Arena? Pfft. Build Regina’s new pool next to the library
City | Paul Dechene
Guys! GUYS! GUYS!!
You know how this whole Catalyst misadventure the city is on right now is based upon work done by the Arena Planning Strategy Committee? And you know how the APSC’s recommendations for how to develop the city centre are reflected darkly in everything the Catalyst Committee is doing?
You know what I mean. How the APSC really wants there to be a hockey arena downtown and an aquatic centre in the Yards and baseball and soccer facilities at the Taylor Field site.
They’re all there in the Catalyst Committee’s online survey where every question is, basically, please rate this APSC recommendation on a scale of one to four, where one is “Oooh, you have my attention,” and four is “Oh God right there, baby! YES!”.
Yeah. That survey closed Nov. 10 so you can’t check if I represented it accurately.
Anyway, I was walking around in the snow the other day and it hit me…
What if there’s another way? What if there’s a different orientation of Catalyst Projects that works better and that doesn’t just take us back to status quo?
HEAR ME OUT
The foundational departure from the plans the city has on its shelves — the First Big Shift that the Arena Planning Strategy Committee proposed and the Catalyst Committee is carrying on — is this idea to put an arena right in the heart of downtown.
From this move, everything else flows.
For the sake of argument, let’s say we have to keep the downtown as a location.
Let’s say the federal government comes to us and says, “Here’s $200 million. You can do anything you want with it. BUT! You HAVE TO build something downtown. Because my name is Justin Trudeau and I like telling people what to do.”
The APSC has spent a lot of energy explaining why a downtown arena is pure awesome and profit.
But what if we took Trudeau’s rhetorical money but didn’tput the arena downtown?
What if we put [pause for effect] the AQUATIC CENTRE there?!
CUE TRIUMPHANT MUSIC
It really isn’t that crazy an idea.
The whole notion of the arena being a good fit for downtown is that it will generate “property tax lift.” That’s a fancy way of saying that a new arena will increase the value of the properties that surround it and then the city will collect more property tax off them, leading to an overall boost to municipal revenue. Whether it’s a real, verifiable effect or just the favourite consultant-jargon of the 2020s, I can’t say. I’m not an expert. I just read the Arena Planning Strategy Committee’s public presentation. And in it, the APSC has a chart on tax lift and it looks convincing.
Because it has numbers!
Unfortunately, that’s all we have. Not the underlying models used to calculate those numbers so nobody’s had a chance to interrogate their underlying assumptions or check the math.
And while their table shows a series of scenarios for how much additional property tax revenue the city can expect if you put an arena downtown, they didn’t prepare similar tables for if you put anything else downtown. Like a grocery store, a community centre, more housing, a Thunderdome or — more germane to this article — an aquatic centre with two 50-metre pools, a hot tub, water slides, a zero-entry pool for the kids and other amenities to support regional and national-level aquatic competitions.
Lacking those tables, we must wander into the realm of speculation at this point. But I will, at least, show you my assumptions and let you check wherever my math wanders.
THE REALM OF SPECULATION
First off, according to the Arena Planning Strategy Committee’s report, the downtown arena they’re contemplating is only going to be in use 100 to 125 days a year. That’s around a third. Meaning it will be a dark slab in the heart of downtown the other two thirds. The number of visitors it’s likely to attract when it is open is in the range of 650,000 to 780,000 attendees a year. 
That’s fine, I guess?
The numbers are very different when you look at the pool. We know from the team who prepared the Indoor Aquatic Facility Feasibility Study that an expanded Lawson is likely to attract upwards of 1.2 million visits per year. And it’s a facility that would be open, bright and active nearly every day except for statutory holidays.
They also note that the current Lawson is operating at capacity and there’s a huge unmet demand for pool time in the city. I’ve been to the Lawson and, frankly, you could just keep it open all the time and it’d be busy enough to justify 7-Eleven hours. There’s a reason a new aquatic centre was deemed the city’s number one rec facility priority when administration released their Recreation Master Plan in 2019.
One-point-two million visits a year might be a conservative figure, is what I’m saying.
Currently, all those Lawson users are going to the Sportsplex site. Which is great. That location is nestled between two residential communities: North Central and Cathedral. The Lawson draws a lot of foot-traffic from both.
