City of Windsor ‘travels’ on Windsor Arena project

Windsor Express owner Dartis Willis unveils his proposal for the Windsor Arena, December 11, 2019. (Photo by Maureen Revait)

The city of Windsor has benched a plan to turn a downtown landmark into a new recreational hub.

The Windsor Express basketball team announced Thursday that despite early interest in the city becoming a partner in the revitalization of historic Windsor Arena, the city informed the team that they do not wish to move forward with the project.

Dartis Willis, the Express’ owner, president, and CEO acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a change of the city’s priorities, but that the team was not given a reason for the decision.

“We’ve only been advised recently by the City that the proposal, although the proposal is an interesting and innovative one, is not one the city will be pursuing,” Willis told reporters Thursday.

Nevertheless, Willis said the team remains committed to a transformation of the Arena, which was expected to include a permanent venue for Express games and practices, along with retail and restaurant space. The team had first expressed its interest in taking over the Arena in the fall of 2019, and it would have included the space formerly occupied by Windsor Water World.

While Willis said the team will have to start from the tip-off, project lead Mario Iatonna said the Express is not backing away from the challenge.

“We’re here for the long term, our preference is to be in Windsor Arena and to redevelop that facility for the community good, but there’s a lot of demand for using such a facility,” said Iatonna.

Representatives from the city were not immediately available for comment Thursday evening, but Ward 3 Councillor Rino Bortolin told Blackburn News in December 2019 he was excited about the idea, but he wanted to make sure it was done right.

“Everything has to be considered, from a 10,000-foot level holistically, to say what’s best for the community as far as investing in that corner,” said Bortolin. “It will be measured against some of the other proponents of the other expressions of interest because we have to see what’s feasible, what’s good for the community and at what cost.”

The Windsor Arena, nicknamed “The Barn”, was first opened in 1924, and its first claim to fame was being the first home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, making the Arena one of the oldest surviving NHL venues. The building was later the longtime home of the Windsor Spitfires, then the University of Windsor’s hockey teams. Most recently, the city used the Arena for storage.

The Windsor Express’ operations have been on hold since spring 2020 when games were cancelled due to COVID-19. The 2020-21 season was scrapped completely.