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Pro soccer could be coming to city in March 2015

Gary Pooni has a passion for soccer. He's just as passionate about the city he grew up in. Now he has grand plans to combine both.

The Vancouver Whitecaps and the City of New Westminster announced Tuesday they have signed a memorandum of understanding to work toward putting a United Soccer League (USL) franchise in Queen's Park Stadium. If it goes ahead it will be co-owned and operated by the Whitecaps, Pooni and his partner Ian Gillespie.

Pooni, co-owner of Brook Pooni land development consultants, is the product of the Royal City Youth Soccer Club. When he graduated from high school the Whitecaps' predecessors, the Vancouver 86ers, awarded him a scholarship for one year of university tuition.

"I've always been grateful to the organization for the help they had given to me," said Pooni.

When he heard they were interested in a USL team he wanted in. Pooni suggested New Westminster. He recalled watching early Whitecaps players Bobby Lenarduzzi and Carl Valentine playing at Queen's Park Stadium, as well as participating in camps there.

"The impression that it left on me not only for soccer skills but life skills, the camaraderie and team work and what it brought to my life and other young people [was huge]," said Pooni. "We couldn't think of a better place for this type of a professional franchise than my hometown.

"I'm excited. The response in the first day alone has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive."

Lenarduzzi is now president of the Whitecaps. The club likes New West's central location and historical sporting links, although he admitted until Pooni proposed it they hadn't even considered putting the team in the Royal City.

"We can't underestimate Gary Pooni's role in this," said Lenarduzzi.

The Whitecaps want a place for the graduates of the team's residency and youth programs to play. They currently send some to the Charleston Battery of the USL pro division but would prefer they were closer to home.

"They can't get any meaningful games. It stunts their development," said Lenarduzzi. "There's a real void there."

A USL feeder team would fill that void. The USL is considered a third-tier league in North America. The Whitecaps play in Major League Soccer (MLS), the top level. Some of the Whitecaps senior players who aren't getting a lot of playing time could also play occasionally for the USL squad which is tentatively being called Whitecaps FC 2.

But this is far from being a done deal. The deadline for the Whitecaps to submit an application to the USL to play in 2015 is Sept. 15. There's a lot of details to be worked out between the city, the Whitecaps, and Pooni and Gillespie, a land developer with Westbank Projects. There is also considerable community consultation needed.

"This is just the beginning. We have a lot of work to do," said New Westminster parks director Dean Gibson. "We've just been having some early, early discussions.

"We anticipate there will be a variety of opinion (from the public and city council)."

If it goes ahead, the stadium will be converted into a soccer-specific park. Gibson said the stadium's natural grass would be the most practical surface to begin play by March 2015.

He added the current grandstand seating would have to be refurbished and the bleacher seats removed and replaced. The facility can accommodate just under 2,000, but USL regulations call for seating for at least 3,500. Gibson suggested portable seating may be installed that could also be used at the new artificial turf on the east side of Queen's Park.

Soccer shared the stadium with baseball. Gibson said if the project goes ahead the city would put a new full-sized ballpark elsewhere in Queen's Park or in upper Hume Park.

He added the Whitecaps would like the city to consider building another artificial turf beside the stadium on land currently occupied by deteriorating asphalt tennis courts. The city also uses it for storing soil.

Coun. Betty McIntosh supported the city signing the MOU even though she's a big baseball fan because the city will be looking at finding a full-sized baseball diamond. She's also concerned about parking.

"There's lots of lots and lots of details to work on. It's not a done deal," said McIntosh. "This process timeline is short but it's doable if we get enough input in the community. Queen's Park belongs to the whole community. Don't just talk to Queen's Park residents, talk to the whole of New Westminster."

 

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