TORONTO — Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment isn’t closing the door on the CFL or the Toronto Argonauts.
Tim Leiweke, MLSE’s president and chief executive officer, said the organization is going ahead with the proposed $120-million renovation of BMO Field without funding commitments from either the provincial or federal governments to ensure the first phase is completed in time next summer’s Pan-Am Games. That prompted reports MLSE was no longer interested in modernizing its facility to include a field capable of accommodating the Argos, casting serious doubt about the CFL franchise’s future.
But Leiweke said the issue of a renovated BMO Field including a playing surface capable of accommodating a CFL franchise is simply on the back burner.
“Our current situation is really geared towards trying to figure out how we get at least the first phase of this renovation done in time for the Pan-Am Games,” he said. “That’s really the change here.
"This is just about creating a three-phase process instead of the original two-phase process. The third phase, which would be renovations to make the stadium work for the CFL, would be subject to finishing off the financing from the province for the stadium and the feds for big events."
The Argos have a lease at Rogers Centre through 2017. However, the deal won't be renewed past that date, meaning the CFL club must find a new home field in time for the 2018 season.
The original plan was for a two-phased renovation that included building a roof and installing a playing surface capable of accommodating a CFL-sized field. The project was to include $10 million each from city, provincial and federal governments, with MLSE covering the remaining $90 million.
In April, Toronto city council approved a $10-million investment in the renovations. But Leiweke said construction must begin in September for the facility to be ready for Pan-Am Games and MLSE simply couldn't wait for the province and federal governments.
"We don't want the lack of a definitive agreement with either the province or the feds to ultimately hurt Toronto and Ontario's opportunity to host a great Pan-Am Games," he said. "The Pan-Am Games are very dependent on us for the rugby sevens competition so the city has requested we find a way make sure we get the renovation and construction done on time and we're going to agree to that and to the credit of our owners, they're willing to take this additional risk.
"This is not unexpected."
The provincial government's delay is understandable, given Ontarians go to the polls June 12. However, Ottawa is reportedly not enthused about being involved in funding a sports stadium.
Leiweke said there are definite benefits to both levels of government being involved in the project.
"Well, I think for the province it makes too much economic sense," he said. "They make $8 million a year, according to our economic study, in taxes per year from the renovated stadium and events at the stadium.
"For the province, I think no matter who wins the election, this is just good business. They get a very good rate of return and create a lot of jobs. The feds, I think we get there. They get $18 million off the construction taxes and so arguably they're the biggest winner in all of this. Their money is not going to the stadium, their money is going to host big events so imagine the impact of a Winter Classic or a Grey Cup for Ontario and Toronto and in the case of the Winter Classic, for Canada."
Toronto city council made accommodating the Argos a requirement for its contribution but Leiweke said the lack of funding from the remaining two levels of government doesn't compound the issue very much.
"I think the city manager will probably take an addendum or an amendment back to city council just to make sure they're supportive," he said. "But essentially the deal stays in place, we still repay the city.
"Everything is as is except for we agree to go ahead with the first phase without the commitment from the province or the feds."
BMO Field opened in '07 and has a current seating capacity of around 21,500. It's owned by the city but operated by MLSE, which owns the NHL's Maple Leafs, NBA's Raptors and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.
The proposed renovation includes a hybrid grass surface and plans to boost permanent seating to 30,000 with the ability to add another 10,000 temporary seats to host special events like the Grey Cup or an outdoor NHL game.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Argos said: "The ongoing discussions between the Toronto Argonauts, MLSE and the potential to play at BMO Field have been a point of conjecture for many months. At this point, we continue to work closely with MLSE on a variety of opportunities and benefits, and look forward to the eventual resolution of the funding challenges that impact their plans to renovate and modify BMO Field."
Leiweke said MLSE's purchase of the Argos from owner David Braley was never a condition of the BMO renovation. Leiweke admits the subject has been discussed but isn't a priority.
"I'm a fan of David Braley's, I think he's a good man and I admire what he's done for the Argos and CFL," Leiweke said. "We've talked about the Argos but right now we've got our work cut out for us in trying to get BMO ready to go for TFC next year and in particular, the Pan-Am Games next year.
"We've made it clear to the city that if the province's funding of the stadium and the feds' funding of the events come through we're obligated to renovate the stadium for the CFL to."
Even then, though, Leiweke said that final phase would take time to implement.
"It would probably be adding it to phase two and when we begin work on the roof, which will be September of next year," he said. "So we'll have to push that renovation off until after the Pan-Am Games to make sure we do nothing to take away from them."