Daryl Katz does not hijack airplanes. He doesn’t kidnap children nor does he kick puppies – that we’re aware of.
But one would be hard-pressed to find any other Albertan who, whether by chance or design, did so much to raise the ire of Edmontonians in 2012, which is why the Rexall billionaire is The Huffington Post Alberta’s inaugural Villain of the Year.
Despite innuendos stating that Katz was trying to pull a heist worthy of a Bond villain – when he was accused of trying to “buy a government,” it’s how he’s perceived to be treating the fans of his hockey team, that drew that most anger.
Edmonton is not as big as Toronto, not as cultural as Montreal, perhaps not as vibrant as Vancouver and doesn’t have the riches of the oil towers in downtown Calgary.
At its best, Edmonton is blue-collar city with a beautiful river valley, an exceptional knack for customer service and a welcoming, can-do attitude. It loves a good festival and it absolutely loves its Oilers.
At its worst, Edmonton is the northern most major city in North America, suffering from long, cold, dark winters where it sometimes feels like all there is to do is watch hockey – thus, the kinship between the city and its beloved Edmonton Oilers.
Despite the city’s humble nature and the team’s short history – they’ve only been around since 1979, the Edmonton Oilers have won the Stanley Cup five times and are ranked fifth in history for most Stanley Cup wins.
That should be a source of pride for any fan, and it is, and it’s at the heart of that pride that Katz has thrust his pointy dagger.
At once championed as the savior of the NHL franchise in the comparatively small market, Katz this fall held the team for emotional ransom when he alluded that if the city didn’t go along with him in building a new downtown arena for the Oil, he’d pack up the team and move it to Seattle.
His trip to Seattle with Oilers’ president Patrick LaForge, executives Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe, where they met former Edmonton superstar Wayne Gretzky, was portrayed by fans and much of the media as a thinly veiled attempt to force a better deal for his company in arena negotiations back home. And queue the fireworks!
Reaction by fans was swift and brutal. Not since the Great One was sent on a permanent beach vacation, has so much anger, shock and profanity been spewed by Edmontonians at one person in such a short amount of time.
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The reaction was such that Katz ended up taking out a full page newspaper ad apologizing to fans.
“I took for granted your support and your love of the Oilers. That was wrong, and I apologize,” the ad said.
“The simple fact is that the Oilers need Edmonton, and Edmonton needs the Oilers,” he wrote.
“Each is an integral part of the fabric and identity of the other.”
But the battle between Katz and the city had been brewing for some time before his now-infamous jaunt to Seattle. It started to heat up when the Katz Group, which had been involved in drawn out negotiations with the city to build a new arena in Edmonton’s downtown core, told city council on Sept. 12 it was going to need more money from the city than previously anticipated.
The two sides had agreed almost a year earlier to a $450-million plan for a new arena, a plan that also included shopping areas and community facilities.
So it was with thick confusion that city council stood back and took in the billionaire’s company’s request for more taxpayers’ money. It was with even greater confusion, when councilors asked Katz to explain the tremendous change in the plan, that city hall watched as Katz refused to appear and make his case.
A second call from city council for Katz to make his case, a second rejection from the owner..
Taxes and hockey. Hockey and taxes. Katz’s ambition started to lead him down a path right through the middle of two firecracker issues that Albertans take obsessively seriously.
Katz Group correctly reminded council that the reclusive billionaire had already spent $70 million in the project and that they would pay their share of the overruns.
But the unsubstantiated desire for more tax money reignited questions of whether the city, and the province, should be coughing up government treasure for a private venture. Just when it seemed that all the rhetoric had dissipated, when a plan that all parties could live with had been devised, when it seemed that Edmonton was actually going to get an arena worthy of the 21st century, in one fell swoop the billionaire with the great hair turned those dreams to sand.
Proponents again say public money for this private venture will lead to economic spinoff benefits, a revitalized downtown core, and a higher international profile.
Critics also return to say no public money should go toward a private venture.
A third group again reminds us it can see a role for public money, but says the deal struck is too lopsided in favour of the Oilers.
Terms of the agreement:
City taxpayers put up $125 million.
Katz Group puts up $100 million.
A ticket tax ($5-$6 a ticket) would pay for another $125 million.
The province would be asked for another $100 million – although Premier Alison Redford's government is adamant no tax dollars will go to private ventures.
Council already know the city's ultimate contribution will far exceed $125 million, as officials estimate that when borrowing and land purchase are factored in, the number becomes $305 million.
After a two-year political circus that included civic open houses, the two sides had agreed on a road forward. The only thing that changed was Katz’s demand for more money. Yet, he blamed the city.
"We have gone backwards," said Katz in the letter. "We and the city can't even agree on basic assumptions relating to the financial aspects of operating a new arena."
Katz also accused Mandel and the councillors of putting parochial interests ahead of the city's and by doing so risk missing out on a golden opportunity to revitalize the downtown.
"The city has approached this negotiation based on narrow political considerations rather than a general desire to strike a deal that is fair and makes economic sense for both sides," wrote Katz.
"We all understood the devil would be in the details, and indeed it was.”
In mid December, the city voted in favour of going back to the table with the Katz Group to see if there is a way to still have shovels on the ground this spring.
We’ll have to see if, in this round, Katz plays the part of the savior or the villain.
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