Soccer stadium a gift spurned

How is it that a proposed community asset, funded by a private citizen, does not receive the kind of support provided in other jurisdictions?

Tom Mayenknecht
Special to the Sun

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The breakthrough required for the Whitecaps waterfront stadium to finally proceed will be the moment those assessing -- and otherwise holding up -- the proposed plan stop viewing it merely as a real estate development project and see it for what it is: A larger community amenity opportunity made possible through previously unheard of levels of Canadian sport philanthropy.

That moment will also coincide with the much-belated arrival of political leadership that has been largely absent from all three levels of government, especially from the city of Vancouver.

Outside of Coun. Suzanne Anton, there has been barely a pulse of advocacy from the municipal government and office of the mayor. The last true political champion of the waterfront stadium project was Senator Larry Campbell, who as mayor in 2003 invited Whitecaps FC owner Greg Kerfoot to pursue a small to midsize outdoor stadium in Vancouver.

It is unfathomable that Kerfoot's vision and commitment to build the $90-million stadium -- with his own money and without requesting construction financing from any level of government -- has been met with so little visible and sustained support from Vancouver-based politicians.

In the five years (and two FIFA World Cups) that have elapsed since Campbell showed community leadership and appreciation for what Kerfoot was prepared to do in Vancouver -- Toronto FC, owned and operated by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment -- has already played one Major League Soccer season and opened another at 20,522-seat BMO Field stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario approved and funded by the governments of Toronto, Ontario and Canada. This was accomplished in three short years.

The Montreal Impact have built 13,500-seat Saputo Stadium (a modest $25-million construction project scheduled to open next month) with land contributed by the city of Montreal adjacent to the Olympic Stadium.

The American cities of Seattle and Philadelphia have been awarded MLS franchises, with the West Coast team ready to make its debut next year (with Qwest Field already operational as the home of the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League, built largely with government funding) and the eastern club preparing to enter the MLS by 2010 in a $115-million waterfront stadium financed as part of a private-public partnership involving the county and state.

Each of the stadium projects hosting professional soccer in Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia began after the Whitecaps unveiled its original plans. Unlike the Kerfoot proposal, however, they each involved taxpayer money. Yet they were all championed and embraced as community assets.

How is it possible that a proposed Vancouver community asset, funded by a private citizen, does not receive the kind of moral and political support provided in other jurisdictions? The drawn-out process has already cost Vancouver the opportunity to showcase the stadium as part of its hosting of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Back in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and even into 2007, one would have expected the proposed waterfront stadium to be seen by all three levels of government as a natural to help make the most of the Olympic-sized opportunity in 2010.

Fortunately, the potential value added by the stadium far transcends what it could have served as a public staging facility or cultural venue for 2010. With a modicum of creativity and a commitment to effective public policy-making, the proposed stadium would directly or indirectly support other priorities, such as the federal government's Pacific Gateway strategy, the provincial government's Act Now campaign and the municipal government's drug abuse containment program in the Downtown Eastside.

Creative applications of the proposed Whitecaps waterfront stadium could be easily borrowed through analysis of the urban benefits of downtown stadium projects in Toronto (SkyDome, now known as Rogers Centre), San Francisco (Pac Bell Park), Denver (Coors Field) and Seattle (Qwest Field and Safeco Field) in converting rail lands, dilapidated industrial warehouse districts or other brownfields into high-density residential districts, park space or other social amenities and economic drivers.

Which brings us back to Kerfoot, who will become known through time as more a soccer philanthropist than a soccer owner. Any politician familiar with his track record of quietly funding myriad educational, cultural and sports projects would quickly understand that he is committed to community investment of the highest order.

Not enough people recognize Kerfoot's plan to operate his men's and women's soccer clubs as part of a not-for-profit, charitable community foundation and as part of his own multi-faceted personal investment in soccer.

Few notice that he's annually spending hundreds of thousands of additional dollars in supporting the women's national team and a new men's residency program and is planning to invest many more millions on soccer training facilities.

Let's stop treating the proposed Whitecaps stadium as yet another land swap and start approaching it as a gift of great -- and potentially even greater -- value to the community. Anything less than that will send out the wrong message to community-oriented benefactors and reduce the odds of more Greg Kerfoots stepping forward to strengthen and enhance Vancouver through their community investment and philanthropy in the years to come.