City staff endorse OSEG proposal to take over Lansdowne public spaces

Market
The Lansdowne Farmers' Market. Photo via Ottawa Tourism

The owners of the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks, pro soccer’s Fury FC and junior hockey’s Ottawa 67’s are proposing to take over the operation of key public spaces at Lansdowne Park.

City staff have endorsed the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group’s offer to take charge of programming and booking of events at Lansdowne’s outdoor plaza, where the weekend Ottawa Farmers Market is held, as well as at the Aberdeen Pavilion, the Horticulture Building and the Great Lawn. City staff currently handle those tasks.

The proposal will be presented at the next meeting of the finance and economic development committee on Nov. 5. According to a city staff report, OSEG officials say they believe they can boost annual attendance at the site from four million to about five million by offering activities that will “help enhance the Lansdowne community and visitor experience as regional gathering place and sports and entertainment venue.”

OSEG already owns the arena and football stadium at Lansdowne and manages the commercial properties at the site. OSEG officials were not available for comment on Monday afternoon.

Staff said handing over operation of the spaces to OSEG would also provide “one point of contact for the public while maintaining commitments to public programming” at the site. They are recommending the city to begin public consultations and negotiations with OSEG in the hope of reaching a deal that will cut the city’s operating costs at Lansdowne.

“Any net reduction in expenses could be repurposed for reinvestment in the site such as repairs to the Aberdeen Pavilion,” the report says.

The councillor for the ward, Shawn Menard, expressed serious reservations about the plan.

In comments contained in the staff report, he called the proposal “premature,” arguing the vendors on the site have not been consulted, no business plan has been presented and community associations fear public events will be pushed out in favour of programming designed to generate profits.

“This is a significant issue that will have impacts on the public areas of the park and the surrounding communities,” Menard said. “If transferring control to OSEG is the preferred course of action, that should only be determined when we have all necessary information, and we have done thorough public consultations with all impacted parties.”

According to the report, the Lansdowne urban park hosted 118 public events between June 2018 and May 2019 as well as 48 private events, which generated about $425,000 in rental revenues for the city and drew a total of more than 375,000 people.

The report said OSEG’s Lansdowne partnership with the city generated $60.8 million in revenues in fiscal 2019, down 10 per cent over the previous year, when the Grey Cup festival added $17.4 million to the tally ​– however, exact comparisons are difficult because OSEG changed its fiscal calendar after 2017. The partnership incurred a net loss of $12.7 million, up $1.1 million year-over-year.

The partners blamed the lower revenues on the lack of a Grey Cup festival to pad the balance sheet in 2018. City staff said if the Grey Cup cash influx is taken out of the equation, 12-month calendar year revenues increased $2 million in 2018 over the previous year.

Lansdowne’s 340,000-square-foot retail district is 98 per cent leased, up from 95 per cent in the previous fiscal year, according to the report. In addition, the office tower at the entrance to the site is now more than 87 per cent leased, up from 70 per cent a year earlier. 

OSEG has recently announced a number of initiatives to try to boost attendance at Lansdowne year-round.

Last month, the organization said it will spend $250,000 to transform Aberdeen Square, where the farmers’ market is held, into a performance venue with shaded seating areas and other amenities.

Earlier this year, OSEG announced it was conducting a full review of the 40-acre urban park’s operations in a bid to boost the number of annual visitors to Lansdowne.

While the site attracted nearly four million visitors in 2017 and sees plenty of activity during Ottawa Redblacks football games, OSEG recently conducted a survey that showed nearly one-third of Ottawa residents had never visited Lansdowne. OSEG chief executive Mark Goudie told OBJ in April that OSEG is now looking to attract visitors year-round to boost attendance by as much as 35 per cent; with that in mind, he announced plans for a European-style Christmas market earlier this summer.

Community associations for the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and Old Ottawa East will discuss OSEG’s proposal during a public meeting at the Horticulture Building Monday night at 7 p.m.