What’s Up with Centre 200?

 

“Nobody is going to put their name on it, whether it’s TD centre, whether it’s Rogers centre, right now with the condition this place is in. I wouldn’t ask them to do it unless there’s a commitment from our government.” — Irwin Simon, majority owner, Cape Breton Eagles

 

Wasn’t there a time, not so long ago, when a multi-millionaire like Irwin Simon might have thought that and worked strenuously behind the scenes to achieve that but stopped short of actually saying that in public?

He basically told the roughly 160 citizens gathered for a “team update” at Centre 200 on Saturday that he expects the public to pay to bring Centre 200 up to snuff so that a private company can be induced to put its name on it. And he’s talking a serious injection of public money:

“We’re looking for a lot of money — whether it’s a clock, whether it’s boards, whether it’s glass, whether it’s a sound system, whether it’s the seats,” Simon said…

Owner Update with Irwin D. Simon (CB Eagles)

Source: Cape Breton Eagles

Fortunately, he apparently has access to those holding the purse strings:

Simon said during Friday night’s game there were two MPs and two MLAs in attendance, along with CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, the commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and six NHL scouts.

“It shows you from a politician’s standpoint how committed they are for the Cape Breton Eagles to be a bigger part of this community; how important Centre 200 is to this community,” said Simon…

Simon said he spent more than an hour after Friday’s game bending the ear of government officials and met again with Clarke on Saturday morning.

If only he were heading up the central library committee.

(Centre 200 was on the agenda of an in camera council meeting on 4 November 2019, which may or may not be related to Simon’s search for funding.)

What Simon still has the sense NOT to say out loud is that the point of this desired government investment is not, first and foremost, to help the community but to help the bottom line of his business — a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise employing “amateur athletes” who do not have to be paid the provincial minimum wage.

Instead, Simon, who was born and raised in Glace Bay, tells us he’s here because he has “a major connection” to Cape Breton, in fact, so great is his love for us, according to the Post, that:

“If I had my opportunity to be in Cape Breton and be part of the ownership of the Screaming Eagles or be in Montreal, being part of the ownership of the Montreal Canadiens, this is where I want to be,” said Simon.

“Owning a team in Montreal, there was no connection there. Coming back to Cape Breton and being part of the Screaming Eagles, there’s a major connection to me and I hope there’s a major connection to everybody in Cape Breton.”

Simon pledges the same kind of loyalty to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he owns a National Canadian Basketball League (NCBL) franchise, and yet, when push came to shove last summer and he didn’t like the deal being offered by the city-owned Mile One Centre, he threatened to take his team and leave. I think it wouldn’t hurt to retell that story.

 

The Edge

In addition to his 71% stake in the Cape Breton Eagles, Simon co-owns the St. John’s Edge basketball team in Newfoundland. His partner in that venture is another moneyed New Yorker,  Robert Sabbagh, owner of Bay Ridge Honda in Brooklyn. According to CBC Newfoundland, the two met while serving on a volunteer board in New York.

Not having been born and raised in St. John’s, Simon had to find another sentimental reason for his interest in The Edge, but he’s clearly very good at this, telling the CBC:

“First of all, No. 1, I’m Canadian. I was born in Nova Scotia,” he said, when asked why a New York businessman would be interested in St. John’s.

“It could be a lot of fun and an interesting place to spend some time.”

Irwin Simon, owner, St. John's Edge

Source: St John’s Edge

And just because Sabbagh is a car dealer from Brooklyn doesn’t mean he can’t get all warm and fuzzy about Atlantic Canada too:

“Something like this, it’s exciting to try to bring some excitement to an area,” [Sabbagh] said. “Even though I don’t know the area very well, I think we can do some good there.”

In fact, St. John’s actually reminds him of Brooklyn:

With the little he does know of St. John’s, Sabbagh said there seems to be a great pride in the city — much like his home of Brooklyn.

Yes, give or take 2.4 million people, an iconic bridge and an army of hipsters, the two are practically indistinguishable.

The sports fans among you probably know all the ins and outs of all of this story, but I wasn’t really paying close enough attention to remember that St. John’s had lost its AHL team, the IceCaps, in 2017 and the search was on for a replacement team to share the St. John’s Mile One Centre with the NBLC franchise. (In fact, Sabbagh told the St. John’s Telegraph that “his group’s original interest in St. John’s was based on owning a hockey team.”)

Two different groups competed in a hockey franchise scavenger hunt: Toronto-based promoter John Graham, speaking for Simon and Sabbagh, first said he wanted another AHL team, then lowered his sights to a QMJHL team because “quality.”

But no QMJHL team materialized, and then St. John’s businessman Dean MacDonald “revealed” that he had been looking for an ECHL team and in the end, MacDonald prevailed and the Newfoundland Growlers arrived in St. John’s in the fall of 2018.

 

Hard ball

These franchise-owning philanthropists who wanted only to do good for St. John’s then got into a big dust-up with the city over the management of the Mile One Centre, a 7,000-seat venue that seems to be in better shape than Centre 200 (it’s much newer, having opened in 2001) but was losing the city an estimated $1.8 million per year in the form of a subsidy to St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), the third party charged with operating it.

I can’t tell you what the real story was because each side had its own version — Dean MacDonald’s being that neither team had made money during the 2018-19 season, but that they were going to be able to do so in 2019-20 thanks to an MOU with the city that said they would replace the SJSE as the arena’s managers.

But the city backed out of the MOU, saying the proposal submitted by the team owners included a subsidy from the public. But the teams said this wasn’t true.

