Take two: Senators get another crack to build arena at LeBreton Flats

The good residents of Ottawa-Gatineau have seen this movie before, including the glitzy promo pictures.

This time they hope it might have a different ending ... one that features the drop of a puck at the good old hockey game.

Don’t look now but the Ottawa Senators are back in the business of building a new NHL arena just west of Parliament Hill in a mostly vacant area of land known as LeBreton Flats.

On Thursday, the National Capital Commission announced that the Senators are the chosen bid to build a major facility on a 7.5-acre tract of land in LeBreton. The proposed arena/events centre will be located on Albert St. between Preston and City Centre Avenue. There were other, undisclosed bids to build here.

Senators president of business operations Anthony LeBlanc and the club’s CFO Erin Crowe, both representing Capital Sports Development Inc. (CSDI, aka the Senators), signed off on a memorandum Of understanding regarding the lease of this land from the NCC and will have up to 15 months to hammer out the details of that lease. That is expected by the fall of 2023.

Each member of the NCC board who spoke, along with LeBlanc and Crowe, cited the heightened level of collaboration among the parties this time around. In the end, the Senators expect to be playing hockey where they belong -- at a central location, close to transit stations.

“It’s the worst kept secret in town that the Senators have been looking for an opportunity to move closer to the core of the city,” LeBlanc said. “It was something we collectively discussed -- was this something we still wanted to do? And the answer, always, was yes.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is another important figure firmly behind the idea of the Senators moving closer to the city core. He has said so on numerous occasions, including recently during the Stanley Cup Final.

Major Jim Watson, who was often at loggerheads with the late Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, praised the NHL team for sticking with the process, when a previous plan failed spectacularly. It’s important to note that it was Melnyk who put the team’s name back in the running for LeBreton before he passed in March. Melnyk’s daughters Anna and Olivia along with a board of directors currently operate the franchise.

“I think we’ve got a winner here,” Watson said of the proposal, calling it a victory not just for the team “but for the city of Ottawa and the National Capital Region.”

No set timeline or cost

How long before fans are getting off the train at Pimisi Station and walking into a sparkling new NHL arena for a game between the Maple Leafs and Senators?

It’s too early in the process to know. But LeBlanc said he expects the Senators will continue to play their games at the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata “for several years” until the new facility is ready.

Nor is the exact cost known. The next step in the process is the detailed lease agreement, which will feature the involvement of First Nations people (LeBreton Flats sits on traditional Algonquin lands) and a climate risk assessment.

The arena concept is to be a green plan, and “innovative,” according to NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum. There won’t even be a major surface parking lot (expect some suite holder parking). Fans and concert-goers will be expected to either walk here from downtown or take the LRT to either of the nearby stations, at Bayview or Pimisi. How about this for a third option -- canoe or kayak to the rink via an aqueduct.

“If you look at the facilities being built currently, particularly in urban areas, those days of having acres and acres of thousands of parking spots around the facility are gone,” LeBlanc said. “What’s most exciting about this site, obviously the proximity in regards to the rest of the community, but also the LRT Stations on both sides of the arena, and just the walkability of getting to the facility.

Crowe addressed the question of cost for the new facility and who pays for it.

“Remember, over this last couple of months we have been operating in a cone of silence with the NCC . . . we’ve reached this phase now of our due diligence lease negotiation and with that we will also bring stakeholders to the table to discuss the funding and how we finance this,” she said.

“In a development such as this, there are multiple sources of funding that we will look at and we’ll be working through that really carefully.”

Crowe said that the new NHL rinks provide a basis for comparison. For example, the New York Islanders' new facility cost $1.1 billion US, roughly the same as the new rink in Seattle.

However, Crowe cautioned that each facility is different, and cited the involvement of corporate partner Live Nation as an important consideration -- this will be more than just a hockey arena, but a place for concerts and festivals.

It is too early to know if any public funding will be involved, Crowe said. She noted that there will be lengthy discussions on costs and funding with new corporate partners Sterling Project Development, the design firm Populous, Tipping Point Sports and Live Nation.

NCC chair Marc Seaman stressed that the Senators' arena and event centre is just a part of the LeBreton development, representing about 10 per cent of the 71-acre development, which includes residential and business settings.

“This is a place where people can live, work and play,” Seaman said. “The vision that has been laid out in an exciting one. It has parkland, it has the aqueducts, it has the combination of residential and commercial -- and now, it has a major event centre.”

On this day, that was the part of the plan everyone was talking about.

“It’s an important milestone,” Seaman said. Consider it step one of many in the process. But a vital first step.

Following the formal announcement during the NCC meeting, key members met with the media for a question-and-answer period. The Senators' LeBlanc and Crowe did likewise.

How is this plan different from the 2016 RendezVous LeBreton plan (in which Eugene Melnyk was a partner), which got everyone fired up before fizzling out in 2019?

Then, the project was an ‘all or nothing’ proposal. When it fell apart, so did all of the LeBreton plan. This time around, the land is being developed in phases and parcels. For example, the development of a major new public library in this area is already in the works.

'World class partners’

The second aspect of this proposal: instead of local businesses that were involved with the RendezVous bid, the Senators have tapped into major corporate partners from the world of business and sport. The NCC’s VP of real estate and development described these companies as “world class partners.” The experience and deep pockets of these partners provided the NCC with the confidence that this plan was more realistic.

Here is how the NCC described the individual partners involved.

• Sterling Project Development (SPD), a real estate management and advisory group experienced in working with professional sports teams on sports facilities and mixed-use development. SPD recently completed UBS Arena, the new home of the Islanders

• Populous, a global design firm that has designed major sports facilities, such as Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Vidéotron Centre in Québec City, T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England.

• Tipping Point Sports, a boutique sports finance and advisory firm focusing on transformational public–private partnerships for sports-anchored, mixed-use developments.

• Live Nation, a world-leading entertainment company that produces concerts and festivals.

Will it really happen?

Of course, the Senators have been this far along the path to LeBreton before. In 2016, the RendezVous Lebreton bid was declared the winner and had the same opportunity to negotiate a development agreement. That plan fell apart in 2019 when then-owner Melnyk could not come to terms with Trinity Development, run by John Ruddy, an ugly dissolution that resulted in a civil lawsuit and countersuit.

How confident are the Senators and the NCC that this plan will actually come off? Extremely confident, according to everyone who addressed that question. Different players, now. A different plan, with the Senators focused on their little corner of the pie, nothing more.

“I think they (the NCC) use the term bite-size chunks,” LeBlanc said. “This is the right chunk for us to bite on -- it’s an arena, that’s our expertise.

“We’ve got the right group of partners together, this is the right time for this to happen and it’s the right size.”

It’s the right move for a Senators team that has had its share of hard luck, on and off the ice, over the past several years.

The Sens could use some good news. On this day they got it.

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