City selects $500M plan for Hamilton's downtown entertainment facilities

The winning proposal suggests huge changes to FirstOntario Centre, FirstOntario Concert Hall and a series of high rises downtown.

The winning proposal suggests huge changes to the facilities and 3 high-rise buildings

Plans for FirstOntario Centre include a new building exterior, a transformed lower bowl, expanded concourse and new curtaining system for the upper bowl. (City of Hamilton)

The winning proposal of the multi-million dollar renovation to Hamilton's downtown entertainment facilities proposes massive changes to FirstOntario Centre, FirstOntario Concert Hall and the Hamilton Convention Centre, as well as a series of high-rises.

The bidder, Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG) — which includes Carmen's Group, LiUNA, dpai architects, Fengate Capital, Meridian Credit Union, Paletta International and Jetport Inc. — offered a $500-million pitch.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger made the highly anticipated announcement during Friday's city council meeting, saying that the group had come out "on top."

"I think it's going to be a great opportunity for transformational upgrades to our facilities" he said, calling the investment "historic."

More details will come when the master agreement is finalized, which the city says will be in late 2020. The media release says this means arena renovations would start in fall 2021.

PJ Mercanti, the group's president and Carmen's Group CEO, said that should this process be successful, they look forward to delivering Hamilton's "next generation of entertainment and cultural assets." 

"We are delighted that council and staff have put their confidence in our group and we certainly look forward to making Hamilton proud," he said. "We recognize that this is a tremendous opportunity to redevelop the city's prime cultural and entertainment assets. And so we are eager to get to work." 

Here are some of the plans suggested so far. 

Planned FirstOntario Centre renovations include a new building exterior, a "transformation" of the lower bowl, expanded concourse level, and new curtaining system for the upper bowl balcony. The group proposes a microbrewery, suites and hospitality clubs. 

They're also looking at developing the York Boulevard side to make the building accessible at street level so that people can experience services — like food or retail — outside of when the centre is hosting an event. 

HUPEG originally suggested keeping FirstOntario's seating capacity, and relocating the convention centre to a part of Hamilton City Centre. 

Three high-rises downtown would include the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the convention centre, condos and commercial space. Two more towers are possible at the corner of Bay Street and King Street East.

The media release said more than $16 million in upgrades are planned to the convention centre, concert hall, and art gallery.

Around $340.5 million in "auxiliary mixed-use development, including affordable housing" will be a part of any residential developments that come out of this. 

Arena renovations 'a long time coming'

The group will take on all capital costs to renew the facilities, as well as operation and maintenance of FirstOntario Centre and FirstOntario Concert Hall for 99 years. They would also take over the convention centre "indefinitely" without any monetary contribution from the city.

The city said this would create $155 million in savings over the next 30 years.

Coun. Sam Merulla (Ward 4), who pushed for the city to leave the entertainment businesses, said the downtown "renaissance" made it a good time to get out. He also re-iterated that it would result in "hundreds of millions of dollars of savings." 

"This is one issue that I'm very, very proud of," Merulla said. "It wasn't easy, I had a lot of resistance. But I guess anything worth fighting for is worth going through those type of initiatives." 

Jasper Kujavsky, who is with the winning proposal, says he always believed the arena could be revitalized prior to Merulla's motion in 2017 that prompted staff to investigate opportunities for private sector-led redevelopment.

Kujavsky recalled walking into the then-Copps Coliseum 30 years ago for the first time. The changes, he said, have been a "long time coming." 

"I'm interested in every aspect of this project, but I have a special place in my heart for the arena renovations. And it's the one that I perhaps have the most direct oversight of and it's the one that's the most immediate priority from the city's perspective," he said. 

The other option considered was a $200-million plan by Vrancor Group, a prolific Hamilton development company owned by Darko Vranich. Among its changes, the project proposed limiting the arena's capacity to around 15,400 seats, with the possibility to expand to 17,000 if needed. 

"The numbers showed that the precinct group was the better proposal, better bid and that's the direction we're moving forward on," Eisenberger said, and added that he think the announcement will get a positive reaction from Hamilton Bulldogs owner, Michael Andlauer. 


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