When Eugene Melnyk and his RendezVous LeBreton group won the right to build a new arena as part of a $4-billion development just west of the Parliament Buildings, there was a sense the Ottawa Senators had just won a championship.
Melnyk, the Senators franchise owner, was stunned, almost speechless, saying he was “kind of shocked.” At his side was Cyril Leeder, the Senators president and co-founder, and a major player in developing the proposal. Backed by Trinity Developments, headed by John Ruddy, the RendezVous group had beaten out a Devcore bid fronted by Quebec billionaires Andre Desmarais and Guy Laliberte, founder of the Cirque du Soleil.
This was in April of 2016. A little over two and a half years later, the proposal to build on the LeBreton Flats property owned by the National Capital Commission is going nowhere. At Thursday’s NCC meeting, the board announced that the proposal is stalled, and made it plain that the impasse is not the fault of the NCC or the city of Ottawa.
The problem is within the RendezVous group, specifically between Melnyk and Ruddy. In the past, Melnyk has questioned Ruddy’s proposal for large residential development as part of the project, and as recently as last April said he was “hedging” on the idea of moving his hockey team downtown.
NCC chairman Mark Kristmanson said on Thursday there remain “unresolved differences” within the partnership.
Ottawa mayor Jim Watson concurred. In late summer, he joined Ruddy and Melnyk for a face-to-face-to-face meeting, but little was accomplished beyond a photo-op.
“It has been a challenging relationship that I have witnessed,” Watson told reporters following the NCC meeting. “My hope is that they come together and get their act together and bring forward a corporate governance structure that makes sense and is workable so that we can break ground on this project and not be constantly mediating between the two partners.
“We cannot have a dysfunctional partnership construct and build this site over the next 10 to 20 years. It has to be workable.”
Last January, the NCC declared an agreement in principal to transfer the land over to the RendezVous group for development. But there has been little progress on the file since. Sources say that Melnyk and Ruddy rarely speak to each other.
NCC Board member Aditya Jha made an awkward bid for the quote of the day when he compared the RendezVous partnership to a “one-legged child with one eye who wants to become an athlete.”
Winning the race, he said, is unlikely.
Whether RendezVous wins the ‘race’ is equally doubtful, despite getting the green light to build an 18,000-seat downtown arena for Ottawa’s NHL team, along with a waterscape along the Ottawa River, with hotel and retail space on a prime 21-hectare piece of land. An Abilities Centre and outdoor arena are also included.
The area has been vacant since the 1960s when the government expropriated the row houses and industrial buildings on the site.
Not coincidentally, Leeder, who often represented Melnyk in these meetings with the city or developers, is long gone from the scene, having been fired by Melnyk in January of 2017. Former executive Tom Anselmi, who replaced Leeder, has also come and gone.
The NCC has given RendezVous a January deadline to get its proposal in shape or the process will proceed without RendezVous.
Ruddy and Melnyk did not attend the meeting but Ruddy did issue a statement, reaffirming his pledge to develop LeBreton. He did not mention Melnyk or the Senators in the statement.
“As a lifelong resident of Ottawa, I remain committed to the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, the cleanup of this site in the shadow of the Peace Tower, the revitalized downtown core of the Nation’s Capital and a new smart-growth community where people can live, work and play,” Ruddy said.
“As the Master Developer for the RendezVous submission, Trinity has the experience and track record to get this critical project done.”
Later in the afternoon Thursday, Melnyk also released a statement:
“We’ve championed a downtown sports and entertainment, arena and this important civic project, since initiating our proposal in 2014. We continue to be committed to making our vision a reality.”
For the region at large, the LeBreton project represents a rare opportunity to develop a large open site in the downtown area of a major Canadian city. It melds nicely with a major LRT initiative currently underway.
When it was approved, the thought was that ground could be broken on the project in 2018, with the Senators ready to play in their new arena as early as 2020 or 2021. Others thought the timeline was unrealistic, and they are being proved right, for reasons they might not have imagined. Self-inflicted delays.
For the Senators franchise, the new arena represents a lifeline. Among those who have stated a move downtown is vital for the Senators is the NHL head office, which is keeping a close eye on developments in Ottawa, where franchise debt re-financing has been common in recent years.
“A new downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in the fall of 2017.
Since the Canadian Tire Centre (called the Palladium initially) was built in suburban Kanata in 1996, fans have endured the commute. In recent seasons, however, attendance has dipped, Melnyk has been a lightning rod for fan criticism and the idea of a new rink at LeBreton has become thought of as a panacea. Today, the concept feels much more distant than the 26-kilometre drive from the CTC to LeBreton.
The great irony, of course, is that the historically stodgy NCC has turned down dozens of proposals to build on this precious land below Parliament, including a bid by original Senators franchise owner Bruce Firestone to build his arena there for the expansion Senators of 1992.
Firestone was privately dismissed by the NCC chair at the time. Publicly, Jean Pigott said the matter would be “studied.”
Ironically, nearly three decades later, the NCC has dramatically reversed field, opening the door to a major corporate development and the first private enterprise proposal it welcomes can’t get its act together to get it done.
RendezVous has two months to find a way, or the bidding process could go back to square one.
The Quebec bidders might be back in play. They also proposed an NHL arena. The catch is, they don’t own a team and Melnyk has repeatedly said he won’t sell it or be a tenant for them.
Something has to give between now and January, when the NCC meets again to update the LeBreton file.