Experts cast doubt on economic benefits of proposed arena in downtown Regina

The City of Regina's catalyst committee has recommended the construction of a new arena in downtown Regina.  (Alexander Quon/CBC  - image credit)
The City of Regina's catalyst committee has recommended the construction of a new arena in downtown Regina. (Alexander Quon/CBC - image credit)

Nearly a week after the publication of the catalyst committee's final report on where to build a series of mega projects in downtown Regina, the debate over whether they are needed at all continues.

One of the largest lightning rods is the proposal for a new event centre/arena that would serve as a replacement for the aging Brandt Centre.

The report recommends that Regina construct its new arena somewhere in the city's downtown core. It's an idea that Mayor Sandra Masters expressed support for after Wednesday's meeting of Regina executive committee.

"I think our downtown needs some investment and if we're not getting any private investment — and haven't for a number of years in some respects in terms of construction — [and] if the city is going to build something, perhaps then that's when you focus it on downtown," she said.

The catalyst report says there are established benefits to the presence of an arena downtown.

"A new Events Centre is expected to have a large positive economic impact," the report reads.

However, two experts CBC spoke with for this story say that the picture is far less clear.

"There are lots of reasons to consider putting an arena in. It's a fun amenity, but hoping to make a bunch of money from it is is one of the things you shouldn't count on," Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., told The Morning Edition with Stefani Langenegger.

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The proposed 10,000-seat arena, with an estimated price tag of $156 million, is larger than the 6,500 seat Brandt Centre. However, it will still likely draw most of its patrons from in and around Regina, he says. Mega events are unlikely to head to Regina with larger centres such as Winnipeg or Saskatoon nearby.

Matheson, who studies the economics of stadiums, says one of the main things in play with arenas is the substitution effect.

While people might end up spending money at the arena or commercial stores around it, he says, it's just money that would have otherwise been spent in different areas of the town. There's not a significant amount of new spending.

The arena is at the bottom of the list of projects recommended by the catalyst committee in its report, which means it could be awhile before construction begins.

The committee has been clear that if any of the proposed projects is delayed by a decade inflation could boost the price tag by as much as 80 per cent.

Depending on the cost, another expert says, the benefits might not be worth the cost.

"If I had $250 million to improve the downtown, would I spend it on in arena? No," said Rylan Graham, an assistant professor with the University of Northern British Columbia's school of planning and sustainability.

"I think that there are other interventions that could have more significant impact on improving the downtown than an arena."

Masters expressed some caution over any of the touted economic benefits of an arena, citing concerns over the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, she believes that the construction of an arena could be important for drawing people to the downtown core.

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The planned arena would be built to last 50 years, according to the catalyst committee report.  For context, 2023 will mark 46 years since the Brandt Centre opened.

Location, location, location

The final report provides a list of five possible but broad locations. All of them are downtown, but the committee has declined to provide specific locations citing concerns over land speculation.

However, the catalyst committee's report published a compilation of artist renderings.

While the renderings are not meant as serious examples of the final version of the arena, they do potentially reveal some of the locations up for consideration.

City of Regina
City of Regina

According to the catalyst report, the preferred location in downtown Regina is somewhere on 12th Avenue.

One of the renderings shows an arena located across from a sign that can be found outside of the Regina Public Library's central branch.

The rendering matches up with a block north of the library that currently houses a number of heritage buildings as well as offices for Sask Sport.

The location that ranked third in the committee's preferences is simply called Broad Street.

A different rendering clearly shows buildings clustered around a major street. That buildings around the arena mock up match with existing architecture at the northeast corner of Broad Street and 12th Avenue.

The spot where the arena is located in the renderings comprises parking lots and small retail stores.

The executive committee has directed city administration to get more public feedback before it makes any decisions. 

However, it doesn't have long as council is scheduled to vote on most of the projects — including the arena — on March 22.

Council will vote March 8 on an item at the top of the catalyst list of projects, a new aquatic centre, with $128 million in federal funding riding on their decision.