BC Place turns into state-of-the-art facility


VANCOUVER — A multi-million dollar makeover has transformed BC Place Stadium from a dinosaur of a building teetering on obsolescence to a facility stocked with modern technology and state-of-the-art conveniences.

The curtain will be raised on the refurbished stadium Friday when the B.C. Lions host the Edmonton Eskimos in a CFL game. Over 40,000 tickets have been sold. Sarah McLachlan, the Juno and Grammy award-winning performer, will sing the national anthem prior to the game.

On Sunday, the Vancouver Whitecaps play the Portland Timbers in a Major League Soccer match.

The $560-million in renovations include a retractable roof which can be opened or closed in 20 minutes. There also is a huge centre-hung video board with two HD screens that are the equivalent to 450, 42-inch flat-screen TVs.

Throughout the building there are 800 Wi-Fi points and 1,150 digital screens. There are new, wider seats; improved acoustics; modern turf; and enhanced concession and bathroom facilities.

Gone is the huge air-supported roof that looked like a dirty marshmallow on the Vancouver skyline. It has been replaced by 36 roof support masts that look like a crown.

The drab concrete building now sparkles with clear glazing. Antiquated revolving doors have given way to grand entrances. The once cold, dark interior is now flooded with natural light.

BC Place will host the Grey Cup in November and the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying soccer tournament in January.

Supporters boast Vancouver now has a modern stadium that rivals any in North America. Critics question spending half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money on a building that will basically be used by two professional teams.

Paul Barber, the Whitecaps chief executive officer, has travelled the globe and seen many stadiums in his previous role as executive director of Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. He ranks BC Place among the world’s best.

"This is one of the best stadiums I have ever been to," Barber said Wednesday. "Not just in terms in what it looks like, but actually in terms of the facilities that it has in it, the technology that is going into it and the fact it sits on the waterfront in a downtown environment.

"Honestly, you could count the number of world-class stadiums on the fingers of one hand that meet all the criteria that BC Place now meets."

Located in downtown Vancouver, near False Creek, BC Place offers easy assess to public transit. Restaurants, stores and hotels are close. Rogers Arena, home of the NHL Vancouver Canucks, is just across the street.

Work on BC Place forced the Lions and Whitecaps to play at Empire Field, a temporary facility built for $14.4 million on the Pacific National Exhibition ground in Vancouver’s north end.

Dennis Skulsky, the Lions president and CEO, said his team is excited about returning to the BC Place.

"It was a good venue and a good stadium before we left," said Skulsky.

"Now with the investment, and moving it into another level of an outstanding venue, we are extremely happy and excited. We feel very good about the opportunity to call it our home."

Jordan Batemen, British Columbia director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, isn’t so enthusiastic.

"We really struggled with this expenditure," said Batemen. "Throughout Canada we are opposed to taxpayer-funded arenas.

"It’s a tricky one because you want to protect the taxpayer assets that already are there. At the same time, $600 million is an incredible amount of money in this day and age."

Even as opening day approaches work continued on the stadium. Technicians tested the sound system. Crews cleaned and polished the building.

Warren Buckley, president and CEO of the B.C. Pavilion Corp., the Crown corporation that runs the stadium, said work is progressing on schedule.

"There is a lot of small things that we are doing at the very last moment which is typical," he said. "A lot of cleaning going on."

BC Place will seat 54,500 for football games. That’s a reduction from the over 59,000 in the old building.

When the Whitecaps play, the building will be converted to a soccer-specific stadium that seats around 21,000. A special curtain or secondary roof will be drawn to mask the unused upper rows of seats, creating a bowl within a bowl.

"It’s a different architectural design in terms of anything that is anywhere else in the world," said Barber.

BC Place was originally completed in 1983 at a cost of $126 million in advance of the 1986 World Expo. At the time its concept of an inflated dome was considered state of the art.

Time took its toll on the building. While inflatable roofs were cheaper to construct than their rigid counterparts, those savings were eroded because of the cost of operating them.

Giant fans must run continually to maintain the air pressure inside the dome, increasing the stadium’s power bills.

Another problem was the air pressure couldn’t support heavy snow, which had to be melted — at a cost. In 2007, heavy snow caused a seven-metre tear in the BC Place roof, collapsing it.

The rip was repaired and BC Place hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Buckley said renovating the existing stadium made more economic sense than building a new one.

"The bones of BC Place were in superb shape," he said. "The idea was let’s use the skeletal remains and create a new venue.

"We have ended up with just as wonderful a stadium, if not in many respects even better."

The cost of building a new venue like BC Place is estimated at around $1 billion.

In the past BC Place was used around 200 nights a year and generated $60 million in economic impact, Buckley said.

The new building is expected to be used 240 nights a year and create around $100 million in economic impact.

Besides trade shows, Buckley sees more concerts coming to BC Place now the building has better acoustics. He expects a major show will be announced for late October or early November.

Skulsky and Barber both say they will pay more rent in the new building, but expect to generate increased revenue through larger crowds and the sale of the 50 luxury suites.

"We have some higher costs," said Skulsky. "But the net to us, if we do our job well on the field and off the filed, is going to be very good for our business."

Buckley said a naming rights deal for the stadium is expected soon.

"We have had some serous discussions with different folks," he said.

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