January 04, 2011
The long-running soap opera of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' search for a new stadium has turned into something more akin to a certain action drama with a ticking clock. Only a week after owner Bob Young (pictured, above left) and the team first announced that they had an alternate plan in nearby Burlington, it now appears that plan may not come through in time to get the PanAm Games funding that forms the majority of the money on the table so far. Here's what Burlington mayor Rick Goldring told Mark Masters of The National Post about the chances of getting something done before the PanAm Games' committee's Feb. 1 deadline:
"I would say it's virtually impossible," said Rick Goldring, who was sworn in as mayor last month. "I wouldn't say it's completely impossible, but I would say it's virtually impossible.
"That's a very challenging time frame and for us to really analyze something specific in that short period of time is a major, major challenge and it puts the odds of trying to achieve something longer for sure."
As Jack Bauer (pictured, above right) might say, they're running out of time. This isn't just posturing: I used to cover municipal councils regularly in my previous reporting job, and I can assure you that it takes a considerable amount of time to approve any proposed development. That time tends to shoot up exponentially when the development is large, controversial, is expected to require public hearings and consultation or may require some investment or concessions from the municipality, and this proposed stadium meets all four criteria. Based on previous projects I've written about, I'd venture that something of this size and complexity would take at least six months to a year and perhaps more to gain full council approval. It's very, very tough to shoehorn that amount of process into a month even if the mayor is completely onside with it, and Goldring (pictured, below right) doesn't appear to be thoroughly sold on the deal at the moment.
Furthermore, that deadline isn't going to change, according to comments from Toronto 2015 CEO Ian Troop. That's also understandable, as the PanAm Games group has been very flexible and continually extended deadlines throughout this process. They need to make a decision, and they don't necessarily need the Tiger-Cats; their backup plan to build a 5,000-6,500 seat stadium in Mississauga or Brampton would work perfectly well for their needs. It wouldn't be as useful to the general community or the sporting world, and wouldn't be used as frequently, but those are secondary considerations for that group, whose primary goal is to run the 2015 event smoothly.
Even without the time element, this might not be a particularly easy sell for the city. As I wrote in my previous piece on the Burlington proposal, it does carry some significant advantages for the Tiger-Cats, including easy access by highway and transit. The advantages for Burlington aren't as clear, though, as there probably wouldn't be a substantial influx of dollars into the city until businesses sprung up around the stadium. The proposal appears to be an extremely cheap way for Burlington to get a stadium with perhaps no direct financial investment from the municipality, but Burlington wouldn't need a stadium this size without the Tiger-Cats. Goldring said he thinks people in Burlington are split on the issue, and that makes this anything but a lock for council to approve.
Moreover, part of the deal as proposed appears to involve the city owning the stadium. That could turn into a tremendous financial boon for them depending on the deal they're able to strike with the Tiger-Cats; if they get a good amount of rent from the team, along with perhaps a per-ticket tax and some of the parking and concession revenues, this could turn into quite a profitable venture. If they own the stadium, they could also hold other events there (particularly concerts) and make profits from those. However, ownership of the stadium also exposes the city to substantial risk, and it likely involves costs for repairs and maintenance. It's tough to make a judgement on if this would benefit the city or not without detailed studies and reports, and those take time. In the meantime, even the spectre of potential risk may be enough to scare councillors (and many citizens) away.
If the Burlington deal falls through, the Tiger-Cats could always indicate a willingness to work with Hamilton on the west harbour site they previously shot down (even if the Galactic Empire doesn't approve). Tiger-Cats' owner Bob Young has said before that the harbour is an unacceptable venue, though, and it was council's decision last summer to push forward with that site that led to the Tiger-Cats pulling out of stadium negotiations. There's also the chance that the Tiger-Cats could relocate out-of-market to a city considered for CFL expansion like Moncton, but as I've written before, that could end horribly for all involved.
The essential takeaway for the Tiger-Cats is that their time and options are running low. Much like Bauer and his comrades, they might have to do a few unpalatable things to save the situation. Rather than CTU's tendency to resort to violence, though, the Tiger-Cats should resort to sweetening the pot. With the three main stadium sites on the table at the moment (Burlington, Hamilton's west harbour and the Hamilton CP railyards), the primary issues are financial. A deal in Burlington could likely be done (and would certainly have a lot more support from both the public and council) if the Tiger-Cats took on more of the risk and improved the rewards for the municipality. It still wouldn't likely get final approval within a month, but if the deal's good enough that it's supported by a large amount of council and the public, even initial approval might be enough for the PanAm committee. The other two proposals have already been studied more extensively, and a railyards deal could probably get done if the Tiger-Cats were able to come up with most of the $70-80 million purchase price. Even a harbour deal could be worked out if the Tiger-Cats were willing to go there and perhaps concede some of their future revenue streams.
So far, the team's contribution to any of these plans has seemed pretty minimal (a $10 million sum has been mentioned). Sure, CFL teams aren't necessarily all that wealthy, but if the community-owned Winnipeg Blue Bombers with next to no assets can contribute $85 million towards their new stadium (with the help of a favourable loan), you'd think that a team owned by "an entrepreneur who made a fortune from Red Hat software" would perhaps be able to put in more than $10 million. It might not be their ideal vision, but they need to do something to get a deal done somewhere by Feb. 1. If they can do that, they'll get a stadium that's largely funded by provincial and federal money for the PanAm Games. If the clock ticks down to zero before they get something done, it could be disastrous for the Tiger-Cats.