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B.C. Place renovations draw rave reviews, but labour issues loom

After years of work, debate, political battles and posturing, a rising renovation price tag that eventually hit $563 million, temporary stadiums, uncertainty over reopening dates and more, B.C. Place is finally ready to play host to CFL football again. A new era of Canadian football in Vancouver is set to get underway Friday night when the B.C. Lions host the Edmonton Eskimos (10:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NFL Network), and it looks like it's going to be spectacular. Check out this video tour of the new stadium from the Lions' official YouTube channel (where you can find even more videos of what the stadium looks like from different angles):

The stadium renovations are winning over plenty of skeptics, too, and there were many of those when the deal was announced to renovate B.C. Place instead of building a new stadium for the Lions and Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps. Here's Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun, who was pretty convinced by what he saw on a tour Wednesday:

For those of us who hit the, er, ceiling at the $563 million price tag for putting a new lid on BC Place Stadium — or, to be more accurate, who favoured the dynamite option — a little sneak preview Wednesday was our first step toward a slightly more open mind.

It was worth the effort.

The bare bones of the old stadium are all but unrecognizable inside a massively-renovated, eye-popping arena bowl, a construction project that will be not quite finished, but near enough, when the B.C. Lions open the nation's finest sports stadium Friday night against the Edmonton Eskimos.

Yup, we've seen the rest. This is the best.

The improvements go beyond mere aesthetic changes, too. Here are some of the key differences in the new building, as outlined by Jim Morris of The Canadian Press:

The $560-million in renovations include a retractable roof which can be opened or closed in 20 minutes. There also is a huge centre-hung video board with two HD screens that are the equivalent to 450, 42-inch flat-screen TVs.

Throughout the building there are 800 Wi-Fi points and 1,150 digital screens. There are new, wider seats; improved acoustics; modern turf; and enhanced concession and bathroom facilities.

Gone is the huge air-supported roof that looked like a dirty marshmallow on the Vancouver skyline. It has been replaced by 36 roof support masts that look like a crown.

The drab concrete building now sparkles with clear glazing. Antiquated revolving doors have given way to grand entrances. The once cold, dark interior is now flooded with natural light.

It's worth pointing out that despite all the questions over when it would be ready, the project has finished almost as early as PavCo (B.C. Pavilion Corporation, the Crown corporation that oversees B.C. Place) president Warren Buckley told me it would last November (he said the third week of September), and they've hit the Sept. 30 date PavCo officially released this February. On a project of this scale, that's nothing to sneeze at. It's also very good news for the Lions, who have already sold over 40,000 tickets for Friday's game (putting them on course their largest attendance at a single regular-season game in 20 years), but will see even more benefits from the jump from seven corporate boxes at Empire Field to 80 in the new facility. Corporate cash is one of the most important elements of sports franchise success today, and this should significantly help the Lions' bottom line.

It's looking like the Lions are going to put on a show, too. The team's won their last five games and jumped to the top of many CFL power rankings. If they can keep up their current form, fans may have more to cheer than just the anticipated pre-game opening of the roof, and there may be plenty of impressive plays replayed on the 68-foot HD scoreboard, the third-largest in North America (behind only the ones at Cowboys Stadium and Charlotte Motor Speedway). Those around the country and around the world can turn in too; TSN's pulling out plenty of stops for this one, including putting the CFL on TSN panel on location and bringing in a cable cam (typically only used for games like the Grey Cup, as it tends to cost around $100,000 per game). A great stadium experience seems assured, but a great on-field performance from the home team would make this debut even more memorable.

However, there are still some questions about the new facility and its readiness, and the most important may have nothing to do with the building itself, but rather those who work in it. As Bob Mackin writes over at The Vancouver Courier, the union of employees who will work in the new facility is conducting a strike vote Thursday, and only a simple majority is needed to strike. The results won't be announced until Monday, so this shouldn't affect Friday's opener, but it could impact future Lions' games and perhaps even November's Grey Cup and Vanier Cup.

A memo from B.C. Place Stadium's general manager to unionized workers says November's Grey Cup championship could be "in jeopardy" if they vote to strike.

"I know you share my enthusiasm for the many events in the weeks and months ahead from the B.C. Lions to the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and leading up to Canada's largest event, the Grey Cup!" Howard Crosley wrote Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, all those events could be in jeopardy. The union that represents employees in the stadium has announced that it is conducting a strike vote that might result in a strike disrupting these events."

We'll see how that pans out, and it may come to nothing. If employees don't strike or the strike is resolved quickly, the impact's likely to be pretty minimal. There are also massive incentives for the B.C. government (which employs these workers) to have a deal in place ahead of the Grey Cup, so it seems very unlikely that worst will come to worse. Still, there's more to keeping a stadium running than just building it and maintaining it, and that's worth remembering in all the hoopla of this weekend's opening.

Stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for coverage from the opening game Friday. You can also follow me on Twitter for updates from B.C. Place.

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