Not any more

Hamilton’s stadium fumbles

In Canada on August 11, 2010 at 08:56

In Hamilton’s beleaguered heart, one chamber was empty, the other one clogged.

The empty one on a sunny summer Tuesday was the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, shrine to the one sport that, to varying degrees, has drawn decent crowds in this working-class city for more than a century.

The clogged one was the council chamber next door at city hall, where the prospect of a shining new stadium, courtesy of the 2015 Pan American Games, has somehow metastasized into a deadly threat to Hamilton’s football future.

The $102-million venue was supposed to become the new home of the beloved Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League after Pan Am events are over. But the team’s owner, frustrated by months of civic bickering about where to build the stadium, has walked away and withdrawn his money from the process, trailing vague threats to move out of town.

City councillors met all day and into the evening in a bid to steer the project to stable ground, and in the end came up with a decision, although not one that will please the Tiger-Cats.

Hamiltonians – already struggling with the loss of their proud industrial past – are bracing for another blow.

“There’s been a team in Hamilton since football has been in this country,” said Rob Morrallee, office manager at the hall of fame, church-quiet in contrast to city hall, where a spillover crowd filled chairs outside the council chamber. “I hope they come to some agreement. I’d hate to see football leave Hamilton.”

Like many here, Mr. Morrallee wondered whether that prospect is realistic or just the product of posturing in a high-stakes poker game, with three levels of government, Pan Am promoters and Ticats owner Bob Young around the table.

All I can say is, as a business owner and lifelong resident of Hamilton, I pray the Cats will stay.— Gary Rankin, 67-year-old restaurateur

Of two locations council considered – one near the west-end waterfront, the other in the eastern suburbs on the Niagara Escarpment, or “mountain” as locals call it – Mr. Young has favoured the latter for its regional highway access and high visibility. He offered to put up $15-million in cash and $59-million in financing if the team were to manage the new facility.

Council, however, voted Tuesday night to back the so-called west harbour site, which supporters believe has the potential to lessen the post-industrial wheeze of the area, just north of the city’s challenged core.

Standing by tapping its watch is the deadline-sensitive Pan Am organizing committee, and over its shoulder, the provincial and federal governments, wallets in hand, each ready to shell out up to $28.5-million once a site is chosen.

For reasons not entirely clear, Mr. Young sent a letter to Mayor Fred Eisenberger and council Monday, announcing the Tiger-Cats’ withdrawal from the process. He pointed out with “major regret” that the team will be homeless after next year, when its lease at 80-year-old Ivor Wynne Stadium runs out.

Team spokesmen said the letter would be all Mr. Young had to say and declined further comment.

Amid the resulting swirl of rancour, rumour and uncertainty of the ongoing council proceedings, fans are not only worried about losing their Ticats, but whether they’ll wield any influence in exchange for decades of loyalty – including through some woeful seasons under Mr. Young’s seven years of ownership.

“Hamilton has some pretty passionate fans, I would have to say,” said Mr. Morrallee, a frequent visitor to Ivor Wynne, built with somewhat less hassle in 1930 for another international sports contest: the British Empire Games. “Unfortunately, this might be the one time when fans don’t get a say.”

Gary Rankin, a 67-year-old lifetime Hamiltonian whose east-end restaurant fills up on every game day, said he understands Mr. Young’s desire to turn a profit, but “I feel Bob Young’s not making money because he’s not putting a product on the field.”

Mr. Rankin, a season-ticket holder, is holding up his end, but he suggested city councillors, staring a golden opportunity in the face, have all but dropped the ball.

“Our politicians can’t make a decision,” he said behind his bar, a live update of the council proceedings on the big screen behind him. “They have their own personal agendas and the people of Hamilton aren’t consulted.”

Sweeping his arm northward, Mr. Rankin indicated Hamilton’s declining manufacturing area, which has bled 35,000 jobs since his bar opened in 1980. And yet, the football fans still come.

“Before every game, I get up on a chair here and do the oskee-wee-wee,” he said, referring to the famed local football cheer. “All I can say is, as a business owner and lifelong resident of Hamilton, I pray the Cats will stay.”

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