By GRAHAM HICKS

On May 6, 2010, The Katz Group/Oilers held an open house at the Art Gallery of Alberta, at which the Ice District vision for the downtown was unveiled.

Much of it was scoffed at, indeed ridiculed.

Pie-in-the-sky, over-ambitious, too big and grandiose for little ol’ Edmonton.

That richie rich Oilers owner Daryl Katz was out to rob the taxpayer. Yes sir, he was going to stuff his face with taxpayers’ money.

Well here we are, eight years later.

Everything has been delivered as promised.

Rogers Place is more attractive and has more amenities than was originally proposed. The JW Marriott hotel and condo tower has been topped off at 56 stories, the Stantec Tower continues to grow to its majestic 69 stories, to be Canada’s tallest office tower west of Toronto.

The actual Ice District and Rogers Place Arena, once buildings are complete.

The original Ice District and arena land was all parking lots.

The power of address:  Most of the 264 condos above the JW Marriott Hotel have been sold in advance. Most of the office space not taken by Stantec in the Stantec Tower has already been leased.

The initial Ice District tower on 101 Street, leased by the city, is now open.  Foundational work is being completed for the next tower to be built, on what was the former Greyhound Bus terminal.

Currently the construction staging area, the central plaza (from which the arena’s south entrance flows, over 104 Avenue via Ford Hall) will stitch the entire Ice District, and indeed, much of the downtown, together.

Since the master agreement was signed in 2015 by the City of Edmonton/Katz Group, financing has never again surfaced as an issue. There’s been no cash call, no Peter-Pocklington-style last-minute financial blackmail. Love was in the air as the city, the Katz Group and PCL Constructors built Rogers Place on time and on budget. The Katz Group promised $100 million in commercial investment around the arena. That figure has already topped $2 billion.

Between the arena ticket tax and new downtown property taxes, “new” money is more than covering the city’s arena and district costs, including the arena’s Ford Hall, community rink, LRT connections and other new municipal infrastructure.

As promised by former mayor Stephen Mandel – who negotiated the deal – the arena has had no impact on city-wide property taxes. It’s paying for itself.

But in May 2010, this all looked positively Utopian.

The Katz Group had pushed ahead with the open house because it wasn’t getting anywhere with city council. Councillors of the day were skeptical and not particularly supportive. There were so many moving parts –  the future of Rexall Place, costs, the funding model, costs, the land, costs, downtown revitalization, costs, closing the downtown airport   …

And it was risky, both for the Katz Group and the city. “It took courage and vision on the city’s part,” says Katz Group senior Edmonton executive Bob Black. “City Council had to place a bet that the arena would indeed be a catalyst for downtown revitalization. That bet has paid off.” 

From the day Katz bought the team in 2008, he’d emphasized, again and again, the need for a new arena. “The Oilers were playing in the second oldest, second smallest arena in the second smallest NHL market of the time,” says Black.

What’s astounding is the resemblance of the actual Ice District as it’s being built to the 2010 conceptual renderings.  The towers have been moved around. Rogers Place was moved from the centre of the original footprint to its west end.  Other than those adjustments, what’s being built is remarkably faithful to the original concept.

The open house was invaluable, says Black. Community consultation made the Katz Group aware of the need to make the Ice District, especially its central plaza, pedestrian friendly and easily accessible from all four directions. The arena was moved over to ensure connectivity from north of the arena to the downtown.

Of course challenges remain. Downtown revitalization has basically put the not-for-profit Northlands out of business. The fate of Rexall Place and the rest of the city-owned Northlands land remains up in the air. As land values rise, what will happen to the inner-city agencies immediately northeast of Rogers Place, and to the clients they serve?

But the overall success of the Ice District /Rogers Place cannot be denied. 

Edmonton’s downtown has been revitalized and is now a far more attractive place to live, work, and play. The plaza will join Churchill Square as outdoor gathering spaces.  The Edmonton/Ice District model is being studied and copied by urban planners and city governments around the world.

Never has the efficiency of public/private partnerships been so aptly illustrated. One shudders to think what would have happened if the City of Edmonton had tried to do this on its own. Calgary’s inability to find common ground/partnership with The Calgary Flames on a badly-needed new arena stands in stark contrast to Edmonton’s success.

Delivered as promised: Congratulations to all.  May the Oilers team itself be as successful as its arena and surrounding district in the years to come.

• • •

Rumours of the ICE District’s Stantec and JW Marriott towers being up for sale while under construction have been circulating in the city’s business community.
Naturally enough, the Katz Group isn’t saying anything one way or another.

Such a sale wouldn’t change much. The buildings would continue to be built, would open hopefully on time and on budget with major tenants in place.

In fact, such a sale would establish a strong market price for downtown Edmonton real estate. attract institutional investors and reinforce Edmonton’s downtown as a place to invest.

Any profits realized by the Katz Group would likely be reinvested in upcoming phases of the ICE.

Buying and selling is part of any business. “Everything on this farm is for sale but the wife and the kids,” I remember my boss saying when I spend my summers working on his farm, “And I’m not sure about the wife.”

Katz would make any deal that makes sense to continue to grow his business and open up new opportunity.

Except the Oilers: Like his family, the Oilers are not for sale!