Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Two stadiums, similar sagas

B.C., Winnipeg get new football digs, but about that rapid transit -- don't ask

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VANCOUVER -- As long-suffering Winnipeg football fans obsess about what will happen on the turf at BC Place this Sunday, it's worth a nanosecond to take a step back and think about the venue itself.

The battle between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the B.C. Lions for the 99th Grey Cup will take place inside a 28-year-old stadium that just underwent a three-year renovation at a cost of $563 million, all of it underwritten by the taxpayers of British Columbia.

Back in 2003, after Vancouver and Whistler landed the 2010 Olympics, there were calls to demolish BC Place, which some residents considered an eyesore on the False Creek waterfront. They argued it was time to build a new stadium somewhere else.

Bolstering the pro-demolition side, developers claimed the stadium site could fetch more than $1 billion on the open market, given the scarcity of commercial real estate in Vancouver.

On the anti-demolition side was a projected price tag of more than $1 billion to build a new covered multi-use facility, when the cost of acquiring land in the very same hot real estate market was taken into account.

Demolition also would have come with environmental costs, as the prospect of tossing a stadium-sized pile of concrete into West Coast landfills was not exactly popular in sustainability-minded British Columbia.

In a debate that will seem awfully familiar to Winnipeggers, who only recently emerged from an insufferable stadium saga of their own, Vancouver took the better part of six years to figure out what to do with BC Place.

As the 2010 winter games drew near, BC Place's owner, the provincial Crown corporation Pavco, decided to go with an ambitious renovation and refurbishment project.

"At the end of the day, we needed the facility for the Olympics and needed upgrades anyway," said Howard Crosley, BC Place's general manager.

"The unfortunate part of it was, the decision didn't come soon enough for the actual Olympics."

Looking at BC Place right now, there's not much that seems unfortunate about the decision to hold on to a structure originally built to serve Expo '86.

The two-stage renovation of the venue started before the Olympics with almost $50 million worth of improvements to ramps, washrooms, concessions and other facilities.

Then came the truly expensive task of ending BC Place's status as the largest air-supported structure on the planet.

The most visible aspect of the renovation was the replacement of the venue's inflatable dome, which ripped open during a gust of wind in January 2007. The stadium now has a retractable roof that can open or close in 20 minutes.

No more dome also meant no more need for the ugly airlocks at entrances that now have more spacious doors.

The renovation also involved new turf, new screens, new speakers and new seats with brand-new colours. Fortuitously for the home side this weekend, there's no longer any blue in the stands.

The venue also has new glass to allow in more natural light, new lighting on the exterior and a facade that casts a more modern figure on the architectural landscape.

Since the venue opened on Sept. 30 -- approximately a month ahead of schedule -- the fan reaction has been positive, Crosley surmises.

Even more importantly, if you've just spent half a billion dollars, the concert and event-promotion industry has responded even more positively. BC Place is booked for 231 dates in 2012, only a fraction of them for the CFL Lions and MLS Vancouver Whitecaps. The rest of the dates belong to the likes of concerts and conventions.

As the Winnipeg Football Club completes an $190-million outdoor stadium at the University of Manitoba, there are not that many lessons it can draw directly from the renovation BC Place.

But the BC Place experience is instructive when it comes to where the B.C. Lions were forced to play while their regular home was under construction: Empire Field, located at the Pacific National Exhibition site, approximately six kilometres east of downtown.

"When we built the temporary stadium for a year-and-a-half, we learned how important it was to have transportation infrastructure," Crosley says. "Even though PNE had lots of parking, not having access to SkyTrain (Vancouver's rapid-transit network) and all the bus routes made it more difficult for people to come and go from the stadium."

In short, the semi-suburban location was a transportation headache, without rapid transit in a city that relies on it.

While Winnipeg is nowhere near as congested as Vancouver, the earliest this city will extend the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor to the new U of M stadium is 2016, four years after the venue is set to open.

BC Place has its own SkyTrain stop. If you're a Bomber fan, try not to think of that when you watch this Sunday's game.

video player to use on WFP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2011 B1


Updated on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 11:41 AM CST: Adds video

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