Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Waterloo - A City Whose Time has Come

I was eating my muesli and yogurt this morning while listening to CBC Radio One, and I may not have been concentrating adequately because they seemed to be saying that RIM co-CEO and local billionaire Jim Balsillie was thinking of buying an American NHL team and moving it to our little town of 100,000 people. For an hour or so I really thought it was possible we might get an NHL team... until I mentioned it to someone at work and they told me I was out to lunch. Apparently Balsillie's bid to buy the Pittsburg Penguins fell through and I guess the CBC bunch were just spitballing. I obviously know nothing whatsoever about hockey.

But I do know that the NHL started in Canada; Canadians are nuts for hockey; and almost all the Canadian teams moved to the US because US cities provide such ginormous incentives in terms of stadiums, subsidies and tax breaks, while Canadian cities aren't into that stuff. Well, I don't even know that, but I think I heard it somewhere. And it provides me with the moral justification to say that it's a Good Thing for our local billionaires to buy us some US hockey teams.

Especially Waterloo. This is a city whose time has come, and we need something big to define it for us. Not that we haven't got a lot of good stuff already, a lot of it thanks to RIM. Balsillie funded the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which does all kinds of good work but more importantly for me puts on brilliant lectures accompanied by free food. His co-CEO Mike Lazaridis put up the hundreds of millions necessary to create the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which also has a huge public outreach program with lectures and concerts; and just to balance the physics trends, the Centre for Quantum Computing. Other RIM employees have contributed millions towards our big sports park (RIM Park) and our Children's Museum. All this is added to a community with a world-class concert hall, two universities, a vibrant high-tech sector, a sizable community of Old Order Mennonites, close proximity to the Stratford Festival, and a bunch of other stuff that make it a pretty special place to live.

But I feel sometimes that Waterloo is more an urban sprawl than a city. We have a charming but very small downtown and one big mall, all surrounded by a rolling sea of subdividisions. There's no identifying characteristic, no center. We're a pool of houses off the 401. And to tell you the truth, all those institutions and theaters I mentioned in the big long paragraph that you probably skimmed over - only a tiny percentage of the population ever takes advantage of them.

So I think that an NHL team is just the ticket. Too small a market, you say? It's all in the fan enthusiasm. Here's a story: A cousin of mine went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. When she lived there, the city of Knoxville had 100,000 residents. The university football stadium held 105,000 people. And it was sold out a year in advance for every game.

If Jim Balsillie can't make the magic and buy us an NHL team, then I think we'll just have to dream up something ourselves. Olympic bid, anyone?


1 comment:

Graeme said...

When you first think about it, an NHL team in a city like K-W is almost silly. But upon further reflection, you realize that there are a few million people within an hour's drive of K-W, many of whom would like to drive to Toronto for a Leaf game, but ticket prices, parking, and traffic are horrendous, and tickets are almost impossible to come by anyway. A team here would attract an awful lot of those people.

Plus, it's not like Balsillie considered buying the team as an investment - he's a big hockey fan who would love the idea of having a hockey team in his own backyard, and he's got the bucks to do it. Even if it's not the most lucrative investment he could make, I doubt he cares.

I don't think the deal is necessarily dead, either - a separate deal to get the Penguins a new stadium in Pittsburgh also fell through yesterday, so the team is still for sale, and will more than likely move this summer. I think Balsillie could get the team now for much less than the $175 million he previously offered.