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The Blue Bombers will be playing in their new stadium to start the 2012 season. ((blueandgold.ca))

The next chapter in the long history of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers began with an official sod-turning ceremony for the new football stadium Thursday morning.

The stadium, being built on an eight-hectare site at the University of Manitoba campus, will be ready for the 2012 CFL season.

The new stadium will have 33,000 fixed seats but be able to accommodate 40,000 for major events like the Grey Cup. There will also be 40 private suites, a Hall of Fame for the club, and overhead weather protection that will cover 80 per cent of the seats.

The stadium is the major feature of a $137.5-million development on the site that will include a multiplex athletic facility for the university and its Bisons sports teams.

The Bomber stadium accounts for $115 million of the cost, which includes an inflatable dome that will cover the field in winter so university teams can use it during the CFL off-season.

The offerings for amateur athletics on campus will benefit from $22.5 million worth of improvements that include, in addition to the multiplex, a refurbished university stadium and new fitness centre.

"This is an exciting day for Bomber fans, for Bisons fans, indeed for all sports fans," said Premier Greg Selinger. "It’s a perfect example of what can happen when partners work together to make something happen."

Selinger was among several dignitaries at the event, along with Mayor Sam Katz, Winnipeg Football Club chair Bill Watchorn, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, U of M president David Barnard and Winnipeg business magnate David Asper.

First announced in 2009

Asper, who agreed to pay $100 million towards the project and take ownership of the team, first announced the proposal for the stadium and related facilities in April 2009.

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The bubble on the proposed new stadium would resemble this covering on a stadium at Harvard University in Boston. ((Photo courtesy blueandgold.ca) )

In return, the federal government pledged $15 million — for the amateur sport component of the facility — and the Manitoba government offered up $20 million.

It all hinged on the successful development by Asper's real estate company, Creswin Properties Ltd., of a ritzy retail plaza on the site of the Bombers' old home, Canad Inns Stadium in the Polo Park area.

Once financing was in place for the retail development, dubbed The Elms, the current stadium would come down and the new one would go up.

But plodding progress on The Elms was putting the new stadium project in doubt. The original groundbreaking was supposed to happen in February 2010 with a projected opening in summer 2011.

Bridge financing pushes project forward

Asper was granted a one-year extension on the deal in September after he blamed the bruised economy for impacting his ability to find retailers willing to commit to The Elms.

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Canad Inns Stadium, built in 1953, would require an estimated $52 million to upgrade.

In March, the provincial government announced it would contribute $90-million in bridge financing to get the stadium construction going.

If Asper fails to pay off the $90 million, the football club will remain community owned and the loan will be paid back by the province and city. Property taxes generated from The Elms will be used to do that.

Asper is confident The Elms development will pick up speed because potential retailers can be given a more concrete date about when they can move in.

Prior to the bridge financing, Asper was in a chicken-and-egg situation, in which the stadium could not progress until retailers committed to The Elms. But The Elms could not progress until the stadium was built and Canad Inns could be torn down.

Built in 1953, Canad Inns would require an estimated $52 million to upgrade, Selinger has said, explaining the reason for fast-tracking the new stadium.

Heading to Vegas

Representatives from Creswin are currently in Las Vegas hoping to woo retailers. The city is hosting RECon — the global retail real estate convention — that attracts 150,000 developers and retailers over the four-day event.

Creswin is there, showcasing The Elms mall project and trying to negotiate leases with up to 20 high fashion retailers and restaurants.

'This is the big event. This is where all the leaders within the industry are.'—RECon spokesman Jesse Tron

"We're hoping that of the people we're talking to, we will get [new expressions of interest] and advance the expressions of interest that we already have into binding documents for perhaps 30 to 40 per cent of our property," said Dan Edwards, Creswin CEO and president.

Edwards expects The Elms to open by Christmas 2013.

RECon spokesman Jesse Tron said 50 per cent of all retail deals in the world are conceived at the Vegas convention.

"This is the big event. This is where all the leaders within the industry are," he said.

"If you're looking to fill up a centre and do a deal like that, absolutely you need to have a presence here."