‘Growlersgate’ Puts Mary Brown’s Centre in a Pickle

Tensions mount between the City and Dean MacDonald over workplace harassment allegations at the old Mile One Centre.

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At the moment, Deacon Sports and Entertainment (DSE) president and CEO Dean MacDonald said he’s focused on getting ready for the puck drop at 7 p.m. on Friday at the CBS arena, getting the Growlers hockey team ready and the visiting team settled and ready to have off at a much smaller arena, going from the 6,000 seat Mary Brown’s Centre—formerly known as Mile One—to a 1,000 seat arena.

The best way to put the current situation for DSE is that they’re “like a ping pong ball in a hurricane,” MacDonald told The Independent in a recent interview.

On top of that, they’re putting together a statement of claim against the City he plans to have filed in the coming days, and he estimates the damages could be in the millions.

How Did We Get Here?

As we’ve seen play out over the last two weeks, the Growlers will not be battling it out on the ice at the Mary Brown’s Centre this Friday.

On October 27, Mayor Danny Breen called a press conference and announced the City had suspended the Growlers from playing at Mile One over accusations that DSE staff had been accused of “disrespectful workplace conduct” towards City employees. As a result, DSE’s rights and privileges under the terms of the lease—including access to the premises—were suspended, resting on the outcome of an unnamed third party investigation.

The City’s statement added, “We will not provide details of the complaints. We ask the public to please be respectful of the privacy of the individuals involved.”

Even before the statement was released Wednesday morning, people looking to buy tickets for the upcoming games online weren’t able to do so.

“Normally in situations like this, before such drastic action is taken, there is a process to be followed,” MacDonald told The Independent. “That process has not been followed in this case. So we basically were evicted from the building. We didn’t know what the complaints were. We didn’t have a chance to sit down and talk about it.”

In all his years in business, MacDonald said he’s never seen a situation play out like this has, likening it to being considered guilty before proven innocent. On top of that, he pointed out the news has reached all over North America with the inference that something “very, very, very serious happened and we’re certainly not of that view.”

A quick Google search will show how far the eviction news spread; it was even picked up by AP News.

The City, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment, posted a link on its website on Oct. 27 to lay out the timeline of events that led to the Growlers suspension.

It states that on Oct. 25, DSE was told St. John’s Sports and Entertainment Ltd. employees had come forward with allegations of disrespectful workplace conduct against staff from DSE employees. In the wake of that, more allegations came forward. The next day, the Board and Council Staff met to consider how to proceed, and ultimately, the Board determined it had a duty under legislation to provide a safe workplace for employees and protect them from harm, so the Board decided to suspend DSE from accessing the building until the situation could be investigated.

“While we cannot disclose details about the allegations because that disclosure is protected under legislation, we cannot continue to allow our staff and DSE to have interactions,” the City statement added.

As this story has unfolded in the public—and given us some great memes on social media—I’ve heard chatter that many felt kicking the Growlers out of the Mary Brown’s Centre was a step too far or done too quickly.

As it stands, there is currently no equivalent for commercial leases in legislation to the provincial Residential Tenancies Act. It doesn’t extend to commercial properties like the Mary Brown’s Centre, so it really comes down to what both parties—the landlord and tenant—agreed on. And the agreement between the City and DSE isn’t publicly known.

The Independent requested a look at the lease agreement but did not hear back from the City. DSE also did not respond to requests from The Independent to see the lease agreement.

MacDonald said they welcome any review but he said Mayor Danny Breen made comments after November 1’s council meeting that the City wasn’t able to open in time for the first game night. MacDonald said it put a lot of stress on staff, who took the flack over it on social media, and it was a tough work environment when they didn’t have the resources.

“So our view is this is really a management issue. It’s not an issue of harassment.”

Moreover, MacDonald said it’s not just his team that’s being affected by the eviction, but Growler’s parent team the Toronto Maple Leafs, the ECHL league, as well as sponsors, adding “this thing is an absolute cluster bomb and the impacts are wide ranging.”

The Growlers team isn’t the only link DSE has to the arena. In September the company acquired the basketball team The Edge from Atlantic Sport Enterprises, which also played at the former Mile One Centre. MacDonald said they will make a statement about that team soon but for now he’s solely focused on the situation with the Growlers.

Council Meeting Comments

During Monday’s city council meeting, Mayor Breen spoke on “Growlersgate” but didn’t share any new details. He said he’s heard from people who’ve questioned this decision and he stressed the eviction had nothing to do with the Growlers’ recent announcement that it intended to build a new arena.

