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Larry O?Brien: Lansdowne ? Ottawa?s golden opportunity

It ‘s been said that political campaigns are about promises while governance is about making decisions and progress, but sometimes it’s hard to connect the dots between promises and action in a functioning and healthy democracy. Initiating the revitalization of Lansdowne Park is a good example of that difficulty.

It was important to me to finally fix Lansdowne since it was a major campaign promise I made in 2006—I even had an interactive video of how Lansdowne should be fixed on my 2006 web site. Along with taxes, the transit tunnel, and the new convention centre, it formed a large part of my campaign. Furthermore, as a lifelong resident of Ottawa, I’d become embarrassed over its rundown condition.

Lansdowne Park had been in a sad state for the last twenty years or so when Roger Greenberg, John Ruddy, Bill Shenkman, and 67’s owner Jeff Hunt first approached me with the idea of bringing CFL football back to Ottawa. I pounced on it as a chance to make good on one of my campaign promises. Fixing Lansdowne in the most efficient way was my key motivation for this project.

Many citizens thought  the CFL returning to Ottawa was the key driving force for this project, but they were wrong. It was almost a side car issue for me that the CFL would be returning to Ottawa—first and foremost, the goal was to finally fix  Lansdowne Park and do it in such a way as to enhance the City for the next 100 years. To do so, the four promoters took on a massive project that has tested the skills and patience of their exceptional team of professionals.
The broad-based support for progress Lansdowne was  a controversial  project, but it captured the support of the National Capital Commission  (N.C.C.), Parks Canada, and most importantly the majority of Citizens. Lansdowne Live even solved the trade show space problem in Ottawa by negotiating a business relationship with the Ottawa airport authority to build new trade show space at the airport that will bring exciting and new trade show business to Ottawa for years to come. The airport location is exactly where trade show space should be; lots of parking and easy access. Of course not everyone was happy with the project plans.

The foes of the Lansdowne renewal project were very active and animated. With the ruling by Justice Hackland, I hope that’s all over and done with now. There were also six left-leaning members of my Council who really wanted the project stopped. After our City Manager and chief Lansdowne negotiator, Kent Kirpatrick, met with then-Capital Ward Councilor Clive Doucet he made an interesting observation: he said he didn’t realize Clive would be capable of justifying any means in order to stop the project. Doucet was against the project and he was prepared to do anything to stop it from becoming a reality.

It was startling insight and brought to mind the comment made by American President  Ronald Reagan on January 29, 1981 that Soviet leadership had “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.” In short, any means justifies the ends of many on the left of the political spectrum because they often feel they have the moral high ground in any situation in which they truly believe they represent the greater good.

During the course of the many debates on Lansdowne, the City Manager’s observation about the ends justifying the means became very frustrating, as was seen in the face of Roger Greenberg on several occasions when he debated Clive at Council presentations. In my thirty five years as a businessman, I’ve never seen anything as disingenuous as the debating positions taken by the opponents of the Lansdowne revitalization project during debates and public delegations.

It was and still is a battle that will challenge the new Mayor and Council, but I’m confident in their abilities to move the project forward. It’s the right project for Ottawa. On the other side of the coin was the role of free choice and capitalism and how it challenged  the project.

Kanata and the lost opportunity

One of the early options that I actively explored was to locate the new stadium in Kanata right beside Scotia Bank Place. It was an intriguing concept and would have enabled both a soccer team and a CFL team to play their games right beside the venue. It would  reduce the amount of development required at Lansdowne while creating a sports hub in the west end of the city and justifying the investment into mass transit to the site since it would running just about year-round. We had city land available in the exact right place to build the stadium and it seemed like a win for all parties. To me and the City Manager this was the ideal solution and we were very excited about reaching a possible location that would reflect nicely on the city.

But the reality of free choice became clear when it turned out that the sponsors of the Professional  Soccer League did not have an interest in co-locating with a CFL team. In a one-on-one telephone conversation with Eugene Melnyk, it became clear to me that he didn’t want to share their stadium with a sport he truly did not believe in. He was clear on this position and said he would only move forward with the M.L.S. soccer if the stadium was a single purpose soccer facility and under his management control.

He had the absolute right to that position but, I found this line of reasoning curious in a different sense than Clive’s since it would have been the city and perhaps even the province that would have funded the new dual-purpose stadium. It was a city facility and my objective as mayor was to finally fix up Lansdowne Park and my responsibility to the overall good of the community forced me to go back to keeping the stadium at Lansdowne Park. There was little wrong either of their positions since one was fighting for a political cause they believe in and the other was exercising the right of free choice. But it’s a good example of how difficult the role of mayor is in a modern city like Ottawa with divergent views and thinking, passionate people. However, all’s well that ends well!

In the end, the resulting plans are spectacular. Ritchard Brisbane and Barry Hobin worked well with the N.C.C. and Parks Canada to create a wonderful plan that will invigorate the site and bring it back to life. They truly represent world-class capability in design and engineering and the beauty and functionality of the design is breathtaking. Ritchard also contributed to the beautiful new Convention Centre design that’s also world-class in every way.

A revitalized Lansdowne Park and a brand new trade show facility at the Ottawa International Airport will change the way Ottawa works for many decades to come. When these projects are completed in 2013, Ottawa will be a better place and it will have taken the will of two councils and the hard work of many government and private sector employees. All those involved should feel very proud of their accomplishment. Ottawa is a great city and worth all the efforts to keep it that way!