Mile One Centre, St. John's, Newfoundland

Mile One Centre, St. John’s, Newfoundland. (Source: Twitter)

Then Simon threatened to move The Edge (which leads the NBLC in attendance) to Cape Breton or Saint John (municipalities whose National Basketball League of Canada teams were so popular, both had been granted one-year sabbaticals to try to “stabilize financially”) if he couldn’t hammer out a new deal with the Mile One Centre:

“It would be very easy for me to pick up and go to Cape Breton and use one infrastructure (for both the Eagles and basketball team). And I’d be welcomed with open arms.

“But I’ll say it one more time. That’s not what I’m trying to do. That’s not what I want to do. What I want is to stay in St. John’s.”

And MacDonald threatened to take the Growlers elsewhere in Newfoundland or even to “the mainland.”

Then MacDonald and Simon offered to buy the Mile One Centre, although no price was named.

And then Telegraph sports columnist Brendan McCarthy, trying to make sense of it all, sang a song I recognized immediately from my own dealings with the CBRM:

As for the contentions about losses, subsidies, rental fees, it would be helpful if the two teams would open their books, and Mile One/SJSE, too. Otherwise, the public is left to consider just rhetoric.

And we’re not talking about redacted, boiled-down, summarized versions. Let’s get the full story, including splits when it comes to Mile One and the adjoining St. John’s Convention Centres.

Of course, it will be tough for most people to digest it all, but there will be someone out there who should be able to offer an unbiased assessment of what is revealed.

Let’s also unearth that consultant’s report commissioned last year by the City about Mile One, a report that supposedly was meant to help the City determine whether it should retain ownership of the building, sell it or look for third-party management.

And could somebody reveal just who is making the final calls when it comes to Mile One?

SJSE is mandated to run it, but the City — representing taxpayers— owns it.

Instead, the owners ended up signing a 10-year lease with the city. According to the CBC:

Under the new agreement, the city said the subsidy it provides Mile One Centre will go up by $440,000 in the first year, $250,000 in the second and $200,000 for the remaining eight years.

The city continues to manage the venue through SJSE and has the possibility of earning revenue through concessions sales.

 

Bills

Simon told The Telegraph in October 2019, after the argy-bargy over the lease was finally settled, that the 2019-20 basketball season would start a month later than the 2018-19 season because he hadn’t signed any players because he was waiting for the lease to be signed.

Tyrone Levingston

Tyrone Levingston (Source: Facebook)

But that wasn’t the only “ominous” sign, as paper noted:

The Edge’s office was shut down after last season, with virtually every employee let go or laid off. But Simon says, again, it goes back to not having an agreement signed, and the uncertainty of there even being a team this season.

“I have a big infrastructure of people, and Rob (co-owner Rob Sabbagh) has an infrastructure of people. We basically used my son (Trevor), who is a second-year student at the University of Southern California studying sports management, and some of his colleagues.

“So we didn’t use much of the staff in St. John’s during the summer. But we’re staffing up right now. We’ll have a staff and office.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t note here that when Simon did get around to hiring staff again, he hired Tyrone Levingston, the former president of Cape Breton’s NBCL franchise, the Highlanders, as president of the Newfoundland club.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that in addition to laid-off workers, Simon also left behind what the Telegraph described as “a trail of unpaid bills to local suppliers.”

One, Dan Warren of Media Magic Video, who put together the team’s video packages last season, went so far as to go public with the following Facebook post: “Great, the Edge have a 10-year deal (with Mile One Centre) … now if they would only take their head out of the sand, and pay me for the work I did last year, that would be great!”

Another creditor, rather than going to Facebook went to court: E.C. Boone sued the hockey and basketball team owners and the City of St. John’s for close to $300,000, “the remaining cost of an LED ring board” installed in the Mile One Centre. As the CBC reported in May 2019:

According to documents filed last week at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s, E.C. Boone entered into a contract to install a Vision IQ Indoor Sports Arena LED display system, that goes around the interior of Mile One Centre.

The company sent an invoice to Atlantic Sports [Simon and Sabbagh’s company] and Deacon [Sports and Entertainment], MacDonald’s company] for $939,050.

The documents state that Atlantic Sports and Deacon would split that cost.

While Deacon paid its half — $469,525 — the documents allege that Atlantic Sports only paid $178,250.

The balance remaining is $291,275.

Simon assured the Telegraph the non-payment was not an indication of “money issues”:

“I think there was not always the best bookkeeping,” he said. “But I will tell you if we owe someone money, we have every bit of intention to ultimately pay them … to make sure they are compensated.”

 

Public good

The bottom line, for me, is that what little recreation money the CBRM has to spend should be spent to serve the people of the CBRM, not the owners of the local QMJHL franchise.

Maybe repairs to Centre 200 make sense, from a public perspective (certainly the lack of railings for seniors, as noted by the Post, seems like something a municipality with an ageing population might want to address). But there’s something off about Simon demanding that our various levels of government fund renovations that will serve his bottom line. (He also expects us to provide him “ideas” for getting more of us into his seats, which sounds to me like a job for his marketing department.)

But he’s clearly got the ears of our elected officials and they — god love them — can’t resist a multi-millionaire, especially one in search of public money. They can’t resist a multi-millionaire even when he’s just demonstrated clearly that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll threaten to take his team and go home.

I know there’s probably no point in saying this but I will anyway: if CBRM council or any of our MPs or MLAs is in any kind of discussion with Simon, it’s time to let the public in on the conversation.