In late January, the Markham (Ontario) Arena Project took another step toward making a proposed $325-million arena into a reality. Named the GTA Centre, plans for the building got a boost in January when the Markham City Council approved its Site Plan Application, bringing GTASE closer to its ultimate goal of building a state-of-the-art arena in Markham and, eventually, bringing a second National Hockey League team to the Toronto market. 

As the project continues to push forward, GTA Sports & Entertainment has launched a website GTACentre.ca to provide information about the potential multipurpose project.

The website features information about the 20,000-seat design, parking, the arena’s potential dimensions, luxury suites and special features for events and concerts. GTACentre.ca includes maps to show how the arena will fit into the downtown Markham area as well as Ontario.

“After the approval of the Site Plan Application in January, we felt that creating a place where the public can learn about the project and get continued updates was the logical next step,” Ray Lalonde, Executive Vice President and Management Strategist for GTASE said.

The site also includes biographies of Lalonde, GTA’s CEO W. Graeme Roustan as well as a list of potential benefits to Markham and testimonials from several major hockey names such as former NHL Players Association Executive Director Paul Kelly and NHL player Igor Larionov and Markham’s mayor Frank Scarpitti.

“Mayor Scarpitti has been a long and passionate supporter,” Lalonde said. “Scarpitti has worked incredibly hard to move this project forward and we are continuing our efforts on the public private partnership.”

The proposed framework has the city borrowing $325 million and having half paid back over 20 years. The city would raise the money through development feeds on builders and ticketing surcharges.

The major concern from Markham taxpayers is that they could be exposed to losses without an NHL cash cow. GTA has insisted the arena doesn’t need an NHL team immediately in order to bring in revenue. They estimate the arena will be used for 130 days without a full-time hockey team.

Whether they can actually attract a tenant is unclear. But NHL owners could be motivated by the idea of expansion because they are set to begin receiving a higher percentage of the league’s total revenue under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“You have to consider with the new plan for realignment, there are uneven divisions,” Southern Illinois Sports Administration Professor and former NHL Lawyer Jeff Levine said. “That kind of opens the door to adding two more teams. It seems in everyone’s interest to want to have things be competitively balanced, and expansion could help do that.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that building an arena will not guarantee Markham a team. And Toronto’s ownership may balk at the idea of having competition close by.

“If a franchise is going to be granted access to Markham, it would likely have to be approved by the existing team in the market,” Levine said. “The Maple Leafs might be skeptical of signing off on that.”

Even if the arena is able to produce an NHL tenant, there is still worry that the situation could become like that of the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes have suffered major losses that have been passed on to the public.

Levine said he wouldn’t expect the same struggles if Markham were able to bring in a team.

“You’re talking about the epicenter of hockey,” he said. “You’re talking about the New York or Chicago of Canada. It certainly has enough hockey fans to support another franchise.”

Another concern that was mitigated during the latest council meeting is that the arena’s potential operator Global Spectrum is expected to cover operating losses.

The project still has plenty of hurdles to clear before construction can begin. Lalonde said the plan going forward is to keep followers up on the latest news.

“We wanted to be able to share all the facts of the project in a transparent manner,” he said. “GTACentre.ca allows us to achieve that.”

Interviewed for this story: Ray Lalonde, (416) 566-4502; Jeff Levine, (248) 939-7864