I’ve been hard on Melnyk in these pages. I’ve written, at length, about how the way he talks about the sustainability of his hockey club is problematic. I’ve accused him of playing with public sentiment. I’ve basically called him a liar and a buffoon. Those are a fan’s reactions, and I stand by them.
So, how do I react during his most recent radio interview? I am, as usual, conflicted. (I take all this transcript stuff from the6thsens guys. Great work on their part to make it available to fans.)
Let’s get to what, to me, is the money quote:
On whether he believes the City owes him, if not a casino license, owes him the opportunity to do something to support his hockey team that is losing money…
“No, not me; they owe everybody. Like I said, I don’t care if I win, lose or draw, just do it right. Do a competition. It’s like, you’re not the only guys in the race and let’s see if you can stand on your own. If I lose, I lose. I go home and come up with a Plan C. Right now, there’s no Plan C. Can we survive? You know what, it all depends on how the team does. It all depends on, can we find a third revenue source. There’s only so much (we can do). I tried to build, like you said earlier, a soccer stadium. I said, ‘Okay’. They say, ‘Well, you guys are all out in the boonies out in Kanata.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, because I’ve been trying to build the damn thing for ten years now.’ So I say… I get Garbor, the Commissioner of the MLS – the soccer league. Okay, so we fly around in helicopters. I show him where the place is. He says, ‘Look, if you get a stadium in there’, virtually without committing, he says, ‘You’ve got a team. This is a great place. Beautiful.’ We propose (the MLS bid to the City) and no, what do they do? Bring CFL football back to Ottawa (for) a third time and they gave a $400 million gift of land to a group of insiders there. And that was it, so I get killed there. All of a sudden, I don’t know what their fixation is, but if anybody knows about horseracing… these horses (at RCR) run for $4,000 a race. That’s their purse. I heard that before slots came in, it was $2,000, but that’s the level of competition you’re talking about versus the cheapest of the cheapest races anywhere in Toronto, (the Toronto purse) would be $40,000.”
There are a few things going on here, so let’s unpack it…
First of all: I don’t know anything about what motivated city council to ‘sole source’ their decision to put the casino at Rideau Carleton Raceway, except to say that the pressures on them are not just between competing factions of business people. There’s a significant health policy portfolio at play here. I work in health policy, and I know that there’s opposition all over the damn place, from pretty much every research, advocacy, and policy segment of the health community, to building a casino.
Gambling, the argument goes, is a tax on the poor. In a conservative or libertarian world you blame an individual for his or her decisions. In the world where I come from, you realize that unhealthy decisions like whether or not to smoke, gamble, or drink to excess are complex ones, tied up in class and culture and poverty. These are the social determinants of health. It’s not as simple as casino = jobs and taxes. There are other ramifications and costs to consider, both economic and social. And for that reason, I can understand the city saying, “let’s have our casino, which will have some benefit for us, but let’s keep it a rinky-dink little thing out in the middle of nowhere.” They want to control it by keeping it small.
Melnyk doesn’t seem to get that, especially in his dream world of $40,000 purses. Why would he get it? Losing a few thousands bucks here and there doesn’t phase him, and maybe he hasn’t seen what a gambling addiction for those without his means would do to a family.
Secondly, mixing up the Landsdowne / CFL decision, the soccer decision, and everything else is both complicating matters and dumbing them down simultaneously. To state that there was no competition at Landsdowne is sort of asinine for anyone who lived through the years of debate it spurred. Having said that, I would like to know more about how the city makes the decision to go to an open bid. When is a contract simply awarded? When do you rely on council debate and public consultation, and when do you rely on a competition? Light rail has been a clusterfuck over the past decade, but the most recent contract signed was a fantastic deal for the city, and that was brokered by these same people who apparently, at least according to Melnyk, give gifts to insiders.
To me, the much bigger point in all this is for voters (and hey, we have a municipal election next year!) to be aware that the debate doesn’t begin and end with the casino. Melnyk is being spurious when he claims the Senators pump $200 million into the local economy, and create “thousands” of direct and indirect jobs, or when he sings the continuous, and equally spurious refrain that a franchise that has doubled in value in ten years is “losing” $10 million a year and needs a third source of revenue in order to survive. But the question it raises is one of the social contract between sports franchises and the cities that love them. What do we owe them, if anything? Is it anything more than buying the goods we value from them at a fair price? What is all of this talk of fairness when, as the owner of a sports franchise, Melnyk can go on a radio talk show and make his case anytime he likes, spouting insults and making spurious claims of his immense generosity without much in the way of corroboration? He’s right that’s it’s not a fair process; he has advantages that the other ‘bidders’ in this case don’t.
Melnyk can invoke all the good he’s done to get his bid in. That’s one thing, and I don’t think anyone would think it unreasonable to give him his shot. But to bow to this pressure for the wrong reasons would also be precedent. What’s to stop that same justification from being invoked in order to favor his bid, or the next time he comes up with a strategy to make Kanata viable? My thinking is that, sure, he should get to bid, because that’s the principle of an open bid. But keep all of this other manipulative bullshit out of it.
To me, the looming, and gargantuan subtext to this whole debate–what people are really debating–is the next arena. Canadian Tire Centre is about 20 years old, and has a lifespan of 30. With upgrades, maybe you push that to 35. But new arena deals need to be in place a few years in advance in order to get the thing built in time. Which means that some time in the next half-dozen years, Ottawa is going to have to live through a protracted, hyperbolic, insanely misleading debate between Senators ownership and city council about who should pay for a building that will cost between $300 and $500 million.
I don’t always understand city council’s decision making, and I, like any reasonable person, encourage transparency. But I understand that small concessions now are only the first of many, and I feel much more mislead by Melnyk in all this than by city council.