Following that, Breen addressed the issue around ticket sales. He explained that while they did have a problem that delayed the City in selling tickets as of October 20, Breen said they were close to having that issue resolved.

“As with any workplace harassment investigation, things have been evolving quickly. Last week was clear to the Board and Council that we could not—for the wellbeing and mental health of staff at the former Mile One Centre—go ahead with at least the first six games of the season.”

He added there’s been a lot of speculation about why this matter couldn’t have been resolved in a different manner. But he reiterated that he can’t go into details of the multiple allegations currently being investigated.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary followed up, reminding councillors not to talk about the details of the harassment allegations.

Building An Arena of One’s Own

It’s no secret the stadium formerly known as Mile One is starting to show its age. It opened back in 2001 alongside the original St. John’s Convention Centre—which was temporarily closed in 2014 for an expansion, reopening in 2016.

The Growlers have been playing at Mile One since 2018 and it isn’t the first team to take up residency in the centre. Who can forget the St. John’s Maple Leafs (2001-2005, AHL), followed by the St. John’s Fog Devils (2005-2008, QMJHL), and then the St. John’s IceCaps (2011-2017, AHL)?

MacDonald told The Independent that when DSE signed a lease with Mile One in 2018, one of the terms was that DSE would take on the facility’s management the following year. He added when they originally brought the team to St. John’s, it was a precondition because in order for it to economically work out for the company, they needed to manage the facility—which he said isn’t a unique condition. He pointed out DSE has a team in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, where they also manage the facility. He also has another hockey team in Coralville, Iowa, where he’s building an amphitheatre.

However, the City “pulled the plug on that, with no explanation given,” said MacDonald.

When the pandemic hit, then-SJSE chair Cllr Jamie Korab went to the public and asked for ideas about ways to utilize the building better. So in 2020 DSE revealed a sweeping new vision for the aging Mile One, which included a $25-million facelift. That included massive expansions to its facilities, including adding two theatres, a record studio and an e-sports arena. MacDonald added they didn’t necessarily need to buy the centre and could have done it as a partner. But that was rebuffed.

MacDonald has made it known time and again he was interested in buying Mile One from the City. For its part, the City has toyed with the future for Mile One, having commissioned consultants KPMG on two occasions to look into operating models, and possibly selling the downtown facility.

In November 2019, the City released the first KPMG report, which was commissioned to compare the operating models of both Mile One and the St. John’s Convention Centre to similar facilities.

Once more, the City hired consultants KPMG to put together a report—which cost $35,000—on a potential sale of Mile One and its implications, as well as comparing the local setup across the country. It was released to the public in March 2021—you can read Jess Puddister’s overview for The Independent here.

The future of Mile One, and its subsidy and operation model, has been an ongoing issue in city politics. In fact, during the St. John’s municipal election when I was The Independent’s municipal election reporter, the future of Mile One was one of the hot button issues and a question about its future was included in a list of questions posed to candidates.

In August the Growlers only signed a three year lease with the City for Mile One—which ultimately only lasted two months—whereas the newly formed basketball team the Newfoundland Rogues got a five year lease. At that point MacDonald said it made more sense to look at building a facility than taking on Mile One, which is nearing the end of its life.

MacDonald recently made it known he has moved on from his aspirations to own Mile One and intends to build his own arena. In an NTV interview in late October he said this new stadium will be based somewhere in the St. John’s metro region and it’s expected to have 6,500 seats and could cost between $60 to $72 million.

In an email, DSE spokesperson Kenny O’Leary told The Independent the plans for the arena are still being finalized and those figures could change. 

When asked if he’d ever go back to Mile One if the situation was resolved, MacDonald said “I don’t even want to comment on that… We have, as you can appreciate, we found out on Wednesday of last week we’re out of there. We are all hands on deck going, working furiously to put not only our own team, but a team that arrives this evening (Nov. 2), into a new arena. We’re trying to accommodate fans. And that’s very difficult.”

UPDATE, 4 November 2021: The National Basketball League announced today that the St. John’s Edge basketball team will be taking a leave of absence from the NBL Atlantic Division this year, citing an inability to find a suitable venue for hosting home games. They were also tenants of the Mile One Centre, but were unable to secure a lease agreement with St. John’s Sports and Entertainment following The Edge’s sale from Atlantic Sports and Entertainment to Deacon Sports and Entertainment over the summer.

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