Monday, August 23, 2004

Raiding the Archives 4 - Of Pucks & Books

So here I am, sitting at the kitchen table while my daughter eats pancakes and our youngest hums the ABC song while he plays with his Buzz Lightyear pillow. I was rooting around the SD card and found the next article from my London Free Press archives. I'm going to try to e-mail it from here - hopefully all the technology-gnomes will speak the same language and deposit the results firmly on my blog. Cross your fingers.

I rather enjoyed writing this piece, since it represented an early foray into self-righteous edginess (also known simply as the rant). It was also the first time I really ticked people off. We were out of town when this was published, but upon our return friends told us that announcers on at least two radio stations lambasted me for taking an anti-arena stand and made fun of my piece.

Agree or disagree makes no difference to me: it was a rush just knowing I had kicked up such a fuss. My only challenge after this article was coming up with more of the same. Enjoy...and may your literary journeys be fulfilling.

One more thing before I forget: here are the links to the two facilities mentioned in the article. The arena was eventually named the John Labatt Centre. Since beer and literature are apparently less well-suited to each other, the big book place remains known simply as Central Branch of the London Public Library.

Originally published Friday, August 23, 2002, in the London Free Press.

Arena likely to be white elephant

The hype surrounding the October opening of the London Entertainment and Sports Complex - read the arena - has to a certain extent eclipsed the impending inaugural of London's "other" downtown big-ticket building, the library.

Don't get me wrong: I like my sports just as much as anyone else. When life's getting you down and you need a mindless escape from the pressure, sitting in the stands watching a bunch of athletes whacking each other around while trying to get a small frozen piece of rubber into a net sounds like great fun. But it doesn't enhance my future. For that, I'll go to the new library, which opens Sunday, for a more meaningful experience.

I often talk about things in terms of "stuff," which refers to any large-scale, physical, taxpayer-funded entity that generates heated opinions.

For the most part, the common thread linking all this stuff is the ease with which we can live without any of it. Do we really need an arena? Will our lives come to a crashing halt if we don't have it? Probably not. I'd rather have a sewage system that works. Even the most ardent hockey fans likely won't care about the arena when they're ankle-deep in sludge following a severe rain storm.

Likewise, would the now-rejected water spout have increased tourism in London? Hardly. Say what you want, but I just couldn't see breathless families from Brampton speeding into town in their minivans, desperately looking for Old Faithful. We're not talking substance, folks. We're talking gimmickery.

The never-ending arguments for and against spending money (I hesitate to use the term "investment," because that would imply some sort of return in our lifetime) remind me of an old episode of The Simpsons: A crowd of concerned citizens descends on city hall to discuss the merits of a proposed monorail system versus the need to repair crumbling Main Street. After a song-and-dance routine by a crooked monorail salesperson, the crowd buys into the ruse and the monorail gets the go-ahead. Elected officials are swayed by the mindless mob, leaving the downtown to rot.

Sure, it's a cartoon. But the scenario is frighteningly similar to today's London. A $42 million project, 75 per cent funded by you and me, has received the green light without any obvious concern about the long-term potential for their to be any return. If private industry is so sure about the success of the project, I'd suggest they foot the bill. If they're not, I'd like to see the detailed cost/benefit analyses outlining when we can expect an acceptable return on our public "investment."

If I'm going to risk hard-earned tax dollars on anything, it'll be on things that actually return value to society within a reasonable time frame, such as better schools, libraries and communications and transportation infrastructure.

I realize investing in our kids or the pipes and cables that connect us all isn't as glamorous as putting up a big building. But where will we be when the Knights pack up and leave town one of these years?

The worst-case scenario is starkly obvious: we'll have yet another big box to admire, a still-empty downtown and another never-ending mortgage. Rational thought seems to once again be giving way to crowd-driven emotion, and it's tiresome when it's our money being spent.

That other building, the library, at least promises a return beyond the merely monetary. I'll be able to use it every day. It won't cost me an arm and a leg to use. Most importantly, I'll be able to use it to hopefully instill in my children the same love of reading and learning that the libraries of my childhood provided to me. No arena ever taught me that much.

As a means of minimizing our collective risk, I advise our city to invest in peanut futures, because until our obsession with stuff gives way to intelligent management of public funds, I fear we'll be left with yet another white elephant long after the hoopla dies down.


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