True North unveils latest round of arena renovations

19 September 2017

There’s new floors, new ceilings, new lights, new signage, new concessions and a new aviation theme full of steel, rivets and glass.

Throw in a new name — Bell MTS Place — and a new NHL season that kicked off Monday night with the Winnipeg Jets hosting the Minnesota Wild in their pre-season opener and what was old looked sparkling new again as hockey came back to town.

But in the bigger picture of things, perhaps the freshest thing of all was that the overwhelming majority of the $14 million price tag for the latest renovations was paid, as it should be, by True North Sports and Entertainment.

Now, that’s nothing new for True North, which deserves credit for having mostly paid their own way when it comes to the arena since Day 1, at least when compared to the sweetheart arena and stadium deals other pro sports teams have cut with their local governments — including, of course, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

While the Jets receive an ongoing property tax break on the arena and other annual public subsidies from government that they negotiated when the team first moved here from Atlanta, just $40 million of the original $133.5 million price tag of the downtown arena was public money and True North has continued to mostly pay their own way ever since.

Indeed, with the latest round of renovations, True North has now coughed up something in the order of about $30 million in the last three years renovating and revitalizing the home of the Jets.

And they’ve spent that money well: a new scoreboard a couple years ago was badly needed; seating was made more comfortable and sightlines, with a few notable exceptions, improved; and with the latest round of renovations, the whole place has just generally been brought closer to the high standards people quite rightly expect when they plunk down more than a hundred bucks to see an entertainment event.

In a normal world, of course, this would hardly be noteworthy — ‘Local business pays own bills’ isn’t exactly a ‘Stop the presses!’ headline.

But we don’t live in a normal world. We live in a world in which wealthy owners of sports teams routinely hold their host cities hostage, demanding the local citizenry build or renovate them shiny new sports palaces, or else.

The latest shameful example of billionaire sports team owners demanding public welfare came just last week in Calgary, where the owners of the Flames called a news conference — with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in tow — to announce they had given up on negotiations with the City of Calgary to build the Flames a new arena, with Flames president Ken King calling the talks "spectacularly unproductive."

It was a cynical ploy: the Flames were clearly hoping the announcement — and the presence of a sombre looking Bettman — would frighten Flames fans and make bankrolling a new arena for the Flames an election issue in a civic campaign, not coincidentally, currently underway in Calgary.

But that plan appears to have backfired just as "spectacularly" as the Flames say their talks with the city were unproductive, mostly because the City of Calgary has the facts on their side.

And what those facts reveal — which Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was only too happy to share following the Flames' tantrum — is that the City of Calgary has offered to pay one-third of the cost of a new arena ($185 million of an estimated $555-million project) provided the Flames ownership also agree to pay one-third, with the rest coming from Flames fans in the form of a ticket levy.

That seems more than fair to me — fans, owners and a city all coming together to finance something from which they will all benefit in their own way.

And, it bears repeating, it is also a deal that is infinitely richer than this city and province ever offered Mark Chipman back in the days he had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada just to earn the right to tear down the derelict Eaton’s building upon the site that now hosts NHL hockey in Winnipeg.

It is a monument to just how divorced from the fiscal reality of $50-a-barrel oil the Flames ownership is that they dismissed as a non-starter an offer of close to $200 million in public money for a new arena.

At least the Edmonton Oilers had the decency — and common sense — to hold the City of Edmonton hostage for a ridiculously pricey new arena deal of their own back when oil was hovering closer to $100 a barrel.

All of which brings us back to the modest, mostly self-financed arena the Jets call home.

It’s the smallest building in the NHL and even with the renovations, it lacks the sizzle you see in other NHL arenas around the league.

But it is unquestionably a better place to watch hockey today than it was before the renovations began and it’s a place that fits the small-market economic model the Jets are trying to operate a hockey team within.

If and when this team finally turns a corner and becomes a legitimate contender — and expectations have never been higher than the season that began Monday night — it will be at least in part thanks to the construction of a modest arena that remains affordable, both for the the Jets ownership and this province’s taxpayers.

In a city that loves a bargain, our humble little downtown arena might be the best one of all.