Perhaps better than anyone in the city of Ottawa, Jim Durrell can appreciate many residents’ reluctance to believe there will be an NHL arena at LeBreton Flats until they actually see it with their own eyes.
Durrell, after all, was the capital’s mayor three decades ago when he and then-regional chair Andy Haydon tried to work out an agreement with the National Capital Commission to redevelop the coveted 21-hectare property just west of downtown.
As everyone knows all too well, those efforts failed, and the mostly vacant land remains to many a symbol of how the tentacles of bureaucracy continue to hold back progress in Ottawa.
Not surprisingly, then, Durrell understands the public’s somewhat muted reaction to last month’s news that the NCC has reached an agreement in principle to hand over ownership of the property to the Ottawa Senators-backed RendezVous LeBreton Group, which plans to build a new home for the city’s NHL franchise on the site.
But the 71-year-old businessman says he’s convinced the multibillion-dollar proposal to turn the Flats into a bustling residential, commercial and entertainment mecca is the real deal.
“I haven’t even a shadow of doubt in my mind,” he says. “I don’t blame people for being a touch cynical wondering if it ever will happen because it’s laid fallow for so long. But it’s on the right track now.”
The NCC and RendezVous LeBreton will spend the next 18 months establishing a master design plan for the lands, and NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson told reporters last month there are still “challenging” negotiations ahead before a final agreement is reached. But the agency also said once a deal is officially sealed, shovels could be in the ground as early as next year.
Durrell thinks that timeline might be a tad optimistic, but he still envisions the Senators taking to the ice in a state-of-the-art new arena by the middle of the next decade.
“I would be extremely surprised if our hockey team wasn’t playing in there six seasons from now, and I would hope five seasons from now.”
“I would be extremely surprised if our hockey team wasn’t playing in there six seasons from now, and I would hope five seasons from now,” he says.
Asked why he’s so bullish, Durrell points to the track record of lead RendezVous LeBreton partner John Ruddy and his Trinity Development Group, which has built nearly 30 million square feet of commercial real estate across Canada.
“When you look at somebody like John Ruddy, a very reputable player involved … We now have the people with the ability to get it financed and we have the concurrence for the most part with the city and the NCC. They’ve gone, in my humble estimation, far enough that there’s not going to be any turning back now,” he says.
“I think all of the players involved – the NCC, Trinity Developments, the Senators – they know a lot more than is being discussed (publicly). A lot of work has been done on this behind the scenes to estimate the financing costs, what works, what doesn’t work, how much money is realistically available to put a project of this magnitude together. If those numbers didn’t work, then frankly one or all of the parties would’ve already bowed out.”
'I can't imagine it not happening'
The former politician, who helped lead the drive to bring the Senators back to the NHL and served as the team’s first president, says too much time and money has already been spent on the project to have it fall apart.
“Millions of dollars have been spent already just in getting to this point,” says Durrell, who is now president of a car dealership. “You don’t spend that type of money on just a whim. I can’t imagine it not happening.”
For a glimpse into how the project could reshape the city, he looks west to Edmonton, where the Alberta capital has revitalized its downtown core thanks to a massive residential and commercial redevelopment anchored by Rogers Place, the $600-million new home of the Oilers.
“Like Edmonton, now the momentum is there,” Durrell says. “Success feeds success in business, and having a major entertainment centre downtown just spawns automatic development because it’s a place people want to be.
“You need people living downtown. People will live downtown when they can work downtown. They’ll live and work downtown if there are places to go and shop and restaurants to eat in and entertainment places. All of those things, regardless of how times change and transportation changes, all those things make imminent sense.”
Durrell likes to break down large-scale development projects into five-year segments because they’re easier to envision. He says once an arena is up and running five or six years from now, more condos and shops will inevitably follow.
“It then becomes a snowball as it unfolds. This thing is unfolding nicely right now.”
Ultimately, he adds, the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats will make Ottawa a better place to live, work and play.
“You can attract better people when you have cities that work. And this city has all of the makings of a city that works. LeBreton Flats coming to fruition will just accentuate that.”