Economy benefits from stadium: official

Real estate developers are eager to build residential projects on the site of B.C. Place Stadium, says a Vancouver-based industry analyst.

“There could be as many as 15 to 20 companies (interested),” adds Philip Boname, president and chief executive officer of Urbanics Consultants Ltd.

The clock is slowly ticking on the future of the 60,000-seat provincially owned stadium, which has cost the B.C. government – and taxpayers – hundreds of millions of dollars since it opened in 1983.

Located near False Creek, the air- supported domed facility takes up 10 acres, offering a large chunk of land in a high-density area where space is limited.

Photo B.C. Pavilion Corp.
B.C. Place stadium occupies a chunk of land in a high-density area, but officials say its economic benefits outweigh the red ink on the venue’s bottom line.

Currently the home of the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League and several trade and consumer shows, B.C. Place is contractually committed to hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies. Boname predicts that the province will ask for development offers on the facility around 2008 or 2009 so that the future is known by the Games deadline.

“It’s a huge story,” said Boname. “It has all kinds of implications.”

Boname said the province will likely examine the situation from an economic, rather than community, perspective. He sees three scenarios: The province will sell B.C. Place; developers will acquire it, tear it down and build high-rise condos; or the stadium will be restructured so that the seating capacity is lower, and condos will be built around it.

Boname says he has studied the third scenario. “I think there’s a way to do it – but I’m not sure,” he says.

For competitive reasons, developers are unlikely to discuss specific plans – beyond expressing general interest – before the province sets a deadline for the stadium’s fate. If it is redeveloped, B.C. Place would also have to be rezoned, and the City of Vancouver would then enter the fray.

File photo by Bayne Stanley, Business Edge
Phil Boname of Urbanics Consultants in front of planned Costco development.

But Graham Ramsay, director of sales and marketing for B.C. Place, says it’s improper for developers to be talking about building on the site. Ramsay said the stadium’s $4.4-million loss for 2003-04 is a small price to pay for the $30-$50 million in economic benefits that the stadium generates for the province each year.

“When you talk about the future of the building, that’s the story – the economic benefits,” says Ramsay.

There’s a common misconception, he adds, that the stadium is not as busy as it is. People need to remember that B.C. Place was built as a multi-use facility, not just a sports stadium, Ramsay notes.

The facility, which is managed by the provincially owned B.C. Pavilion Corp. (PavCo), averages 200 bookings per year and has to turn customers away in peak season.

This December’s Supercross motorcycle event alone will generate $7-$10 million worth of business.

Ramsay says developers and other people concerned about the stadium’s fate should consider the facility’s future – and past contributions – to the province, along with the pride it creates among Vancouver and other B.C. residents.

“You need a stadium to have a world-class city and a world-class province,” says Ramsay, adding most major stadiums receive government financial support.

B.C. Place was the brainchild of retired Senator Ray Perreault. He dreamed of building a 60,000-seat stadium to entice a major-league baseball team to Vancouver.

But after initially showing interest, pro baseball’s top circuit decided to expand to Toronto and elsewhere.

David Podmore, a former president of B.C. Pavilion Corp. who was involved in the design and construction of B.C. Place Stadium and saw it through Expo ’86, says the lack of baseball dates “left a major hole” in the schedule. But B.C. Place has met its goal of being a venue for trade and consumer shows, such as the Boat Show, he says.

Podmore, a member of the Vancouver-Whistler Olympic Organizing Committee’s venue program who helped lead International Olympic Committee officials on a tour of B.C. Place and other sites, said Vancouverites will likely develop a deep attachment to the stadium during the Games.

“A part of me would hope that the city would be able to support a major sports franchise in the future,” says Podmore.

Ironically, Podmore serves as president and chief executive officer of Concert Properties, one of Vancouver’s leading real estate development companies.

Podmore said the stadium site appeals to developers because of its location, but he is not aware of any that are actively interested in acquiring the site.

The B.C. Lions are the stadium’s only permanent tenants, with 10 confirmed dates per year, plus one or two playoff games if they qualify. If the stadium is sold or demolished, the Leos will need a new home.

However, the football club is also one of the keys to the stadium’s financial success. Under the terms of its lease, the more fans the Lions lure through the turnstiles, the more the province receives in revenue.

The CFL team, rejuvenated after president Bob Ackles’ return two years ago from 15 years in the National Football League and head coach Wally Buono’s arrival from Calgary, helped boost attendance at B.C. Place to 767,489 in 2003-04, above the 698,000 expected.

Fans are flocking to games this season, evoking memories of the stadium’s early years when large crowds were the norm. After drawing more than 29,000 fans for a game against the Toronto Argonauts, the team may consider opening the stadium’s upper bowl for the first time in several years.

(Due to a lack of spectators, the upper bowl’s approximately 30,000 seats have been covered with black tarps and huge CFL team banners for several years, because empty seats do not look good on national TV.)

According to PavCo’s annual report for 2003-04, revenues are expected to stay constant in coming years, but there are “growing expectations” from clients for subsidies on rent and other payments. The occupants believe they deserve breaks on their fees because they generate business for the province.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s convention centre expansion, slated to open in 2008, also poses more questions about B.C. Place.

The new convention centre, also to be managed by PavCo, is expected to contain a large floor area that could be used for trade shows. But Ramsay says the two facilities have “completely different” markets.

B.C. Place’s role is to generate business and host events whereas the convention centre’s aim is to bring large international groups to Vancouver.

Ramsay suggests the market is large enough for both facilities to co-exist. “There is so much demand out there.”

According to PavCo’s annual report, the stadium is fully booked for trade and consumer shows in the peak season.

In recent years, PavCo has rejected proposals from private enterprise to operate the facility.

Billionaire Jim Pattison’s proposal went as far as the B.C. cabinet as he attempted to buy the Lions and acquire the stadium management rights at the same time.

But the government sent it back to PavCo – who promptly turned thumbs down.

Ron Toigo, owner of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, was also rebuffed. Current Lions owner David Braley has voiced interest in buying the stadium, but has not yet made progress on his intentions.

Lions president Ackles said talk of the stadium’s death greeted him when he returned to the team in 2002 after leaving the club in 1986 for executive posts in the NFL and now-defunct XFL.

“I heard before, when I first came back here, B.C. Place would be gone when the football team’s contract is up, which is in 2006, and then they got the Olympics,” said Ackles.

The Lions boss happens to live in Yaletown, a former warehouse district near B.C. Place that has been redeveloped as residential and commercial over the past decade or so.

He said developers probably want to develop new properties everywhere downtown.

“I love living down there, but there may be a time when there are too many high-rises down there,” said Ackles in an interview from the team’s Surrey practice facility.

Ackles said B.C. Place is probably a little too big and needs some upgrades, including a new field – but its demolition would negatively affect area businesses.

“When the football team does well, downtown businesses do well,” said Ackles.

He indicated the stadium’s demise could also spell the end of the Lions.

“There would be no football games,” said Ackles. “It’s as simple as that.”

(Monte Stewart can be reached at monte@businesssedge.ca)