Back in December 1996, when Nashville’s arena opened its doors, it had no anchor tenant. The city’s hope of drawing a National Basketball Association team never materialized.Vitriolic criticism was heaped on local politicians who funded the arena 100 per cent with public money. But, you won’t find many critics of that decision now — if any.Nashville’s now-named Bridgestone Arena has been a generator of vibrancy to that city. And, Calgary business icon W. Brett Wilson says he is confident that Calgary city council’s vote of 11-4 — giving a big 10-4 to a new arena — will have the same impact in our city and in the Victoria Park neighbourhood.As a part owner of the Nashville Predators’ NHL team, Wilson has a front-row seat on how a downtown arena in Nashville helped transform part of that Tennessee city from depressed to a tourism destination.“People keep talking about how the city is giving the Flames $275 million. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Wilson, who spent a couple of hours in council chambers Tuesday along with about 50 other prominent business people, listening to a debate about the 50-50 funding deal between the city and the owners of the Calgary Flames.“The Flames are giving the city $275 million. When you watch and see what downtown Nashville has done in terms of the vibrancy of the businesses that wrap around the arena, that was built on what was once the outskirts of downtown. It’s incredible,” said Wilson.“I go back into the files and they tell me that they were ridiculed for building the arena where they did and yet if you went to Nashville today, a fabulous convention centre was built right near the arena. It’s been a catalyst for growth,” he says.Indeed, the Bridgestone Arena, located at 501 Broadway helped rejuvenate a grungy part of the edge of town into the centre of the action — filled with bars, restaurants, live music and the Country Music Hall of Fame.“I know there’s a couple of economists who keep saying the literature doesn’t support the idea of an arena being an economic engine,” said Wilson. “My point is, go to Denver, go to Nashville and see that the proof is in the pudding. I believe that that is going to happen here. I’m really, really happy for Calgary.”
The Bridgestone Arena is home to the Nashville Predators. Photo by Eirik Feir
Wilson, who became a part owner of the Predators in 2011, says Nashville city officials built the arena — completed in 1996 — with the hopes that “if you build it, they will come.”When their goal of attracting an NBA team fell through, their backup position was to get an NHL team. The Nashville Predators were born in 1998.“They got stuck with an NHL team and for 10 years they struggled. They had to build in a small southern market, that had no knowledge of hockey — a warm-weather market,” Wilson said.“They all saw what this was — an economic engine for future development. It’s worked. There’s construction on all sides of the arena. The arena in Nashville was an anchor point — a catalyst…It’s worked. It’s that simple and this new arena for Calgary will be no different,” Wilson predicted.But Calgary is not Nashville. We’re colder. We aren’t a country music mecca. Will this new event centre — that will be able to draw big concerts with big equipment that need a stronger roof than the Saddledome can provide — really be an “accelerator” for East Village development?“If we don’t try, there’s a 100 per cent chance of failure,” Wilson concluded.Ken King, vice-chairman of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) who has been negotiating for a new arena for years, was delighted with the vote.“This is a huge day for Calgary,” he said shortly after the 5 p.m. vote. “I think the most fun will be demonstrating to everybody in this city that this is really going to be the great thing that many people said it would be,” said King. “The fun will be in proving that.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Ken King have words as council voted for a new arena in Calgary on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia
Wilson says he won’t be sad to see the Saddledome go.“I look out my office window right now and I see the Saddledome and I’m not bothered that we’re going to lose it,” he says of the view from his offices at Canoe Financial.“It’s iconic for its look, but it’s never worked,” concluded Wilson. “You’ve never been able to walk easily between the levels. Guess how many escalators there are? None. Zero. How many large modern buildings have no escalators? It’s a garbage can that’s been made to look pretty.”
Exterior of the Scotiabank Saddledome near downtown Calgary, AB on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.
Jim Wells/ /
Ward 6 Coun. Jeff Davison, the chair of the Event Centre Assessment Committee, was the driving force to bring the city and the Flames organization back together more than 14 months ago. He and committee member, Coun. Ward Sutherland, asked hot-shot negotiator Barry Munro if he would oversee a couple of meetings. He ended up presiding over more than 750 meetings over four and a half months until a deal was hammered out between CSEC, the city and the Calgary Stampede.“This is an opportunity to change the course of our community for the better and an opportunity to move Calgary onward,” said Davison, referring to the city’s motto — “Onward.”More than 5,100 Calgarians sent their comments to the city in the one week between the deal being struck and Tuesday’s vote. Like the funding arrangement, there was about a 50-50 split between those citizens in favour of a new arena and those opposed.But, we elect council to make decisions and now council members have done just that. True leadership.Now the question is: Will this new arena be the accelerant to fanning the flames of vibrancy in our rather dead downtown? The examples of Nashville and Denver scream yes.Licia Corbella is a Postmedia opinion columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org