Dissecting the Whitecaps’ New Westminster Failure

By Benjamin Massey

September 17th, 2014 · No comments

The Whitecaps know how hard it is to get a soccer stadium built in the Lower Mainland, yet New Westminster suggests they’re getting worse at it.

In 2006 the Vancouver Whitecaps tried to build a new soccer-specific stadium on the Vancouver waterfront. The Waterfront Stadium would have displaced no residents or businesses. It would have been in the very heart of Vancouver’s transit network and surrounded by a traffic and parking infrastructure that services hundreds of thousands of downtown commuters every weekday. And it would have been entirely privately funded by Greg Kerfoot, one of Vancouver’s most-respected businessmen. The Whitecaps launched a campaign over several years to try and get this stadium, the potential crown jewel of Canadian soccer, built. They failed utterly, scotched by NIMBYism, politics, the opposition of the Vancouver Port Authority, and the province of British Columbia’s none-too-hidden aim of tenant involved in the billion-dollar BC Place renovation. When they joined Major League Soccer the Whitecaps made vague noises about going forward, but today the Waterfront Stadium isn’t even mentioned on their website and they seem, reasonably enough, unwilling to keep forcing a $60 million gift onto an unwilling city.

There are a lot of lessons the Whitecaps could have taken, like “Vancouver is horrible” and “an awful lot of politicians in the Lower Mainland need to be punched very hard in the face.” But when they approached the City of New Westminster to get a USL Pro team in the Royal City for 2015, they didn’t apply any.

According to the Whitecaps the “opportunity” for a USL Pro team in New Westminster arose four months ago[1]; the first the public heard about it in July when the Whitecaps and the city made an announcement[2]. Since that time there have been two public consultations, council meetings, attempts to harness community support, and a general storming campaign leading up to a council meeting earlier this week where New Westminster council rejected the plan.

And look at what we didn’t get. For months we had no idea of public costs, essentially taking advocates’ word that the public wouldn’t lose out. The City of New Westminster’s web site on the project had next-to-nothing on financing[3]. We didn’t see a rendering of a renovated Queen’s Park Stadium until late in the day*, and professional soccer teams in 2014 do renderings of a new stadium when they go to the bathroom. FC Edmonton commissioned several previews of a new stadium which wasn’t even seriously planned just to show what was possible[4]. The Whitecaps wanted support for an awfully indeterminate amount of money and a real community sacrifice without a vision of what New Westminster taxpayers might get for it.

The matter came formally before New Westminster city council on September 15, almost literally the last minute for a team meant to start play in 2015. The Committee of the Whole got an information package, summarized by Director of Parks, Culture, and Recreation Dean Gibson[5]. This summary seemed to have its tongue somewhere in its cheek; saying that most of the public responses had been supportive “given the limited information that has been available”; but the community was complaining about being ill-informed. Even some councillors, like Jaimie McEvoy, seemed to agree. Small wonder.

That committee heard that there wasn’t enough parking to meet projected demand, there would be a reduction in public availability during peak seasons, the baseball community would need renovated facilities, and the stadium renovation would contradict a community plan that envisaged reducing Queen’s Park Stadium’s capacity. We also, finally, heard a cost: an estimate of $11.4 million, of which $3 million had already been budgeted. $3.9 million would be “repaid” by the Whitecaps with a lease over twenty years, and $4.5 million would presumably be an out-and-out subsidy from the City to an MLS reserve team, all from a city of 66,000 people with, according to councillor Jonathan Cote, no up-front contribution from the Whitecaps whatsoever.

There were easy community concerns, all foreseeable, all soluble given time. But there was no time. Meanwhile, otherwise-supportive council members saw costs already higher than anticipated before a shovel had gone in the ground. And so the Committee of the Whole killed the proposal stone dead. At the full council meeting Mayor Wayne Wright said “it wasn’t possible for us to get this business done in a timely manner with the people of New Westminster because there were too many questions.” He got a lot of applause for that one. Wright even apologized to the audience for bringing the matter up without sufficient consultation.

Look, obviously there were NIMBYs, but there were also real concerns. Baseball being kicked out of Queen’s Park? Baseball’s a sport too, of course they’re worried about losing a good site. People moaning about parking? I know we’re all good transit-loving urbanists but the local situation isn’t brilliant; Columbia Skytrain station is a kilometer and a half away on a pretty solid hillside. If I was on my own I’d walk; taking my grandparents we’d want to drive. These are questions worth arguing out and answering, and the opportunity barely came up.

The Whitecaps can’t do much about Major League Soccer not running a reserve league or the 2015 USL Pro season coming up fast. Clearly everybody involved knew the Whitecaps were negotiating in good faith, with the enthusiastic support and leadership of a New Westminster resident. But the resulting proposal was, from a public perspective, borderline unsupportable and without any time to work a compromise. I was in favour of the USL Pro team, apart from the public funding, and even I was becoming a skeptic by the time the trigger was pulled. There was just nothing, nothing except a seven-digit price tag and a massive hurry.

I mean, with the deepest respect to people who are better businessmen then I, what the hell did you think was going to happen?

*EDIT, 4:19 PM: Thanks to Devon Rowcliffe via Twitter for informing me that the Whitecaps made renderings of the potential Queen’s Park Stadium renovation public at the second public meeting on August 9, 2014. However, as this took place a month after the initial announcement and the renderings were not made generally available outside that meeting, I think my point still stands.

[1] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Vancouver Whitecaps FC statement regarding decision on New Westminster USL PRO proposal.” WhitecapsFC.com, September 15, 2014. Accessed September 16, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/09/whitecaps-fc-statement-new-westminster-decision.

[2] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Whitecaps FC announces intent to bring USL PRO soccer to New Westminster.” WhitecapsFC.com, July 8, 2014. Accessed September 16, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/07/wfc-announces-intent-usl-pro-new-west.

[3] — “Whitecaps FC USL PRO Proposal for Queen’s Park Stadium.” City of New Westminster. Accessed September 17, 2014. http://www.newwestcity.ca/residents/current-issues/articles/3584.php.

[4] — Sandor, Steven. “FC Edmonton updates city, fans on soccer-stadium progress.” The11.ca, February 6, 2013. Accessed September 17, 2014. http://the11.ca/2013/02/06/fc-edmonton-updates-city-fans-on-soccer-stadium-progress/.

[5] — The relevant New Westminster council and committee meetings are recorded in full at http://newwestcity.insinc.com/player_archive.php. Select September 15 on the calendar, leave “All Meetings” selected, and click “Search”. The Whitecaps proposal was discussed in both the Committee of the Whole and the Regular Council Meeting on that date.

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