Ottawa residents ‘anxious’ about LeBreton Flats: Poll

Business group calls for regular updates on multibillion-dollar project after survey points to widespread ‘concern’ about plan’s long-term prospects
LeBreton Flats

A group of Ottawa business and community leaders is calling for more “transparency” in the LeBreton Flats redevelopment process after six in 10 residents in a recent poll said they are skeptical the multibillion-dollar project will ever see the light of day.

Fifteen per cent of the 600 people surveyed in late August said they believed the LeBreton Flats proposal, which would include a new NHL arena for the Senators as its centrepiece, will never happen or is unlikely to happen. Another 47 per cent said they believe the project “might or might not happen.”

Those results worry local business leaders.

“People are very anxious about the club and about LeBreton Flats,” said Doug McLarty, a partner at MNP Ottawa and the co-chair of the Capital Build Task Force, which commissioned the survey.

“There’s a lot of concern about the conflicting information that we’re receiving in the community about LeBreton.”

McLarty said the task force wants the consortium behind the plan, the RendezVous LeBreton Group backed by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Trinity Development’s John Ruddy, to post regular updates informing the public when key milestones have been met – such as when all the financing is in place and when the city has approved all the necessary zoning requirements at the 21-hectare site owned by federal government.

“We want to see progress, and we want transparency,” he said.

McLarty said Melnyk is “causing angst” among many Ottawans with apparently contradictory statements about the team’s future.

Late last year, Melnyk publicly mused about the possibility of moving the NHL franchise if its bottom line didn’t improve, but he quickly backtracked and said he had no intention of selling or moving the team.

Then in April, Mayor Jim Watson questioned whether Melnyk was serious about the downtown arena plan after the Senators owner told a gathering of fans the project had “tremendous risk” and the team was doing “OK” in Kanata.

Following a meeting with top city officials in August, Melnyk said he was “very confident” the $4-billion LeBreton proposal will go forward, but added the situation remained “fluid.”

McLarty said such “mixed messaging” is damaging the perception of a “transformative” real estate project that has widespread public support.

Nearly eight in 10 residents polled in August said they are in favour of the LeBreton proposal, with 60 per cent saying the project is so important they’d support NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stepping in to make sure it got done.

“The impression people get is there isn’t a commitment to the city and to the Ottawa region (from Melnyk),” he said. “We need that from him. If he’s concerned about the value of his franchise, he should be motivated to get that thing on to LeBreton Flats as quickly as possible and to pick up market share from Gatineau and Orléans that he’s not getting.”

The National Capital Commission and RendezVous LeBreton reached a deal in principle in January on the plan to redevelop LeBreton Flats, which has sat empty for decades. In addition to a new arena for the Senators, the multi-stage proposal would also include a community centre, 4,000 housing units and public spaces.

RendezVous LeBreton officials have said they hope to start construction next year, with a targeted arena opening date in 2023.

The Capital Build Task Force, a subcommittee of the Ottawa Board of Trade that includes members from various local industries as well as academics and representatives of First Nations groups, is pushing for major infrastructure projects such as LeBreton Flats, light rail and a new Ottawa Hospital.

The survey, conducted by local firm Abacus Data from Aug. 21-25, has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, 19 times out of 20.