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marcus gee

It's incredible, when you think of it. Toronto is about six hours down the 401 from the fattest white elephant in Canadian history, Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The Big Owe stands as a concrete reminder to cities everywhere of how sports stadiums can lead to disaster for taxpayers.

But did that stop us from building one of our very own? Not a bit. Toronto in the 1980s was panting to make its name as a "world-class city." The result was "the world's greatest entertainment centre," the SkyDome, yet another example of the edifice complex run mad.

When a group of business titans and backroom boys led by Bay Streeter Trevor Eyton proposed building a new sports palace in Toronto, they swore it would be nothing like Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau's colossal folly. In one sense, they were right: our retractable roof actually works.

But the promise that it could be built by private enterprise with little public money proved as false as Mr. Drapeau's claim that the 1976 Olympics could no more run a deficit than a man could have a baby. ("Allo, Morgentaler?") The cost of the dome grew from the original estimate of $125-million to $278-million to nearly $600-million. And - surprise! - taxpayers were on the hook for at least half of it.

In 1993, the provincial government sold the concrete pile to a private company (chaired by Senator Eyton) for $150-million. It was sold again for $80-million in 1999 under the supervision of a bankruptcy court. Finally, in 2004, Ted Rogers and his Toronto Blue Jays snapped it up for $25-million, about four per cent of its cost.

The whole sorry saga is worth reflecting on as SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, turns 20, a landmark officially reached yesterday. The first lesson is that places of mass entertainment, like hockey arenas and baseball stadiums, should never be built with or supported by public money. If a sports team thinks it can attract more fans and make more money by building a new stadium, let the team put up its own dough. Then its invariably wealthy owner carries the risk (and reaps the reward) of the enterprise.

In SkyDome's case, the suits who pushed the thing knew that they were being backstopped by government. So the builders splurged on a health club, a hotel and, yes, a retractable roof, vastly inflating the cost.

For a fleeting moment, it looked as if their subsidized bet might pay off. In the early 1990s, the Blue Jays alone were pulling four million fans a year to the dome. Today they are bringing in about half that many.

Other draws have tailed off, too. The Air Canada Centre attracts many of the pop groups and other acts that used to go to SkyDome. Basketball's Raptors are ensconced at the ACC and there is always talk that football's Argonauts might flee the dome, if they don't fold instead.

Although it still gets some big acts, such as the Jonas Brothers and Coldplay, coming this summer, it has been reduced to playing host to events like this summer's Canada Kabaddi Cup. (The dome's publicists call Kabaddi a "unique and thrilling" game of Indian origin and prehistoric antecedents that may have been invented as a way to practice warding off wild-animal attacks.) Overall, the number of event days at the dome is down from its peak of 302 in 1997 to around 200 today.

To give the place its due, the dome is still neat in some ways. The retractable lid dreamed up by Toronto architect Rod Robbie and Ottawa engineer Michael Allen is a marvel, opening or closing majestically in 20 minutes. The stadium's fathers may not have been able to do their sums, but they had the smarts to put the dome downtown rather than in deepest Downsview, helping enliven the city core on game and concert days. But it's a lousy place to watch ball, especially when it's half full and takes on the feel of a vast mausoleum (with overpriced beer).

If present or future owners ever come begging for more cash, pushing the usual line about vast "spin-off" benefits for tourism and job creation, governments should boo them off the field.

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