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Argos, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment partner on new practice facility

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TORONTO - The issues of ownership and playing at BMO Field remain unresolved but the Toronto Argonauts and Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment are at least business associates.

The two organizations are partnering on a new practice facility for the CFL team at Toronto's Downsview Park, next to the training ground for Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, which is owned by MLSE. The new venue is expected to be ready sometime next month.

The timing couldn't be better for the Argos. They've been at York University since the start of training camp in June but the school's football team will need its field in August when it begins its preparations for the 2014 season.

The Argos will remain at York until the new venue is complete. They'd practised at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus for 18 years before moving to York.

Argos president Chris Rudge was relieved the practice facility issue had finally been resolved.

"We've been in very humble facilities for close to 15 years," Rudge said via telephone from Italy, where he is vacationing. "That's not to speak poorly of the people at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, but they had what they had and no investment was ever made by any of the Argos owners in that facility for that period of time.

"I know Jim (Argos GM Jim Barker) and the coaches have been frustrated, I feel for them. I can't say enough about how they've persevered through this transition and yet continue to be consummate professionals."

The Argos announced the partnership in a statement Thursday, which created the perception MLSE had taken a step closer to buying the money-losing CFL club and relocating it to a revamped BMO Field. But two sources told The Canadian Press that even with the agreement, neither scenario is closer to happening now.

In May, Tim Leiweke, MSLE's president and chief executive officer, said his organization's purchase of the Argos was never a condition of the BMO Field renovation. He admitted the subject had been discussed but wasn't a priority, adding the idea of the of the CFL team playing at BMO had been placed on the back burner, for now.

"This is a business deal that stands on its own just as the current approach to whatever we might lease in BMO Field is something that would stand on its own," Rudge said. "But I don't think either of them preclude that other bigger deal being looked at at some point but that's up to (Argos owner David Braley) and the proprietors of MLSE.

"I think that this will at least stop some of the speculation there isn't goodwill between the two organizations to try and do some things together that are mutually supportive. This is certainly I think an important step."

In the statement, Bob Hunter, the chief project development officer for MLSE, called the partnership "an opportunity to assist the Argos in their search for a new training home. A dedicated training facility is instrumental to the success of any team and we know the Argos will benefit for years to come."

The facility will include the Argos' locker-rooms, therapy and meeting rooms and coaches' offices. The team will practise on a regulation turf field already on site.

MLSE announced in May it was going ahead with a proposed $120-million renovation of BMO Field without funding commitments from either the provincial or federal governments to ensure the first phase was completed in time for the '15 Pan-Am Games. That prompted reports MLSE was no longer interested in modernizing its facility to include a field capable of accommodating the Argos, casting serious doubt about the CFL franchise's future.

The Argos have a lease at Rogers Centre through 2017. But that deal can't be renewed, meaning they must find a new home for the '18 campaign.

The original plan was for a two-phased renovation of BMO Field that included building a roof and installing a playing surface capable of accommodating a CFL-sized field. The project was to include $10 million each from city, provincial and federal governments, with MLSE covering the remaining $90 million.

In April, Toronto city council approved its $10-million investment but neither the provincial nor federal governments have followed suit. Leiweke said in May construction had to begin in September to ensure the facility was ready for the Pan-Am Games and MLSE simply couldn't wait for the other two levels of government to get involved.

BMO Field opened in '07 and has a seating capacity of around 21,500. It's owned by the city but operated by MLSE, which also owns the NHL's Maple Leafs and NBA's Raptors.

The proposed renovation includes a hybrid grass surface and plans to boost permanent seating to 30,000 with the ability to add another 10,000 temporary seats to host special events like a Grey Cup or outdoor NHL game.

Rudge reiterated his longstanding belief that the sale of the Argos to MLSE would quickly reverse the franchise's fortunes.

"You only have to look at the size and breadth of the organization MLSE has to recognize the amortization of costs across a broader base would reduce our costs significantly while access to their corporate sales partnership relationships, their ticket-selling capability would enhance our ability to drive revenue and get more people in the stands," he said. "You marry that with BMO Field and this franchise within two years would be operating in the black under their stewardship . . . and I think would be a good investment for the parties there."

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