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Downtown Saskatoon revitalizing vision requires non-traditional funding, administration says

Saskatoon is at the same crossroads now as it was nearly 50 years ago in revitalizing its downtown core, say city officials.

Back then, revitalization included turning the train station into Midtown Plaza, opening Sid Buckwold Bridge and Meewasin becoming a reality.

Now, a new downtown arena, convention centre and a bus rapid transit system are priorities to ensure Saskatoon remains a destination city, officials say.

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A report heading to the governance and priorities committee on April 19 says these are key components to ensure a vibrant downtown into the future.

“SaskTel Centre and TCU Place are both nearing the end of their useful service lives and, without substantial renovations, cannot maintain market competitiveness in their current state,” Lesley Anderson, the city’s director of planning and development, said in a statement.

“Locating a new arena downtown would have many mutual benefits for other major facilities such as the convention centre, and existing downtown attractions including dining, hotels, and retail — creating the conditions for a fully-animated event and entertainment district.”

TCU Place is over 50 years old and SaskTel Centre opened in 1988. The CEOs of both facilities have previously stated they would prefer a new facility rather than upgrades to the current buildings.

A reliable transit system also needs to be part of the revitalization of the downtown core, said Dan Willems.

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“A bus rapid transit system, which has already received city council approval to proceed, is an integral piece of building a successful and thriving entertainment district in downtown Saskatoon,” said Willems, the city’s director of technical services.

“Advancing a plan to provide core entertainment amenities located in downtown which are supported by a rapid, reliable transit system will strengthen our position as a destination city.”

Other priorities listed in the report include upgrading roadways, walking and cycling infrastructure, replacing Fire Hall #1, advancing outdoor festival sites along the riverbank and reducing homelessness.

City administration said it is exploring non-traditional ways to fund its vision while minimizing reliance on property taxes.

The cost to replace SaskTel Centre and TCU Place is estimated at between $330 million and $375 million.

“This infrastructure will be key to our sophistication and strength as a destination,” Tourism Saskatoon CEO Steph Clovechuk said Thursday. “It’s going to be incredible to see the quality of life that it brings.“

One funding avenue being explored by administration is the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program.

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They are also looking at other revenue sources, such as taxes on hotel rooms and other short-term accommodation rentals, motor vehicle rental charges and tax increment financing.

“The aim of this funding/financing strategy is to minimize contributions from property taxes to pay for the bundle of sub-projects within this transformational project. It also attempts to improve fairness by generating revenues from those who benefit from the amenities, particularly, non-residents who tend to benefit from tourism-based infrastructure,” said Mike Jordan, the city’s chief public policy and government Relations officer.

“However, achieving this outcome requires a substantial long-term investment and a partnership between the City, other orders of government, and industry.”

Clovechuk says the city’s tourism partners would like to be included in discussions about how to move forward and locate funding.

“We have to be at the table and we will come up with creative solutions to make sure this infrastructure does get built, but we can’t be left out of that discussion right now,” Clovechuk said.

“I think that right now we have creative solutions outside of a mandatory tax that would allow for non-taxpayer money to be invested in this infrastructure.”

Ward 4 councillor Troy Davies said after a survey of other similar-size cities in Canada, it’s not out of the question to introduce these ‘tourism taxes’ as a viable option.

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“Other cities have had (this),” Davies said. “Whether it’s a surcharge on rental vehicles, whether it’s an additional tax on if someone’s coming to stay in our city in a hotel room and there’s an extra two dollars or three dollars for the entertainment district tax.”

Davies adds that while a new arena and concert venue wont likely be needed for the next eight to 10 years, planning must start now to ensure Saskatoon stays on the map.

“Ten years from now we can’t be the city that’s skipped for concerts because once that happens, we’ll never get them back,” he said.

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