55 Yard Line - CFL

Much of the news around the B.C. Place renovations has revolved around uncertainty over the opening date, with B.C. Lions' owner David Braley saying he expected it to be between June and Labour Day and David Podmore (chair of B.C. Pavilion Corporation or PavCo, the Crown corporation that oversees B.C. Place) saying it would be "sometime in the fall." I got a chance to interview Warren Buckley, the president and CEO of PavCo, at the Lions' Den party today (he was on hand displaying the model of the new building pictured above and talking to people about it), and he cleared up the confusion with a definitive statement on exactly what PavCo considers "fall":

"We're saying right now in the fall of 2011," Buckley said. "If you look it up on the Internet, you'll find fall is the third week of September. For sure we'll be open by then. We'd like to be open a little earlier, but we're not making any commitments."

If that date holds up, that's certainly good news for the Lions (as well as Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps), as they should each get several regular-season home games. It's not as good news as Braley's between June and Labour Day projection, but that doesn't appear to be off the cards either with Buckley's comment that they'd like to open it earlier. This scenario is much better than rumours that had been circulating that the stadium wouldn't be ready until the Grey Cup; not only would that substantially hurt the Lions' revenue (Empire Field's a nice-enough facility, but it's small, with limited amenities and concessions, and seven corporate boxes compared to the 80 planned for the new B.C. Place), but it might also lead to Grey Cup issues if there was no time to test the stadium before then. A September opening date might not be ideal, but it's far better than many of the alternatives.

Buckley said the construction has taken a while, but it's important to remember that there's more to this than a simple renovation job.

"We deflated the roof in May of this year, then we built Empire Field as a temporary stadium," he said. "Now, we're in full swing with construction. ... On all the details of the construction, we're on time."

One of the most noticeable elements of the new stadium is the way it's ringed with protruding masts (which you can see lit up in the photo at right). This is similar to the design it's based on, Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany. Those masts, which will keep the roof in place, are 50 metres long and weigh about 130 tons each

"There's 36 masts going up, and 24 are already in place," Buckley said. "Those masts are each 15 stories high. ... That's the heavy lifting."

Buckley said another challenge is integrating the building's diverse components into a project this big.

"The materials of this building are coming from over 25 countries and that's what makes it so complex," he said. "Every month, we find something different. It's a project that's been built before, but not on this scale."

It's been reported that the roof won't be able to close while it's raining, but Buckley said that isn't quite accurate. The plan is to decide to open or close it before games, but that decision could change based on the weather. Only a major thunderstorm or windstorm would affect opening or closing the roof.

"We can open and close it any time we want," he said. "The only place where we're a bit mindful is if it's open and there is a major thunderstorm that comes up like that, the weight of the rain might have an effect on the pressure to pull that roof closed. What we do is prior to every game we determine if we're going to have the roof open or closed. If the roof is open and there is wind or an impending rainstorm, we'll close that roof."

The roof will be fully retractable, in about 20 minutes, but even if it's open during the rain, Buckley said that isn't necessarily all that bad.

"It's 100 metres by 85 metres, so the opening matches the field of play," he said. "All the seating area that's in the building is under cover. ... Even if we wanted to we could leave the roof open when it's raining. The only people who are going to get wet are the players, and we have a drainage system, so that's not a problem."

Buckley said there's much more to this project than just the roof.

"It's not about just putting a roof on," he said. "We're adding about 18,000 tons of steel, and therefore what we have to do is we have to reinforce the building. We've already done that and we're putting in new seats, new washrooms, new concession stands, so it will be a new building."

Another key element will be the scoreboard, which will be hung centrally so all can see it instead of positioned on one end the way it was at the old B.C. Place.

"They're out for tender right now," Buckley said. "It will be a four-sided video board. Two sides, the longest, they're about 65 feet long and then 35 feet on the ends. You know that new video board that's in Dallas? It's not that size, but it's not that much smaller."

That scoreboard produced some issues around being hit by punts, but Buckley said that shouldn't be a concern at B.C. Place.

"I don't think so," he said. "We can actually lower or raise this one."

Buckley defended the decision to renovate B.C. Place instead of building a new facility, citing the land crunch in Vancouver (which does make a lot of sense).

"We'd have had to find the right location to build it, and we couldn't find the right location that would be accessible to public transit," he said. "Concrete lasts forever, so the decision was ‘Let's go ahead with the major renovation and reinvent the area.' We felt it was best to be down in this area, because it's associated with the Rogers Arena, the new civic plaza, the city building, this becomes a whole new event and entertainment precinct."

He said that makes sense from an economic standpoint as well.

"If you look at the new stadiums being built out there, the cost is generally 1.1 to 1.6 billion dollars," he said. "The whole cost on this is $563 million."

Those obviously seem to be NFL figures rather than CFL ones (Winnipeg's stadium is only expected to cost $160 million even after a $45-million budget increase), but perhaps this will be more comparable to an NFL stadium than most CFL ones. It's also hosting two different professional teams, which needs to be kept in mind. Buckley said even one common criticism, that the project went from its initial $365 million budget to its current $563 million, isn't really accurate, as that was due to a redefined scope rather than a cost overrun.

"We were first talking about a reduced scope," he said. "When we finally determined this is what we needed and the retractable roof is the way we were going to go, we went out to tender and this number, the $563 million, was what we got back. From our perspective, the numbers never really changed, it was just once we determined what the scope was."

The renovation has been a protracted process, but Buckley thinks it will be worth it in the end for Lions' fans.

"You're talking about something that's 1980s technology compared to something like this," he said. "This will be the largest air-supported retractable roof in the world, but we're not just doing a roof; it's everything about this building. ... You're not going to have those hot sweaty July games. I think it's going to be a completely different experience."

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