Third and goal

It’s third and goal, according to David Asper, the new owner of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. After years of discussing potential sites, designs and funding formulas, Asper can finally announce that a new 30,000-seat football stadium with the potential to accommodate another 15, 000 people will be built in the city.

Bomber fans are now at least spared the anxiety of wondering about what fate awaited their team. The process became so subject to change that it seemed a stadium would never be built. At one point, even South Point Douglas was favoured as the location of the new stadium. When the federal government refused to  fund the redevelopment of a stadium at Polo Park, Asper was forced to consider other locations. 

Few argued in the 1950s against a new facility to replace Osborne Stadium, and few have argued against a new facility to replace Canad Inns Stadium.

“While we won’t be able to call the new facility, ‘the House that Jack Built,’” said Asper, “one thing is sure — when it happens, it’ll have a new name — ‘the House We all Built.’” The first label, of course, is a reference to “Indian Jack” Jacobs, whose stellar passing skills generated attendance beyond the capacity of Osborne Stadium, necessitating the construction of the Polo Park stadium.

With Asper’s announcement, uncertainty has been replaced with optimism and the University of Manitoba is where the Bombers will be playing their home games — as will the university’s Bisons football team —  a decision that has been accepted by all the majors players in the negotiations.

Two years of negotiations were needed to get this far in the process, which included the approval of the Winnipeg Football Club, the University of Manitoba and all three levels of  government. Up to April 2, the only people who seemed to be on the playing field were lawyers involved in the minutiae of negotiating  what is a complicated property deal with Asper. 

“During these lengthy negotiations, we believe we have served the community well with agreements that the Bombers forever remain a lasting legacy, right here in Winnipeg,” said Winnipeg Football Club chair Ken Hildahl. 

In the end, Asper got all he wanted, including a long-term land lease at the university, a funding commitment from the provincial and federal governments and Asper’s Creswin Properties setting up new retail space development where the old stadium now stands at Polo Park.

While Asper will be the new owner of the Bombers and stadium, a Community Interest Agreement will guarantee the team stays in Winnipeg. The agreement includes the creation of a non-profit corporation entitled the Winnipeg Football Club Stakeholders, with two members each on its board from the province, city, the football club and Creswin. In the event that Asper fails, the team will revert back to community ownership.

Politicians appear to be particularly smitten with the U of M site. At one stage in the long negotiation process, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer commented that it was “doable,” stressing to the media that it was more acceptable than redeveloping the old Polo Park site.

“We are pleased to support the project,” said Doer in a press release. “When the overall development is complete, it will be a huge vote of confidence in our economy and will ensure the Bombers stay a strong and active part of our community and national identity.”

Jointly, the federal and provincial governments will be committing $35 million toward the cost of the project, although the $15 million in federal funding will be limited to amateur and community sports venues planned as part of the overall development of the site.

In the case of the university site, Asper has promised a $100-million investment, substantially more of a private-sector commitment than had been talked about during earlier negotiations. The Winnipeg Football Club called it a “better deal for taxpayers” as it represents a “50 per cent reduction in the contribution originally requested.”

Included in the project is the new stadium, a refurbished university stadium and new fitness centre, essentially establishing the University of Manitoba Fort Garry Campus in combination with its other sports facilities as the No. 1 sporting venue in the province.

“In terms of critical mass, this development will allow us to build on the strengths of the Max Bell Centre, Investors Group Athletic Centre and new indoor soccer complex,” said university president Dr. David Barnard, “and help transform the university into a year-round sport and recreation destination. This will position us as a leader in athletic and community development across Canada and provide many synergistic opportunities for our institution, our students and community.”

Mayor Sam Katz is excited about  the new retail development at Polo Park and the millions in “new municipal tax” revenue it will generate. “I’d say that’s a win-win for all.”

Under the terms of the deal, the city agreed to sell the Polo Park site to Creswin at fair market value. Asper’s property company will first conclude the retail marketing and financing phase at Polo Park before starting construction of the stadium on the 20-acre U of M site. The retail redevelopment is expected to help fund the new projects at the university.

Shovels are expected to be in the ground to begin the stadium by the spring of 2010 with substantial completion of the project by the spring of 2011 when the stadium will open for the CFL season.

The soon-to-begin redevelopment of the Polo Park site is stimulating others to get into the game. Shindico and Cadillac Fairview have announced their own plans to replace the former arena and CTV properties north of Canad Inns Stadium.

The “House that Jack Built,” required a move from another location (where the Great West Life Building now stands), and initially attracted its fair share of critics, but in the end resulted in people flocking to the St. James facility. The same will undoubtedly be the case when the old stadium is replaced with a new stadium in a new location.