CBRM Council: Selling Centre 200?

District 8 Councilor James Edwards placed an item on Tuesday’s CBRM council meeting agenda calling for a staff Issue Paper on the pros and cons of selling Centre 200.

Opened in 1987, the 5,000-plus seat arena in downtown Sydney was built to mark the city’s 1985 bicentennial. It was home to the Cape Breton Oilers of the American Hockey League (AHL) from 1988 until 1996 and to the Cape Breton Breakers of the National Basketball League for one-and-a-half seasons (1993-1994). The Cape Breton Eagles (formerly the Screaming Eagles), a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL)  team, have played out of the facility since 1997 and another basketball team, the Cape Breton Highlanders, called it home for three seasons, between 2016 and 2019, before going on hiatus from the National Basketball League of Canada with no plans to return.

Centre 200 under construction, Sydney, NS.

Centre 200 under construction. (Cape Breton Post “submitted” photo.)

Centre 200 is owned and operated by the municipality at a cost of about $1 million a year, according to figures being tossed around during the meeting. It’s been on council’s agenda more than once in recent months in terms of planned improvements and a possible expansion to include a multi-court facility. So the suggestion it be sold came completely out of the blue to me, although according to Edwards:

Over the past year and a half, there’s been discussion among councilors and within the community about the advantages and disadvantages of selling or continuing to operate Centre 200 as a going concern.

Has there, indeed?


Community asset

Singing from the neoliberal hymn book (a rather tattered old volume that more progressive communities are consigning to the recycling bin), Edwards wondered if, given the recreation facility costs us money rather than making us money, we shouldn’t sell it to someone who could make it turn a profit?

District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie asked the obvious question, namely, if we’re going to unload municipal assets that don’t make us money, what’s next, privatizing the transit service? Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin said turning a municipal facility like Centre 200 into a for-profit operation would “limit recreation capabilities” and she would not support it although she looked forward to having the conversation “to finally put some things to bed.”

District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger, while he felt there was “nothing wrong with seeing” all the numbers associated with Centre 200, reminded council that they had previously tried using a third-party to manage the facility and that had ended badly. (My apologies, I’m not familiar with this piece of CBRM lore and will have to look into it and get back to you.)

CBRM District 8 Councilor James Edwards

CBRM District 8 Councilor James Edwards

For me, the biggest revelation of the discussion was that “three years ago,” according to CAO Marie Walsh, some unnamed person expressed interest in buying Centre 200 and staff had the building appraised (it was worth $19 million which she noted would not be enough to replace it) and “ran through the financials” and never heard back from the mystery buyer.

There was no suggestion that any of this was done at the behest of council and I do not remember council discussing a proposal to sell Centre 200 three years ago, so I guess we’re to understand CBRM staff was discussing the potential sale of major municipal asset of its own accord? ( Mind you, it wouldn’t be unprecedented—remember when businessman Martin Chernin announced he’d made a deal with Walsh and regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanas to buy the municipal land on which he’d been proposing to build a new central library? And was incensed when council wouldn’t honor it?)

I have said this until I am blue in the face but when you are doing or attempting to do business with a municipality, you should not be able to act in secret. If the CBRM was entertaining an offer to buy Centre 200, we should have known about it.

There’s also something just plain rude about introducing the potential sale of a municipal facility without a heads up to the person who manages it—Centre 200 manager Paul MacDonald, who told council the facility employs 11 full-time people (nine “bargaining unit” and two contract employees) told the Post the sale discussion had taken him completely by surprise.

But rude or not, the motion passed and council was told it could probably expect its Issue Paper in the fall.


Gaining the Edge?

The biggest question, of course, is who is looking to buy Centre 200?

One likely suspect is Irwin Simon, owner of the Cape Breton Eagles (since 2018, meaning, he could well have been the potential buyer three years ago, too).

At first, I thought the fact that in 2020 he was calling for “a lot” of money from all levels of government to upgrade the facility militated against his wanting to own the joint, but now I’m not so sure.

Newfoundland Edge: Here to Stay

This is what greets you when you visit the St. John’s Edge website.

Simon also co-owns, with Brooklyn car dealer Robert Sabbagh, the St. John’s Edge basketball team in Newfoundland and it just announced it won’t be playing this season because it was unable to reach a lease agreement with its home arena, the former St. John’s Mile End Centre now, I kid you not, the Mary Brown’s Centre.

Sabbagh told the St. John’s Telegram that St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), the company that manages the Mary Brown Centre on behalf of the city, had “a grand plan to get rid” of him and Simon. It’s a complicated story that includes the Edge owing the Mary Brown Centre its share of a $1 million LED advertising/message ring, but the upshot of it all is that SJSE “terminated basketball exclusivity for the Edge and instead brought in a new tenant, the American Basketball Association’s Newfoundland Rogues, who [we]re set to begin play at Mile One in late November.”

The Rogues did begin playing  in November, but in February 2022 they announced they were suspending their season “due to complications presented to the team by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That left the Newfoundland Growlers, an East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team owned by Deacon Sports and Entertainment, at the Mary Brown Centre. In October, Deacon Sports and Entertainment made an offer to buy the Edge but the deal was never finalized. That same month, the Growlers were evicted from the arena due to “disrespectful workplace conduct” by staff of Deacon Sports and had to play their first six home games of the 2021-2022 season in Conception Bay. In November, they came to an agreement to return to the Mary Brown Centre, although the investigation remained underway.

Stymied in its attempt to buy the Edge, Deacon Sports and Entertainment founded a new basketball team in the Canadian Elite Basketball League which they also named The Newfoundland Growlers.

And in November, the Edge were granted a leave of absence by NBL Canada which leaves Simon and Sabbagh with a team—which they have previously threatened to move to Cape Breton— without a home.

I leave it to you to connect those dots.