Markham is one step closer to building an NHL-size arena after its city council narrowly decided to go ahead with plans to contribute public money to the project, despite having no permanent tenant lined up.

In a razor-thin 7-6 vote that followed hours of debate and input from residents, council rejected a motion that sought to scrap the current financial framework and withhold taxpayers’ money.

Under the terms of the initial financial framework, the City of Markham would borrow the $325 million for the arena, the private partners behind the project would repay half of the loan, and the city would pay off the other half through levies on developers.

The project still has some hurdles to clear before construction of the venue can begin, but it would have suffered a significant blow had council decided to kill the financing deal it has with GTA Sports and Entertainment and Remington Group.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city and the fact that council agreed, the majority of council agreed, not to kill this project before we’ve completed all of our due diligence, quite honestly, is a really wise move on their part,” Mayor Frank Scarpitti said after the meeting.

In what was a spirited debate, more than 60 people signed up to have their say on the 20,000 seat, $325-million complex that would be built on a vacant lot near Highway 407 and Kennedy Road.

Residents who oppose the financial plan told council members that they don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for any costs.

“Just use private money, all private money and fill your boots if you want to chase the dream of an NHL franchise,” said resident Terry Churchill. “If you think you’re in that lottery, go right ahead, but get the $325 million (from the private sector).”

Opponents pointed to Hamilton, where that city is still paying out of its pocket to operate Copps Coliseum, which was built in the 1980s with the failed hope of attracting an NHL franchise. The building is currently home to an American Hockey League franchise.

Scarpitti tried to ease fears that Markham may suffer a financial loss.

“Half of the money will be coming from the private sector,” Scarpitti said before the meeting. “The other half is coming from the future growth that is happening in Markham over the next 20 years.”

The meeting lasted almost eight hours before councillors finally voted on the motion shortly before 3 a.m.

The motion, moved at an earlier meeting by Ward 5 Coun. Colin Campbell, suggested the current deal is not in the best interest of the city.

Council also approved the site plan for the arena, but the project still requires final approval from Markham's mayor and councillors before construction can proceed.

GTA Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Graeme Roustan formally submitted the site plan for the proposed arena last August. At that time, Roustan said he was hoping that construction would begin before the end of 2012.

After the marathon meeting, Roustan reacted to the close vote and said there is still plenty of work to do.

“I think that at the end of the day the city council listened to the citizens, the business community, (and) the developers, and what they’ve decided to do is to have staff continue working with me on this," Roustan said.

The proposed arena does not have a permanent tenant, but there are hopes the complex would help to lure a second NHL franchise to the GTA at some point in the future.

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