As the planning for a potential future Downtown Event and Entertainment District (DEED) progresses, I will do my best to keep this page updated with process updates as well as updates on my considerations and perspective.
Please reach out with questions and input: [email protected]
Ongoing updates are also provided on the City's project page here: https://www.saskatoon.ca/eventdistrict
If you missed the public presentation by technical advisor on trends in event districts in February, the recording is now available: https://youtu.be/q4pAcTQ-1Ak
The City's project page has captured the 'journey' so far here including all Council decisions and lots of background reporting.
Reporting about the need to plan for the future of both Sasktel Centre and TCUP began formally in 2018 and a decision to plan for this renewal in the downtown (rather than at Sasktel Centre's current location) was made.
In late 2018 the vision to have the event centers as part of a broader Event and Entertainment district began and the alignment with a future Bus Rapid Transit system was recognized.
Direction was also provided to have a future funding strategy minimize (or eliminate) the need for property tax funding.
Investigation into possible sites for the Arena component of the project began.
The site was selected and land purchased in late 2022.
Key Decision Point (Go vs No-Go decision)
There are a lot of small decision points required in the planning of a project like this. The key decision point (ie: the Go/No-Go decision) for the DEED project is the approval of a funding strategy. Many have expressed to me that it is confusing to see funds spent on land and studies, but also to know that there’s no funding strategy in place or approved and that that critical Go/No-Go decision hasn't been made. I understand this confusion. I also understand that it is uncomfortable to feel like the decision is already made. This is why I want to take an opportunity to share a bit more about process and my perspective on the project and its planning.
First, I want to clarify that I have not made up my mind about whether this project makes sense for our community to move forward with, and that the decision, for me, is truly at the funding strategy stage. My decision will be heavily based on the sources and feasibility of the funding strategy. My intent is that if this project is to proceed, that it proceed on the basis of mostly private, and user-based funding sources, and not on property taxes (report here from 2021 outlining some of what this could look like). Minimizing reliance on property taxes is the stated goal of Council and it is currently up to the project team to bring back a strategy for us to approve or reject. We anticipate being able to review this toward the end of this year (2023) or early next. My second consideration will be on the basis of community benefit. More on that below.
While we are several months away from a Go/No-Go decision on the Downtown Entertainment and Event District (DEED) project, there are quite a few questions that need to be answered before the funding strategy can be brought forward in the level of detail required for a decision. Questions such as: Where would it be? Will we renovate or replace the convention center (TCUP)? What would the public realm/spaces look like? What other costs should be included to be covered in the project?
None of these questions can be answered without study, consultation, and some spending. Land costs have been the major cost to date, and have been funded from the Property Realized Reserve which is a standalone fund that utilizes land development dividends (profits). Because of this funding source, there is no budget or tax impacts from the land purchase at this stage. This is the standard source of funds for land purchases by the City. If the project goes ahead, the funds spent on land will ultimately be paid back by the project’s funding source. As above, the project funding strategy is in development. If the project doesn’t proceed, lands can be sold or otherwise utilized to return the purchase costs to the reserve. There are some costs for the project planning prior to the Go/No-Go decision that will not be recovered if the project doesn't proceed - namely study and planning costs funded through a City Council approved capital project approved in past budgets.
The next steps are to consider the district part of DEED and to hear from Saskatoon residents about their vision for that. This means planning for all of the things that are not the arena or convention center. Planning for the public realm with public amenities, public access, general urban design, connectivity etc. A lot of this is highly technical, but a lot of it is about vision and community spaces and what would make the DEED District a welcoming part of our downtown. I am hoping that this engagement will help us all better understand the potential of the project and in particular the potential community benefits for our city. I will be watching closely for the results of this and what residents have to say about this potential, or lack thereof. To read more about the scope for the district planning, head here.
Engaging in this is really important even if you're not interested in a future DEED. It's worthwhile to think bravely and inclusively about the future of our downtown, of the transportation networks and systems that serve us, and thinking about the public spaces we want. Whether your vision has event centres as a feature or not, I want the City to hear your ideas! Broad engagement will take place Spring 2023. More on timelines here.
In March 2023, City Council will be invited to endorse or amend the Vision and Principles being laid out for the District as a whole. This will lay the groundwork for decisions to come. View the draft here and let me know if you have feedback.
As above, the ultimate decision on this project is when we review the funding strategy (if the strategy is not approved, the project cannot proceed as envisioned).
My participation in that decision will be informed by:
- What I and our teams hear from residents through the remaining engagement phases prior to that decision - particularly around the planning for the District aspects;
- The public benefit considerations and whether I and others deem them to be sufficient to support the project overall - beyond upgraded entertainment facilities; and
- The funding strategy and whether it is a viable plan that doesn't unreasonably rely on property taxes or other sources from stakeholders or residents who will not see the most direct benefit from the investment;
- Perspectives from Ward 2 residents including neighbours who live nearby to downtown.
Overall, I am looking for a project that first and foremost serves residents of the City.
I see a few ways this project could benefit our community and city beyond those who are likely to attend events:
1) by the DEED driving downtown's evolution that serves all of Saskatoon's residents;
If the overall changes to the downtown that can go along with the planning and execution of a DEED are awesome and the event centers are managed in a way that creates great community access (inclusive gathering spaces, etc.) this could be a project with direct benefit for the whole community.
2) by the DEED driving more efficient growth in our City;
The other big benefit could come from how this change in our downtown could impact city development overall. We know that a city with a vibrant downtown is more sustainable due to what it supports such as more transit use and growth in housing and services that is central. These benefits cost us all less since central growth is much more efficient than greenfield growth. The phrase "grow up, now out" is a simple way to put it and downtowns are key to that efficiency.
3) by the DEED supporting long term economic benefit;
Because both venues are owned by the City and ultimately the residents of Saskatoon, their success impacts us financially; Regardless of how this is structured in the future, this relationship and likelihood of profit success needs to be weighed as a risk/benefit of the project. The exploration of the DEED all began because both venues are in need of investment in order to keep up with market trends and compete for their business (the events they host). Their ability to do this successfully is integrated into City finances to a certain degree. Structures such as private partnership are being explored to de-risk this (more on the project page). I will be looking for a project structure that has positive economic benefit not just for a few, but for the community more broadly through structured public economic benefit, and good fair-wage jobs.
Again, I want to hear from you AND it's important the City project team hears from you too. Please engage when the opportunities arise.
For ongoing updates from the project team and background visit the City's project page here: https://www.saskatoon.ca/eventdistrict
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