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OPINION: The battle for the soul of a city

It will be up to future generations to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Sudbury
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

The debate rages on in Sudbury about the propriety of ripping an arena out of the downtown and twinning it with a casino on an industrial land site five kilometres away.

The stakes are high: high for the developer who gets to revalue their land near the city dump, which has been doing nothing for decades; high for the city, which has ignored virtually all of its professional advice internal and external on the matter, including its own official plan and which will undoubtedly face legal scrutiny in due course; high for city councillors who are locked into fixed positions notwithstanding the extraordinary peculiarity of making this decision as the result of a six-to-six tie vote when it was brought before council; high for the province who through the OLG is determined to suck funds out of every midsize community it can tap across Ontario; high for downtown business owners who may have made investments based on the official plan of the city which specifically said it would not move the arena out of the downtown; high for environmentalists who are deeply concerned about the impact on the watershed of Ramsey Lake where tens of thousands of people get their drinking water; high for activists who are horrified the community arena designed for family fun is set across a square from a casino where the restaurants will be located; and high for taxpayers who are going to have to pay for this debacle for the next 50 years. There are other stakeholders, from transit aficionados to poverty activists, but you get the drift.

It appears to be a fight to the finish. There is no middle ground. You are for it or you are against it. It's either ridiculous to introduce a casino into a market with limited gambling tourism upside or not. It is either ridiculous to add tens of thousands of tons of salt to your drinking water source or it is not. It is either economically absurd in a static market to create two competing nodes of entertainment or it is not. It is either ridiculous to spend more than $100 million of public funds on all this infrastructure duplication or it is not. It is either ridiculous for the city to ignore virtually all of its professional advice or it is not. It is ridiculous to worry about all this stuff when you get a new casino and a new arena and all the benefits that are claimed to accrue.

As anyone in the North knows, this is painful. We live together, we party together, we volunteer together, we worship together, many of us play sports together and, notwithstanding the minimum wage hikes, we still go to Timmy's together.

We have a weekly newspaper in Sudbury (Northern Life) and a website ( The arguments and emotions come in waves through our media, and it is hard on our staff. Someone is always upset with us. Of course, that's our job, but it doesn't make it any easier.

Not long ago, some 40 people showed up at a city planning committee meeting where 95 per cent opposed the development. The arguments were strong, passionate and cogent.

It is hard to fully appreciate the depths of emotion.

With a provincial election coming, you can expect the Liberals or Gateway Casino to announce more money for this boondoggle. Maybe it will be a gas plant – more likely a soccer pitch – and you can rest assured the developer will be paid well for their newly valued land around this public investment. This is chump change for the province to make sure Sudburians get addicted to sending more money to Queen’s Park every year.

Most development projects in Northern Ontario communities create unity and positive vibrations. In fact, one of the most exhilarating qualities of living in the North is that citizens matter. Everyone is needed to overcome the vicissitudes of a resource economy that is one day giving too much and the next day breaking your heart. Fighting for fairness, equal treatment and innovative solutions makes us strong and resourceful.

When it goes awry it has a magnifying effect on the soul of the city and not for the better.

It will be up to future generations to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Sudbury. The question is what will be the real cost.