WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are on their way to a new stadium and private ownership under media mogul David Asper.
Asper, along with representatives of the federal, provincial and municipal governments, announced a deal Thursday to build a 30,000-seat stadium by the summer of 2011 on the University of Manitoba campus in the city's south end. It will replace the 55-year-old Canad Inns stadium west of downtown.
The deal will see the community-owned club taken over by Asper's real estate company, Creswin Properties Limited - a move that Asper admits has some fans worried.
"Their concern is that somehow their asset will be violated and I'm not in it do to that," said Asper, who is also executive vice-president of CanWest Global Communications Corp. "I'm in it to turn it into something bigger and better.
"When I've gone back and forth with fans who are critical of that, I've said to them 'Give me a chance, let me prove myself ... cause I think you're going to like what you're going to see'."
For the Bombers' board, which guided the club out of debt over the past decade with help from the Manitoba government, the transition to private ownership is the logical next step. The agreement requires the football club to remain in Winnipeg "in perpetuity" and reverts ownership to a community board in the event of financial failure.
"We as a board are very satisfied that the financial mechanisms are in place to ensure that professional football in Winnipeg ... will continue," said Ken Hildahl, chairman of the Bombers board of directors.
Asper has been pitching proposals for a new stadium since 2007. His first two ideas - a facility on the existing site and one in a crowded area near downtown - were rejected largely because they required most of the funding to come from various governments.
The new agreement is a complex financial arrangement that will see Asper pay "fair market value" for the current stadium site, which lies in the heart of a major shopping area, and use it for retail development. In exchange, Asper will contribute $100 million to the stadium, which will also be used for amateur sports, and gain ownership of the team.
The stadium will be expandable to 45,000 seats for major events such as the Grey Cup, and will also feature a bubble dome capable of covering the field during winter months for community soccer and other activities.
Asper's pitch has gone over well with many football fans, who bemoan the current aging stadium that is renowned for its stiff north winds. The new facility will be more of a bowl structure and offer overhead weather protection for 80 per cent of the seats.
But critics remain. Some fans want a covered stadium that could offer more comfort when the temperature starts dipping below 0 C in October.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation questioned whether Asper will be getting a sweetheart deal on the current site.
"The only way fair market value can be determined is through an open public auction," spokesman Colin Craig said.