Hamilton councillors will explore replacing FirstOntario Centre

Hamilton city council will look at partnering with the private sector to build a new $130-million arena downtown to replace FirstOntario Centre. But that isn't stopping some councillors from proposing that the facility go on the Mountain instead.

Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer is proposing a new arena at Lime Ridge Mall

Hamilton city councillors are debating the future of FirstOntario Centre and two other downtown entertainment venues. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Hamilton city council will look at partnering with the private sector to build a new $130-million arena downtown to replace FirstOntario Centre. But that isn't stopping some councillors from suggesting that the facility go on the Mountain instead.

The city's general issues committee voted Wednesday to set up a steering committee, hire a project manager and look at partnering with private companies to replace the city's largest entertainment venue with a smaller one.

The move came after city staff said Hamilton needs a "right-sized" venue to replace the former Copps Coliseum — one with about 10,000 seats rather than the 17,400 the aging arena has now. 

Esther Pauls, Ward 7 (central Mountain) councillor, will introduce a motion in the future backing Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer's proposal to put the facility at Lime Ridge Mall.

Terry Whitehead (Ward 14, west Mountain) hinted that he pulled for that during the in-camera discussion.

"There were some great conversations," he said. "I think going forward, eliminating any option as to what's best for the taxpayers of this community might be somewhat shortsighted."

The city subsidizes the facility every year. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The city is looking at establishing a precinct that also includes FirstOntario Concert Hall and the Hamilton Convention Centre. FirstOntario Centre needs extensive repairs, and the city gives it an ongoing subsidy. The Bulldogs are the main tenant, and the staff report predicts attendance at those OHL games would increase 20 to 50 per cent with a new facility. Increased revenue, staff say, would bring in $20 million over the next 30 years.

But it would cost as much as $130 million to build a new facility, the report says. And some councillors are hesitant to tackle that price tag.

The report assumes the city needs to act on the existing facilities, said Coun. John-Paul Danko (Ward 8, central Mountain), and "that base assumption, I'm not sold on that."

It's a debate that started back in 2017. That's when 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. The group said it was doing it for the good of the city, although one of the members, Carmen's Group, manages the convention centre and once made a pitch to manage all three.

The staff report proposes a main venue with a capacity of around 10,000. FirstOntario Centre has an existing capacity of 17,400 people, although the report shows that isn't met often. Attendance for all events, including concerts and Bulldogs games, averaged around 4,991 people in 2018. When looking at just concerts, that number jumps to 9,140. 

That same year, only 13 of 98 events required use of the upper bowl seating.

Andlauer has partnered with Cadillac Fairview to propose the new arena at Lime Ridge Mall. City staff say keeping the venues downtown is a better bet, particularly since people can use more environmentally-friendly methods to get there than driving their car.

Council should stay open to Andlauer's proposal, Pauls said. Lime Ridge Mall is popular and one of the city's largest property tax payers, she said.

She also said Lime Ridge is "literally five minutes away" from downtown for someone taking the bus, although HSR schedules show it to be around 20 minutes from the MacNab transit terminal.


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca