Hamilton council puts off FirstOntario Centre debate so Bulldogs can explain proposal
'Every time I wake up and read about these false narratives, it gives me a rash,' says Sam Merulla
Hamilton city council has put off making a decision about the future of FirstOntario Centre for another week to grapple with an unsolicited proposal made by the owner of the Hamilton Bulldogs Ontario Hockey League team.
Councillors were about to set up a steering committee and hire a project manager to look at building a smaller, "right-sized" arena to replace the aging downtown arena. The move would have been the first step in looking at a downtown "entertainment precinct" that includes FirstOntario Concert Hall and the Hamilton Convention Centre.
But council voted instead to defer the whole issue to Sept. 18. That's when its general issues committee will hear more from Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer about his plan with Cadillac Fairview for an arena at Lime Ridge Mall.
"I want to invite Mr. Andlauer to appear before (the committee) to explain his proposal and answer questions," said Coun. Brad Clark, Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek) councillor, before the unanimous vote Wednesday.
The issue with what to do with Hamilton's biggest indoor entertainment and sports facility has been floating around for a few years.
The city subsidizes FirstOntario Centre every year, and the facility needs millions in repairs. Spectra operates the centre, and has brought several high-profile acts to town, including BTS and Paul McCartney.
But a recent Ernst and Young report says events that pack the 17,400-seat arena are rare. Only 13 of 98 events last year needed upper bowl seating, the report said. The average attendance for sports and entertainment events averaged around 4,991 people, and the Bulldogs are the most frequent tenant.
The games would draw more people, the report said, if the city built a $130-million facility with around 10,000 seats. And Andlauer has long mentioned that FirstOntario Centre was built to accommodate an NHL team that never materialized.
Then in 2017, a group of private businesses volunteered to spend $250,000 on a study that would look at upgrading the venues, tearing them down to build them in a cluster, or even relocating them somewhere else. One of those businesses, Carmen's Group, manages the convention centre.
City staff used some of the information to recommend a three-phase plan to build a new arena on 3.5 acres, and a new convention centre on the former arena site.
While the recent report insists the new facility should be downtown, Andlauer's proposal has ignited debate about whether the arena should be on the Mountain. Coun. Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end), who has long said the city can't afford to talk about a new arena, said the two issues are being fused into one.
"Every time I wake up and read about these false narratives, it gives me a rash," he said.
Coun. Esther Pauls (Ward 7, central Mountain) plans a motion to have staff dig deeper into the Bulldogs proposal. Council also wants the unsolicited proposal to be made public on Sept. 18.