By Jordan Press
On May 30, 2006, Kingston city council convened for a tense vote on whether to proceed with the construction of a downtown arena and entertainment centre.
As the meeting opened at 6 p.m. in the council chamber, Mayor Harvey Rosen pulled from his notes a fax that had just arrived from Lawrence Cannon, the federal minister of transport, infrastructure and communities.
"I understand there will be a vote at Kingston city council this evening and wish to inform council members that this important project will receive federal consideration if it passes the vote this evening and obtains provincial support," Cannon wrote.
It was a dramatic moment. Many consider that fax decisive in the thumbs-up council gave the arena project later that night.
Both requirements Cannon cited - council approval and provincial money - came to pass. The province chipped in $4 million and council voted 8-5 in favour of what was then called the Large Venue Entertainment Centre, or LVEC for short. A triumphant Rosen noted these successes in a June 1 letter to Cannon.
"Your letter was a valuable assurance during our debate," the mayor wrote. "We are targeting July 15, 2006 as the date to get the 'shovel in the ground' to commence on-site construction."
Rosen ended the letter by inviting Cannon to Kingston to make a federal funding announcement in person.
That was then.
Today, 17 months later, federal funding still hasn't materialized for the ambitious $46.1-million project, which has steadily grown as part of the downtown skyline. The arena's official opening date is Feb. 22, 2008. The city's funding request to Ottawa - first unofficially for $4 million, now officially for $8 million - waits in limbo for federal government action.
A series of letters released to The Whig-Standard under the provincial Freedom of Information act detail some of Kingston's attempts to capture the funding, and suggest a growing sense of exasperation with the federal government on the part of the mayor.
Mayor Harvey Rosen's office receives a letter from Industry Canada in response to earlier queries about federal funding for the arena. The two-page letter outlines the criteria for a joint federal-provincial funding program known as the Canada-Ontario Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund (COMRIF for short).
At first, this is the fund from which the city thinks it can draw money for the sports and entertainment centre.
The letter to the mayor outlines the funding program at that time, explaining that the fund covers projects of benefit in three areas in a municipality: "health and safety, value for money and public policy priorities."
"COMRIF is a competitive, merit-based process," writes Martin Zablocki, federal co-chair of the fund.
Unfortunately for Kingston, the letter adds: "While recreational projects are eligible under the program, the priorities ... have remained the same as agreed to by both the federal and provincial governments and did not focus on recreational projects."
However, the letter adds, another chance at money from the fund is upcoming and applications will begin around the same time as the vote is scheduled on whether to proceed with the arena.
The letter includes an attached table detailing other sports facilities the federal government has funded, in order to give Segal and Milliken ammunition in their efforts to secure federal funding for the arena. (The table was not included in the documents released to the Whig-Standard.)
"I'm sure you would agree that Kingston has not received financial support that would be considered on par with like projects in other communities," Rosen writes. "Kingston has the lowest amount of financial support for sports, cultural and tourism infrastructure of any of the 22 municipalities listed here."
Rosen concludes the letters by noting that the crucial council vote will take place May 30. "I know you will continue to do all you can to help deliver some 'good news' in the coming days for the sports and entertainment centre," Rosen urges the two federal politicians. Aug. 1, 2006
After his fax to the city on May 30, Transport Minister Cannon sends a two-page letter. He writes that he is pleased the project met the necessary requirements for federal funding, but warns the city it will still have to compete for funding.
The new funding stream for the program has an application deadline of 5 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2006.
But then comes a kick in the gut, with Cannon borrowing a phrase from Rosen's July 15 letter.
"Further, you should be aware that the project could not be considered for federal funding through this program if construction has actually begun," Cannon writes. "Thus, if the project proceeds with a 'shovel in the ground' before a COMRIF application decision is made, the federal government will not be able to consider the project for funding under COMRIF."
Unfortunately for Kingston, construction began in August and continued into September.
But Rosen also writes that Ottawa should create a new fund that would cover grants to arts, entertainment and recreation facilities. This fund would allow those types of projects to compete at the same level instead of trying to beat out roads, sewer, bridges and water projects, he argues.
"As there is a backlog of these facilities across the country, many of which are already started, we would request that projects already underway not be disqualified on this basis under the new program," Rosen writes.
About 18 days before the Tories deliver their budget in Ottawa, Rosen writes to Milliken letting him know that council has now voted to increase the budget for the arena.
"A contribution of $4 million in federal support would be returned to the federal government through incremental federal taxes at a rate in access [sic] of $1 million a year. This does not take into account the federal taxes generated from the construction project itself," Rosen writes.
"[T]his investment is crucial to the successful completion of the Kingston Regional Sports and Entertainment Centre," Rosen writes in his March 20 letter to the federal government. "... I am hopeful that the government will not disqualify this project merely because it is already underway."
So far, silence.
"We haven't received a response to that letter," Rosen told the Whig-Standard last week.
The city's application doesn't set specifics on funding beside the $8-million price. The city wants to leave it up to the federal government to decide which elements of the project it wishes to fund, Rosen says. One problem: the government will only fund elements that aren't completed, Rosen says.
These days, the city is receiving advice about what course to take now that the funding application is in, Rosen said.
"I'm trying to make it as difficult as possible to say no," he says. But Rosen won't say much more than that. There is a sense from the city that becoming too critical of the federal government may turn Ottawa off completely from granting any money.
Although Rosen doesn't like to admit it, politics may be playing a role in the process. When Kingston Senator Hugh Segal sat down with the Whig-Standard's editorial board on Feb. 4, he said it would be easier to secure funding if the MP for the area wasn't in the opposition. (Kingston and The Islands MP Peter Milliken is a Liberal.)
Rosen says he is still confident the federal government will help.
"They have not said, 'No, you're not getting the money,' " he says. "Until they say we're not getting the money ... I'm hopeful we will get it."
A spokesperson from Cannon's office says the fund will be launched in the coming weeks.
"After the launch of the plan we can begin formal talks," Karine White, press secretary to Cannon, said last week.
May 30, 2006: Council votes eight to five to proceed with construction of the arena on the North Block at a price of $41.77 million.
July: Builder EllisDon files site plans for the arena.
July 25: City councillors and staff gather on the North Block site for the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony. Foundation work begins over the following weeks on the site.
Dec. 5: At council's inaugural meeting, Mayor Harvey Rosen defends the building of the arena on the North Block in his speech to council.
Feb. 4, 2007: Senator Hugh Segal tells the Whig-Standard's editorial board the arena has a "50-50 chance" of receiving federal money.
Feb. 14: A city staff report says construction costs will rise to $46.1 million from $41.77 million, an increase of $4.3 million.
Feb. 27: Council votes down a motion that would kill work on the project.
April: City staff start reporting on delays at the project. In the end, the arena will be delayed by five weeks. Construction won't end in December and doors won't open in January 2008.
July: A City Hall staff report suggests the additional 1,000 seats at the arena shouldn't be installed until alternate funding can be secured, including federal money.
July 9: The federal government tells the Whig-Standard it hasn't received a formal application for funds for the arena. The city says it has been told there is no specific program it can apply for.
Sept. 18: Council approves changes to the arena that will increase seating at the opening to 5,650 from 5,000.
Feb. 22, 2008: The arena is scheduled to open.