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From $60M to $215M: A brief history of Sudbury’s efforts to build a new arena

It’s no secret that the 73-year-old Elgin Street barn is in bad shape. A discussion of staff reports and consultant recommendations goes back decades, but current the rink can’t hold modern concerts, isn’t accessible for everyone, and shows its age with frequent equipment and other breakdowns. (File) It’s no secret that the 73-year-old Elgin Street barn is in bad shape. A discussion of staff reports and consultant recommendations goes back decades, but current the rink can’t hold modern concerts, isn’t accessible for everyone, and shows its age with frequent equipment and other breakdowns. (File)
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As city council in Sudbury prepares to debate – again! -- the future of Sudbury Arena, here’s a quick look back at how residents got here.

It’s no secret that the 73-year-old Elgin Street barn is in bad shape. A discussion of staff reports and consultant recommendations goes back decades, but the current rink can’t hold modern concerts, isn’t accessible for everyone and shows its age with frequent equipment and other breakdowns.

But building anything new is expensive and controversial in any community and any major proposal attracts detractors.

The current debate arguably began in 2013, not long after the province approved Sudbury as a location for a casino.

Rumours hit town that Caesar’s Entertainment wanted to build the casino, and may be willing to include an arena as part of a major development downtown. Estimates at that time were around $60 million.

Writing for another news outlet in March 2013, I said at the very least, the city could reduce costs of a new build by working with the private sector: “While a new rink need not be quite as no-frills as the Sault’s $25-million Essar Arena, the Sault example proves you don’t have to spend $100 million to get a quality OHL arena.”

I was so naïve.

After Mayor Brian Bigger took office following the 2014 municipal election, council launched its so-called Big Projects initiative, where community groups were invited to make their pitch for transformational projects.

They included the Place des Arts, the only project that has been completed successfully. Other proposals included a convention centre, library and art gallery all downtown (dubbed ‘The Junction’), and a new arena, either downtown, in the South End or on the Kingsway.

After a series of studies and reports, city staff eventually recommended the downtown arena plan, which required the city to buy land in the Shaughnessy Street area downtown. The project by that time was going to cost about $100 million.

Bitter legal battle

While the downtown plan had the mayor’s support, it was defeated in a 2017 vote in favour of what would become the Kingsway Entertainment District. That plan would have seen a new arena, casino and hotel on property owned by Sudbury Wolves owner Dario Zulich.

But a bitter years-long legal battle ensued, led by people opposed to casinos and those opposed to building the arena anywhere but downtown.

While losing the court battles, opponents won the war by delaying the start of construction until global inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

When costs of the KED hit $215 million before the 2022 municipal election, support for the project largely disappeared.

Mayor Paul Lefebvre took office in 2022, still promising to address the issue. He got support from council to buy the downtown properties that were part of the original downtown arena plan.

A city staff report concluded that a major renovation would cost an amount close to the cost of a new build, but wouldn’t last as long. The report recommended building a new rink downtown on the Shaughnessy Street area properties the city purchased.

And Tuesday night, residents will learn whether a project that was too expensive for the Kingsway will be rejected again or whether the city’s decades-long arena debate is finally at an end.

The meeting will be carried live here beginning at 6 p.m.

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