The APSC, however, recommended moving the aquatic centre to the Yards in the Warehouse District, where it will become considerably less walkable for people in North Central and a driving destination for people in Cathedral because seriously, who wants to walk under the Albert Street underpass?
IT’S A CLUMSY FIT
The Warehouse District is supposed to be the nightlife and entertainment area in the core and it does that very well right now. If you’ve walked down Dewdney after a football game and counted the Riders jerseys lined up outside nightclubs, you’ll know that the branding is working.
That’s why it’s strange that the Arena Planning Strategy Committee thought it reasonable to strand families taking their kids to swimming lessons there. Similarly, what are families from out of town who’re bringing their kids to swim competitions supposed to do in the Warehouse District? And why does the APSC want to put an indoor pool further away from kids looking to splash around during a cheap swim time?
The Warehouse District would have to change dramatically for it to serve all the pool’s user groups well. The APSC recommendation isn’t playing to the area’s strengths. It’s hammering a square peg into a round hole.
REMEMBER THE DOWNTOWN PLAN
The downtown, however, is a far more suitable place for a community swimming complex.
Just consider downtown’s amenities: a shopping mall, a park, a comic book shop, lunch places, coffee shops. Did I mention a comic book shop? 
The downtown also has a library!
A library with an extensive children’s section, an art gallery and a movie theatre!
Cities around the world have been putting pools and libraries in proximity for-basically-ever, because it works GREAT.
And if my earlier reporting about the Catalyst Committee having it in mind to develop the block north of the downtown library for their arena, think about how much better that plan would be if they crossed out the word “arena” and wrote in “aquatic centre”! Putting the pool and the library together makes far more sense than awkwardly gluing the library onto the side of the arena and calling it A Thing because, whether by accident or design, we’ve built a family friendly downtown that would happily accommodate an aquatic centre.
All this isn’t to say that arenas aren’t family friendly. But note how the Catalyst Committee talks whenever they’re pitching the downtown arena: the first thing they always mention is people will go out for “a drink” after “a game.”
They talk about people lingering downtown after an event and taking in all the downtown action.
What they’re describing is “nightlife”.
I don’t know if the Catalyst Movers ’n’ Shakers go downtown ever but the nightlife is limited because most of downtown isn’t open very late. There are a bunch of good bars, sure. But they’re scattered, and in between them? Mostly surface parking lots.
But you know what is open very late?
The Warehouse District! Specifically, Dewdney Avenue! And Dewdney’s bars and nightclubs would be right across the street from an arena if the Catalyst Committee, in their wisdom, were to recommend locating it in the Yards.
THEIR NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP
I think the Arena Planning Strategy Committee’s tax lift calculations might be flawed. I don’t know that they incorporated the particular strengths and needs of the neighbourhoods they looked at when they were doing their math. And that may be giving them a skewed idea of what to expect from their Catalyst Projects.
The downtown is supposed to be a walkable, live-work community. It’s right in the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan. What it needs are more community amenities that will add all-day, all-year vibrancy and attract people who want to live there or near there. And the businesses that operate in the downtown who are already set up to serve the nine-to-five office crowd would only benefit from having extra daily traffic.
The Warehouse District, on the other hand, could use a big event complex that will dump hordes of thirsty hockey or… monster truck(?) fans onto Dewdney Avenue. It will give the nightlife district another 100 to 125 nights of very lively nightlife.
BUT WHAT ABOUT BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME?
Now, if you were a Catalyst Committee Mover and/or Shaker, you might counter that once you put an arena downtown or a pool in the Yards, private investment will come along and build communities that better suit the facility you’ve placed there. But Regina doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to getting the private sector to follow our public investments.
Arguably, this is the reason why we’re going through this Catalyst exercise.
We built a stadium. We bought and cleared a bunch of downtown land. And then… nothing happened.
I don’t think we should be betting all our Trudeau bucks on the development community filling in the blanks on our urban planning.
They may not be on the same page we are.
REALITY V FANTASY
Instead, when we’re considering dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on prestige city facilities, we should be looking at what’s already built in our communities and asking how can we support that and make it more awesome?
