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REPLAY: Sod turns on new stadium

Today marks 'historic' moment for Bombers, sports community

A piece of sod gets turned, a ribbon is cut, politicians and heavy hitters smile for the cameras.

And -- most importantly for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- a financial lifeline starts to become reality.

It's ceremonial to be sure, but today's scheduled sod-turning for the new football stadium at the corner of Chancellor Matheson Road and University Crescent is a significant day in the Bombers' 80-year existence and for the local sporting community.

"It's historic for this franchise," said Bomber president Jim Bell. "We have some certainty now. I can remember back to the various studies that were done all in the best interest of doing the due diligence, but after awhile I think some apathy set in as people wondered if it was ever going to happen.

"But now that we have a sod turning we're actually moving toward the new venue and it's tremendous."

There are the obvious benefits a new facility brings to the football club, to the University of Manitoba Bisons football program and amateur sports. But specifically for the Bombers, the building's 2012 scheduled opening -- construction should begin sometime next month -- couldn't come at a more critical time.

Not only is Canad Inns Stadium antiquated and in constant need of repair, the organization is also coming off a 2009 operating loss of $1.2 million while the possible return of the NHL could mean the football club will be battling to squeeze every dime out of the community and the facility it can.

The new stadium will have 33,000 seats and 40 private suites -- the current facility has a capacity of 29,500 and two suites -- as well as a number of loge boxes (rentable rooms on the suite level) and hospitality areas that will generate many more dollars for the club on game day.

There will be video boards, increased signage both inside and outside the building for potential advertisers, vastly improved concessions and an on-site restaurant that will operate year-round. The current stadium naming rights deal with Canad Inns also expires at the end of this season and revenue from any new deal will also be significant.

"With all due respect to this old stadium, the opportunities are limited here," said Bell. "The new venue really opens it up to potential suitors and those are significant dollars.

"To make money here now we have very little wiggle room. But when you've got suites, primary naming rights, secondary naming rights... it just adds so much more. It gives us a real opportunity to sustain and grow the business."

But with today's announcement also come some meaty questions that need to be answered, especially under the terms of the complicated stadium financing agreement with the club, the governments and David Asper's Creswin Properties.

The Bombers have established a stadium committee to work with Creswin and key among the issues that need to be addressed ASAP is how to continue operating the franchise in one facility while preparing to move into another. After all, the team can't just show up in the spring of 2012 and move into the new joint -- it needs to be marketed well in advance of the opening.

What is being discussed now is how to handle that transition -- how many more staff might need to be hired, for example -- and who would pay for it all.

"I call it Project A and Project 1A with what we've got going on at our stadium this year and with the new facility," Bell said. "We have to keep our focus on everything that is involved with the football season, but at the same time we've got to work toward making sure we're meeting deadlines and working with the developer at the new facility."

"This is an immense undertaking," added Asper. "The stadium itself is conceived as a community asset for use by the whole community. The Bombers are large beneficiaries, but so are the Bisons, the University of Manitoba and amateur users... they're all integral to the plan. That's a whole different business.

"(The sod-turning) essentially kicks off what is going to be a very intensive process."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2010 C2

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