A Kingston haunting; Work on the downtown
arena has stopped - and it's all because of the boo-birds
Forum - Thursday, June 07, 2007 @ 07:00
As I walk back home, a couple of times a week, from the downtown LCBO, I feel it is my civic responsibility to check up on how things are going with our downtown arena, now under construction. I have always been surprised at how few men seem to be actually working on it, having counted a maximum of five at any one time. Yet progress is, demonstrably, being made. Or it was until recently, when I counted only four men at work before I saw a sign that said "I.U.O.E. Local 793 On Legal Strike."
The man on legal strike, it appears, was the crane driver, whose function is obviously a critical one if the arena is to have a roof. And worse was to come. This last week - and, ironically - after the crane driver had gone back to work, everyone else walked off the job, which means the arena may have a roof but no floor.
Coming from the north of England, as I do, I understand about strikes, so I thought I should talk to the men and hear their grievances.
At first they seemed reticent, but when I persisted I discovered the awful truth: It's not a money problem. The men don't want to work on the arena site because it is haunted.
This is, perhaps, not unsurprising. Kingston, after all, is one of Canada's most haunted towns. Books have been written about its ghosts. The Haunted Walk enthralls tourists on summer evenings, and soon the official Haunted Walk may include the unfinished arena.
But what spirits in their right minds would haunt a hockey arena? The ghosts of Count de Frontenac's men, angry that the arena should be built on the site of their fort, even if the hockey team that will play there was named for their boss?
As I talked further to the men, most of whom were clearly nervous and kept glancing behind them, the astonishing truth dawned on me: The ghosts that haunt the arena are those of city councillors who voted against building it, and who still haven't given up on stopping construction, by fair means or foul. Clearly, you don't have to be dead to haunt a place.
"I was in the portable toilet," said one man, "when I became aware of a presence. You can bet I was out of there with my business half done."
I concluded from his description of the presence that it was probably that of ex-councillor Rick Downes, a vehement opponent of the arena. "I would have been mayor of this city," insisted the presence, "if it wasn't for Kevin George. He split the vote, and Harvey got his second term. I would have killed the arena. I don't care how many contracts had been signed. As it is, what's left for me? The priesthood? Perhaps. I've been told I'm excellent Pope material. But what about my wife? My kids?"
Another worker had dropped his jackhammer in horror when confronted by the unrepentant spectre of Councillor Steve Garrison. "I accused the mayor of misleading the public," insisted the phantom. "Harvey kept saying the business plan was sound, there would be no increase in taxes. I still don't believe him, but what if he's right? What if this thing's a huge success? What if they build new hotels and condos and parking garages downtown, like he says they will? Where does that put me? With egg on my face, right? Don't let this happen to me. Cease work. Strike."
The ghost of Councillor Vicki Schmolka, I learned, had chased a pipefitter halfway up Queen Street. "If this thing works," the phantom told him when she caught up to him, breathless, outside the Plaza Hotel, "my chances of being elected mayor next time round are nil, after the hard time I gave Harvey about wanting a new motion to stop construction. Yet the city deserves me, and I deserve the city. Harvey just wants a hockey arena, but I have higher ambitions for Kingston. I want this to be a great place to live. With better schools, and green places. A decent place. A safe place."
The apparition of Councillor Bill Glover had cornered an electrician who had fled to the frozen pizza aisle of Food Basics, where the phantom tried to explain that he wouldn't necessarily have voted for a motion to cease construction, and had supported it out of mere gallantry. "Personally, I would love to watch the Fronts play in a great new arena," he said. "But if they build it, how can I possibly show my face? Harvey, Leonore Foster, Ed Smith, Floyd Patterson - they're the ones who pushed it through. They'll have my guts for garters."
The electrician, understandably confused, climbed into a case of McCain's pizza.
My next interview was an even more disturbing one, if that can be conceived. "I hear a jangling of chains," the man told me, before going on to describe a figure who could be none other than the long-suffering ghost of Mayor Harvey Rosen himself, jangling his chains of office. "What am I to do with these people?" the mayor's ghost complained. "Every Tuesday night for the next four years I have to spend explaining to them that they can't revisit decisions made by the previous council. I'll tell you, there are times when I wish Kevin George hadn't run, and Downes would have got in, and then I could have got on with my life. Besides, they should have built the arena at Anglin Bay. That's what my committee recommended. And it's not too late to stop construction here and move it over. Maybe I'll allow Schmolka's motion, but with an amendment."
Where will this end? If the arena is, one day, completed, will the ghosts of councillors who voted for the arena, and in its current location, turn out in force to cheer on the Frontenacs? Will former councillor Floyd Patterson step onto centre ice and drop the ceremonial first puck? Will the spectre of Councillor Leonore Foster appear in the officials' changing room and send them scurrying out onto the ice in their long johns? Will the ghost of Councillor Ed Smith cheer each goal scored by the Fronts, assuming the Fronts do occasionally get the puck over the goal line? Will the ghosts of letter-writers to the Whig-Standard jostle the public on their way in, insisting the place should have been built north of the 401, and that it's not too late to move it?
It's a fair bet. The arena has provoked such intense emotions that it's impossible to believe they won't continue long after the place is built. If Fort Henry - over the building of which, so far as I know, there was no debate - can have its share of ghosts, surely our downtown arena can have lots more. And we'll know who they are.
- Tony Houghton is a Kingston freelance writer and a former member of the Whig-Standard's Community Editorial Board.