January 23, 2011
Stop me if you've heard this one before; the Tiger-Cats and the city of Hamilton agree on a promising stadium plan after months of contentious negotiations, only for things to completely unravel when someone bothers to add up the numbers and finds they don't match. That's pretty much exactly what happened back in December when it came out that the Canadian Pacific Railway's yards, the proposed site for the new stadium, would cost $70 to $90 million to purchase, leaving the project with a $90 to $140 million funding gap. That in turn prompted an attempted move to Confederation Park that was shot down by council, proposed moves to Burlington or Moncton , and an eventual return to Hamilton thanks to plans for a renovated Ivor Wynne Stadium (pictured above before the Tiger-Cats' November 14 playoff game against Toronto). Now, the CPR experience appears to be repeating itself, as a report prepared by Hamilton city staff indicates that the cost of Ivor Wynne renovations is projected to be $156.5 million to $174.5 million, leaving a $36.5 million to $54.5 million gap in terms of the funding currently on the table.
As you might expect, these latest revelations don't appear to be sitting well with many members of city council. The Hamilton Spectator's Emma Reilly spoke to city councillor Sam Merulla for the above piece, and got some rather interesting quotes:
"I'm shocked by the numbers. It's not even remotely attainable," said Councillor Sam Merulla, who has consistently championed renovating Ivor Wynne. "Just when we thought it was over, the drama continues. It's just way out of reach."
If Merulla thinks the new costs make it seem "way out of reach", the Ivor Wynne project may be in serious trouble; as Reilly notes, he's long been a supporter of that plan (and has opposed most of the other proposals). When you have adamant defenders of a particular plan conceding that it may not be realistic, it could be time to try something else.
The problem is that there are basically no alternative sites left to try, and certainly none that can be explored before the PanAm Games' committee's apparently-firm February 1 deadline to receive a detailed stadium proposal. That might not be an issue in all cities where there could be a chance of pulling in funding from a different source later, but the PanAm funding is absolutely critical to this project; even with it, there's still a huge gap in terms of what's needed. If it vanishes, so too likely vanish the chances of any new stadium in Hamilton.
There is one potential solution, though. Yes, there's a substantial gap at the moment, but when you look at the details, there are also some notable absences on the funding side. The $36.5 million to $54.5 million gap figure is based upon the sum total of funding being the announced provincial/federal/PanAm total of $70 million and the announced city total of $45 million. There have been previous reports that the provincial government might chip in more once a site was decided on, but even if they don't, you also have the contributions of an undisclosed magnitude from businesses like Tim Hortons, Primus and Molson-Coors that Tiger-cats' owner Bob Young mentioned when announcing the Ivor Wynne deal. This plan also seems to not only count on no up-front contribution from the Tiger-Cats, but also payments to them so they don't lose revenue during construction. It also envisions rent fees from them of $679,250 per year after construction, which would reportedly leave the city paying $1.1 million in net costs to run the stadium after it's completed (apparently similar to what they pay at the moment). It's unclear if that figure includes the $600,000 the Tiger-Cats estimate the city would make though a $3 per ticket surcharge, but even if it does, that still leaves Hamilton on the hook for a substantial amount of money.
I'm sure the Tiger-Cats would prefer not to chip in a lot of money unless they have to, but I don't think they're left with many other options at the moment. I haven't seen their books, so I don't know what they're capable of paying (either up front or in annual rent). However, perhaps the Winnipeg situation can prove instructive; faced with similar issues, the Bombers managed to come up with a stadium plan that will see them contribute a total of $85 million (plus a substantial amount of interest) over 44 years. Even with the highest gap figure imaginable, the Tiger-Cats wouldn't have to put in anywhere near that much. Their attendance isn't quite as high as Winnipeg's has typically been, but one would imagine that the Bombers and Tiger-Cats aren't necessarily that far from each other in terms of revenue. Obviously, contributing that amount of cash wasn't Winnipeg's first choice either, but they made what looks like the best deal they could given the circumstances. We'll see if Hamilton can pull off something similar. As Tiger-Cats' president Scott Mitchell told Drew Edwards in this excellent profile, "Some great things happen because of compromise."