Vancouver stadium remains a dream

MATTHEW SEKERES April 14, 2008 VANCOUVER -- In most cities, a local multimillionaire willing to pay for a new stadium might be received with a counter inquiry such as: Where would you like your statue, sir? But in Vancouver, it has now been five years and two Olympiads since reclusive businessman Greg Kerfoot presented his vision for a multipurpose stadium on the city's downtown waterfront. Five years of red tape and dawdling. Five years of plans, revised plans, sites, site changes, assessments, appraisals, offers and counteroffers. Five years and still, a shovel has yet to hit the ground. On Saturday, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC began its 22nd consecutive professional season with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at crumbling Swangard Stadium (capacity 5,288). The clubs play in the United Soccer Leagues' First Division alongside the Carolina RailHawks, Charleston Battery and Puerto Rico Islanders - hardly big-league markets or history-rich franchises. The Impact, owned by Montreal's Saputo family, are moving into a new 13,500-seat stadium this month with an eye to graduating to the more prestigious Major League Soccer circuit. A partnership with Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillette is in the works as the Impact seizes on a closing window to join MLS, which is expected to cap its membership at 18 clubs by 2011. MLS, which will have 16 teams next year after Seattle joins its ranks, is considered the premier professional soccer league in North America. Meanwhile, Toronto FC, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, instantly became a model MLS franchise with capacity crowds and passionate fans during an inaugural 2007 season. Its stadium, BMO Field, was conceived, designed, constructed (with three levels of government funding) and unveiled since the Whitecaps first went knocking on doors. And so, Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, who fronts the stadium project for publicity-shy Kerfoot, is left to count the ironies. Among them: Well-heeled MLSE getting public funding and building a stadium while his benefactor, palms closed, waits; The changing face of Vancouver-Whistler, where sports infrastructure projects for the Winter Olympics of 2010 will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions; That in five years, no politician has championed this cause and seen a personal legacy alongside big-dreaming Kerfoot. (Especially curious since this initiative does not include requests for a public subsidy, a.k.a. political dynamite; That Kerfoot, rich and used to getting his way, hasn't just walked away. The Whitecaps want to construct a 15,000-seat complex that could be expanded to 30,000. It would be horseshoe-shaped, with the open end providing a brilliant view of the Burrard Inlet, North Vancouver and the mountains. Lenarduzzi believes such a stadium would lead to an MLS franchise, and the team could recapture crowds of more than 20,000, as it had in the early 1980s. MLS commissioner Don Garber has indicated a stadium is the only obstacle holding Vancouver back. The project is on its third site near the Landing in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood, where the waterfront could use some aesthetic improvement. The current negotiation involves Kerfoot's swapping his seven-hectare plot of downtown rail-yard land for five hectares of waterfront property owned by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. The port is conducting an appraisal of the land values, which, if comparable, could lead to a deal. The Whitecaps have found interested parties in having an outdoor stadium of that size, namely Rugby Canada, which is without a national stadium, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, whom Lenarduzzi said would step up with a summer concert series. The team's message is the stadium would be available to others. But because Kerfoot is so unwilling to expose himself and his family to life in the spotlight, Lenarduzzi does the grunt work, and perhaps that is why this smells like a developer's project as opposed to a philanthropist's baby. Solid as his reputation might be, Lenarduzzi stands before public officials as Kerfoot's agent. Kerfoot would stand before them as someone who could, for example, build a hospital wing or invest in revitalizing the city's downtown east side - financial clout that would grab the politicians' attention, to say the least. In short, Kerfoot is easy to ignore because he doesn't kick up a fuss, even when there is a fuss worth kicking up. "Maybe I underplay it, but I don't think it would make a difference," Lenarduzzi said. "What we're saying is, 'We can build it anywhere, just tell us where.' " Five years later, that question awaits an answer. In other communities, with a smidgen of political will and dollop of pressure from the local millionaire, an answer would've come in five minutes.