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Dropping the ball

By Ted McIntyre

How desperate must HostCo be to stage a Pan Am Games event in Hamilton? The 2015 Games organizer conceded one deadline extension after another—four in total—from May to September 1. I’m not sure what the excuses were, but they must have been good: “The dog ate our presentation,” the City probably told them. “Sorry, the entire town council was sick this year.” “Oh, we thought you meant Hamilton, Bermuda.”

Although it’s been 10 months since the Games were officially awarded to Toronto (actually, the territory ranges from St. Catharines to Oshawa and north to Barrie), the deadline to pick a stadium site to host the marquee track and field events seems to have snuck up on us.

“We’ll each give you $30 million if you build it somewhere,” the federal and provincial governments said. Had City Council told them they were going to put it in the middle of Randle Reef, the feds would have said, “Fine. Sounds like a nice place. Where do we send the cheque?”

Alas, these sorts of issues don’t solve themselves. They need someone with both a sense of urgency and an ability to bring various interest groups together and, well… OK, clearly recent history shows there’s a bit of a void in that department in Hamilton—a city that knows what the finish line is supposed to look like, but has had some trouble getting out of the starting blocks.

Which brings us to York University, the new site of the Pan Am Games’ track and field activities. Not to fret, Hamilton might still have soccer, and quite frankly, I’d rather watch world powers like Brazil and Argentina than any track discipline beyond the men’s 100-metre dash.

Alas, every proposed stadium site thus far has had fatal flaws, including the most recent location: a slice of the McMaster Innovation Park at the corner of Aberdeen and Longwood. That piece of ground was supposed to be a technological incubator and home to post-doctoral innovators—the sort of jobs at the very core of Hamilton’s hopes to reinvent itself. The project will have to be scaled back now—by as much as half—if the proposal goes through. People and businesses that have moved to the area based upon the MIP master plan will likely be less enthused with a 30,000-seat stadium and its accompanying traffic headaches.

While he’s a man who never shied away from the chance at a sound bite, Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla has been one of the few voices of reason, recognizing from the outset the potential dangers of the Pan Am Games spinoff for Hamilton. “The foundation of the problem is that (it) has been fuelled by emotion and based on wants rather than needs of our community,” he says. “I believe we need to focus on priorities that matter, like manufacturing jobs, a $2 billion dollar infrastructure deficit, a $146 million provincial downloading crisis and 20 percent poverty rate. The Pan Am Games and stadium is the mother of all unfocused priorities.”

The Longwood site, meanwhile, “was already eliminated earlier in the process due to it not meeting our economic development strategy coupled with complications surrounding infrastructure and assessment loss,” Merulla declares. “Moreover, there is an approximately $50 million capital shortfall and more in operating. It’s simply unaffordable and unsustainable.”

As for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ sustainability, Merulla believes the only realistic option is a renovated and sold-out Ivor Wynne. The problem is, the latter would seem a pipe dream, and Ticats owner Bob Young says he’s not returning anyway after his lease expires following the 2011 season. And we already know his thoughts on the proposed West Harbour site. “All successful landlords always take the needs of their tenants into consideration when they decide important issues such as location, size and accessibility,” said Young, citing a study that showed they’d lose $7 million a year once the West Harbour site opened. (Actually Bob, all successful landlords first determine whether they’ll actually turn a profit before they consider how they can make their tenants’ lives easier. )

Although he said at the beginning of the process that the City could build its stadium anywhere and his team would support it, Young then saw an opportunity to leverage Hamilton’s football history—in essence, to hold it for ransom. Surely, with an election on the horizon, the political powers would buckle, particularly if he tugged at their heartstrings with an open letter noting how he bought the franchise “for a whole bunch of illogical personal reasons” after the team went bankrupt. “It has been easily the worst financial idea I’ve ever had,” he said, suggesting he’s averaged a $3.5 million loss per year.

Young, incidentally, called the East Mountain location a compromise on his part—his first choice being Confederation Park, a curious business model that suggested people who had never been to a game would now fill the stands because they saw a stadium off the highway. And by “compromise,” Young meant a stadium that everyone else will pay for, but where he’ll get free rent and all profits from the concessions and parking.

Merulla’s sense that the debate plays on emotions is echoed by Marvin Ryder, a professor at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business. “Suppose Copps Coliseum burned to the ground,” Ryder ponders. “Would the City rebuild it? Should they rebuild it? As long as it stands, the dream of an NHL team burns bright. To not rebuild would mean snuffing out that dream. “Losing the Tiger-Cats would not bother me,” he admits. “But for people who have lived here 50 or 60 years, it might represent a tipping point of despair about the City that was and the City that is.”

But how much is it worth to keep the dream alive? The simple truth is that it’s not worth saving the league’s most poorly attended, biggest money-losing franchise for the sake of team spirit and tradition. Hamilton is desperate for city core renewal and Bay-area reclamation. And yet there appears no stopping the Pan Am Express. The City is about to spend, in all reality, a minimum $75 million on the Games, and $60 million on a stadium that has no feasible business plan —their initial $45 million projected share for the stadium being based on a smaller 15,000-seat venue. And deeper down the rabbit hole we go.

Ryder believes there might yet be a new twist, “a private donor—either an individual or company—that will come forward with $25 to $50 million if the stadium was sited in a specific spot.”

This is, after all, the most important part of the Pan Am Games facilities the city will build, Mayor Fred Eisenberger has noted. Oh, wait—that was the Pan Am velodrome he was talking about. I can’t wait for news on that front.