City of Hamilton Won’t Fund the FirstOntario Centre
City staff have recommended that Hamilton’s City Council should essentially abandon any notion of renovating the FirstOntario Centre. The building, formerly known as Copps Coliseum, has been home to the Hamilton Bulldogs organization (both AHL and OHL) for over 20 years. City Council has been looking to keep the city’s budget down this past year, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that they are excited by this recommendation. This is a disappointing reality that could hurt the long-term availability for local fans to enjoy major junior hockey in Hamilton.
Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer has been a valuable community asset for Hamilton. He’s kept true to his promise to keep quality hockey in Hamilton, backed by his vision is to keep it financially sustainable. It’s hard to envision he’ll be able to house a team long-term in the large, empty arena that FirstOntario represents. If you’ve been following the CHL Lawsuit saga, you may have caught TSN’s Rick Westhead report on the financial loses and earnings of the WHL and OHL teams. The Hamilton Bulldogs organization had a net loss of -$678 743 in 2016 (Source). Full audit details aren’t available right now, but we can assume much of those losses come from the high rent that the Bulldogs must be paying to play in an arena averaging 1/5th of it’s potential attendance.
Hosting the 2018 Memorial Cup – the centennial celebration of the tournament – would have been a highlight event for the City of Hamilton to brag about for the next 2o years. The decaying FirstOntario Centre is one of the largest reasons the Memorial Cup bid went to Regina instead over Hamilton.
“At the end of the day, it was the facility that would not allow Hamilton to stay in the race,” David Branch, Feb. 20th, 2017 in Teri Pecoskie’s Hamilton Spectator article (Source)
In light of this information, you would think that this hit against the city and it’s feature venue would harm some civic pride of city councillors. Not in Hamilton. When talking about proposed upgrades to FirstOntario, Ward 4’s Sam Merulla was beyond dismissive.
“You know that drawer at the bottom of the stove that nobody uses? That’s where it belongs.” – Hamilton City Councillor Sam Merulla on FirstOntario Centre investments. (Source)
Who is the nobody in this metaphor? Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer, team President Steve Staios, all of the players, staff and fans who love hockey in the region. With this kind of municipal support, why would a dedicated owner be interested in floating along a team that’s swimming in the red?
The City of Hamilton was approached by a local lawyer, Jasper Kujavsky paid for the case study to investigate potential renovations to the FirstOntario Centre. The report was prepared by a Toronto architecture firm Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects (BBB), who designed the Air Canada Centre. BBB presented two options, which city staff were unenthused with.
A $68-million “remodelling” designed to extend the life of the 31-year-old building, add modern concessions and luxury boxes to the lower bowl.
A $252-million full-scale renovation designed to turn the 17,000-seat facility into an “NHL-quality professional sports and entertainment facility.” (Source)
The fact is, the NHL is no longer feasible for this market. The NHL has had countless opportunities to expand or relocate to Hamilton, and Gary Bettman is frankly not interested. The City of Hamilton, along with private partners such as the Hamilton Bulldogs, should seriously consider decommissioning the arena and replacing it with a facility comparable to St. Catherines’ beautiful Meridian Centre. The 160,000-square-foot city owned facility has about 5,300 seats for games and room for 6,000-plus during concerts. Hamilton could aim a bit larger and develop a facility about the same size as London’s Budweiser Gardens (9100 seats). Anything beyond this is unnecessary, because you’re rarely going to fill it.
The Meridian Centre cost the City of St. Catherines approximately $45 million when you factor in private contributions. Budweiser Gardens was about $42 million. It’s confusing why BBB Architects didn’t tag on a third option for the City of Hamilton: Take the proposed $68-million ‘life extension’ and simply start from scratch. Hamilton would likely continue to attract the featured concerts we’ve seen over the last few years (Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, Green Day) thanks to being the ideal location between Toronto and Buffalo. The Bulldogs would be able to afford the new venue, and benefit from a smaller, louder atmosphere.
The alternative looks to be to allowing the FirstOntario Centre to sit and rot for the foreseeable future. Hopefully this doesn’t forecast the demise of yet another OHL team in Canada’s “Ambitious City”.