurants, retail, nightlife), and the attraction of visitors to Saskatoon who contribute to the tourist economy.
These types of economic spin-offs are what makes the price tag of such a project much more palatable. There is a reasonable expectation, given the success of other similar projects across North America, that what the city spends to build these facilities will be dwarfed by the cumulative economic benefit of development, business values, and tourism. This expectation is the foundation of some of the primary funding models for these projects such as a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) or Tax-Incremental Financing (TIF).
Getting this type of project off the ground will take true leadership and commitment by our community, but these city-building, visionary projects are essential to the growth and quality of life of the city. When the dust clears from the COVID-19 pandemic, a downtown entertainment district will be a bright spot that we can all look forward to.