If you’re going to build something big downtown, it has to be something that supports Regina’s downtown.
The one we actually have.
If your goal is to recreate Edmonton’s Ice District, we don’t have Edmonton’s downtown.
And we don’t have Edmonton’s NHL team.
The Warehouse District, however, is already a lively urban district. Building on that foundation with a multi-purpose event-plex and turning it into a sports and entertainment destination would be effortless.
And Rebellion, Bushwakker’s, Gabbo’s, the Revival Music Room, Roger’s Tavern and Baller’s will thank you for it.
ON SECOND THOUGHT
With all that said, while I’m totally jazzed by the idea of building the aquatic centre downtown, I still think it’s best if we leave it where it is: in the Sportsplex nestled between North Central and Cathedral. Largely because we know it works there and administration has already finished their plans assuming that’s where it’ll go.
And the clock is ticking.
The deadline to apply for federal money is in March. And I’m betting the process to apply for that much cash is formidable and not something we want to be half-assing at the last minute. City administration has been working on the Lawson replacement for years. The work is done. They just need a final go-ahead from council and the money to make it happen. Throwing all of that out the window because somebody wants to build an arena, and putting us back to where we don’t even know where the aquatic centre is supposed to go? That is, in my opinion, extremely reckless.
If debating whether we should build the pool downtown is going to add another minute to the process, know that it’s not a hill I intend to die on.
THIS IS LONG. WHY DID I WRITE IT?
I fear that in the coming months the Catalyst Committee will emerge with a series of recommendations that are either identical or very close to the Arena Planning Strategy Committee’s original plan and we’ll be subjected to a lot of authoritative voices telling us, “There’s just no other way.”
My point in writing this, then, is to pre-emptively respond, “Says who?” Of course there are other ways. There always are. This entire process isn’t even necessary. It’s driven by a small group of decision-makers in defiance of plans we’ve already approved, and flies in the face of everything we’ve come to expect from consultation with the city.
The process is rushed. The data is incomplete.
And it’s a pity that a shovel-ready aquatic centre project has been thrown into limbo thanks to the mysterious goals of a powerful few.
ONE LAST THING
I want to wrap with a mention of “opportunity costs.” When you have two or more courses of action, when you pick one, the opportunity cost represents the benefits you forego by not picking one of the others.
That means, if you get to choose between going to the gym or going out for ice cream and you opt for the ice cream, the opportunity cost is, say, the missing of leg day.
The idea of opportunity costs has driven a lot of my thinking in writing this. I wanted to explore what we are potentially giving up by plunking a giant arena in our downtown. What’s something we could have put there instead and what would we have gained from it? What kind of downtown are we letting slip through our fingers if we choose one that has an arena in the middle?
Because once the arena is built, there are no take-backsies.
And when I think about an enhanced aquatic facility in the downtown near or next to the library? That excites me. The vibrancy and action it would contribute, well, that’s a “Catalyst Project” that most closely fulfill the goals of the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan.
You know, one of those masterplans that the community consulted on but seems to have fallen out of fashion this year.
Meanwhile, a downtown arena just kinda bores me. To death.
It’s a limp, dull, tedious, cliché.
And you don’t have to look too far afield to find cities that have attempted this very project and found that arenas don’t live up to the hype.
The thing about opportunity costs, though, is we could build the arena right in the heart of downtown, exactly where the Arena Planning Strategy Committee wants it, and everything will be fine. Just fine. We’ll live our lives pretty much the way we have been. The downtown will carry on the way Regina’s downtown always does.
And the only crack in the normalcy will come when you wander downtown on one of those 240 days of the year when the arena is closed because it doesn’t have anything booked, and you’ll avoid that block.
Maybe you’ll think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was something interesting down there?”
 The APSC presentation notes that “A new Mid-Sized Multi-Purpose Event Centre could increase programming days from 70 to 100 [a 42 per cent increase]”, suggesting the current Brandt Centre’s usership is that lower number. Using the APSC’s assumptions (average 65 per cent attendance in a 10,000-seat arena), if the new arena was only occupied 70 days a year it would attract ~455,000 attendees a year.
 Comic shops are fine for kids but I’m thinking of us parents, here. Won’t somebody think of the parents?