Windsor Express 'disappointed' after bid to revitalize Windsor Arena denied

·4 min read
Dartis Willis, team owner of the Windsor Express, says he received an email earlier this month noting that the bid to revitalize the arena had been denied. He adds city council should've done more to learn more about the idea.  (Sanjay Maru/CBC - image credit)
Dartis Willis, team owner of the Windsor Express, says he received an email earlier this month noting that the bid to revitalize the arena had been denied. He adds city council should've done more to learn more about the idea. (Sanjay Maru/CBC - image credit)

The Windsor Express' plans to revitalize the Windsor Arena have been derailed after the city denied its expression of interest to revitalize the historic building — also known as The Barn — into a multi-purpose facility.

The basketball team had hoped to turn the arena into one that would hold various sporting events and commercial spaces.

But on April 6, an email from the city was sent to the Windsor Express informing the team of council's decision to deny their bid — one that was made during an in-camera meeting one week prior. The city is not disclosing details as to why the team's bid was not accepted.

The team was one of two organizations shortlisted by the city after submitting expressions of interest for the arena in May 2019, along with the neighbouring Water World building. The other organization was the YMCA.

The decision is "disappointing" for Windsor Express owner Dartis Willis who said he doesn't think councillors did enough to get on board with the idea, such as not reaching out to the team with questions about the proposal.

This rendering, first shown to the public in 2019, shows what the team envisioned for the Windsor Arena if the Windsor Express was able to acquire it.
This rendering, first shown to the public in 2019, shows what the team envisioned for the Windsor Arena if the Windsor Express was able to acquire it.(Jason Viau/CBC)

During a public presentation in December 2019, Willis announced plans for an arena that could host basketball games, combat sports fights and even e-sports. Restaurants and stores were also part of the plan.

"This centrepiece is a big piece that could bring a great deal of energy to the community, a lot of vitalization to downtown. It would give us something else to be noticed for other than just the other things that are down there," he said.

"I just hope the city looks closely and sees that they need as many things to do as possible to attract tourism and attract people."

Willis also said he takes issue with the city noting that the team was among the "shortlisted proponents" for the entire property. That's because the Express and the YMCA each had very different needs for acquiring the property.

"[The city] put out one EOI which included both, but the YMCA was not bidding for the arena. They were only bidding for Water World. We were the only group to bid for The Barn," said Willis.

"For the city to release that, it's not fair, honest [or] straightforward. But there was only one group, the Windsor Express, that turned in an official bid for the arena."

The Windsor Arena and the YMCA were shortlisted as proponents for the city's expression of interest. The Windsor Express team's bid was focused on revitalizing the arena — but the YMCA says its expression of interest is solely focused on the neighbouring Water World site.
The Windsor Arena and the YMCA were shortlisted as proponents for the city's expression of interest. The Windsor Express team's bid was focused on revitalizing the arena — but the YMCA says its expression of interest is solely focused on the neighbouring Water World site.(CBC)

The YMCA of Southwestern Ontario confirmed to CBC News that its expression of interest was "exclusively for the Water World portion" of the property.

"We worked with the Express to make sure that each of our EOI's complimented each other, but did not submit a joint proposal," said YMCA general manager Andy Sullivan, adding the organization has not heard anything from the city regarding its own bid.

The Windsor Express' contract with the WFCU Centre recently expired, Willis said. That's not an issue for the team this year, as the National Basketball League's 2020-21 season was cancelled due to COVID-19.

"This centre piece is a big piece that could bring a great deal of energy to the community, a lot of vitalization to downtown." - Dartis Willis on what the Express hoped to do with Windsor Arena

But with the Windsor Arena no longer within shooting range, Willis said the team will "have to go back to the drawing board" in terms of securing a location for next year's season. He adds, however, that the team will likely be welcomed at the WFCU Centre "even without a contract."

"We want to see things get better. We want to be able to work on sustaining the team for the long term," said Willis, adding he feels bad for the community that were "going to get the utilization out of the revitalized arena."

The city provided little detail to CBC News regarding what the future holds for the Windsor Arena and Water World. In a statement, city solicitor Shelby Askin-Hager said "we are compiling information and expect further direction."

The Windsor Arena opened in 1925.