Mixed emotions at open house

  - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

There are many fun things to do around town on warm, summer evenings. Going to a city-run open house doesn’t usually top the list.

But on Tuesday night, New Westminster residents packed Centennial Lodge to learn about tentative plans for the Vancouver Whitecaps FC to have a development team play out of Queen’s Park Stadium starting next year.

The Whitecaps and the city recently signed a memorandum of agreement to pursue placing a United Soccer League PRO franchise at the stadium. It is currently used for soccer and baseball, but if the new plan is approved it will be a soccer-only facility. The team would be backed by New Westminster native Gary Pooni, a land development consultant, and developer Ian Gillespie of Port Coquitlam along with the Whitecaps.

“It was a respectful crowd. They listened quite well,” said city Coun. Chuck Puchmayr.

“Few people were extremely opposed to it. I found there was a lot of young people that are new people living in Queen’s Park that were thrilled about it.”

He admitted, however, those connected to baseball were not happy about losing the city’s only full-sized baseball diamond.

“It was kind of the response I was expecting it to be,” said Puchmayr, who has been monitoring social media and email to gauge the community’s feelings. “I’m getting more in favour than opposed, but that’s not scientific.”

To begin play in March 2015 all the details have to be worked out by Sept. 15. The league requires minimum seating of 3,500. Queen’s Park Stadium currently can hold less than 2,000. The grandstand seats would have to be upgraded and the bleacher seats replaced.

Inside Queen's Park Stadium


The Queen's Park Stadium grandstand Image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Details on who will pay for the upgrades, a replacement baseball field elsewhere in the city, and a proposed artificial turf practice field adjacent to the stadium are scarce. Puchmayr said he couldn’t comment because the discussions are in-camera. But he did point out municipalities are limited in what they can fund.

“A city is not allowed to give a private entity a benefit. There has to be certainly some community benefit for any of the investments the city is doing. We can’t build them a park for them to play,” said Puchmayr. “Right now there are discussions going on how we can achieve this … There’s still a lot of work before September. Our staff thinks they can bring something to us to make that decision.”

When baseball backer and New Westminster native Cory Helmer does the math the costs begin to add up.

He believes the cost of upgrading the stadium, building a replacement baseball field and putting in another artificial turf field will be $7 million or more.

“Something doesn’t make sense here,” said Helmer, 29. “It feels real eery.”

He said to build another full-sized baseball park elsewhere in Queen’s Park would take away a softball field. Another option proposed by the city is Hume Park, but Helmer said that would be a tight squeeze. In either case a new park would take a few years to build. “That would cripple New Westminster baseball,” said Helmer.

He said community baseball worked with the city for years to keep the sport in the historic stadium. They raised money to build new dugouts, erect new fencing, install new lights and a scoreboard, and build a batting cage. All that would be lost if it was turned into a soccer-only facility, said Helmer.

“You’re going to uproot all the community sports for soccer with 14 (USL) games there?”

Another open house on the proposal will be at Centennial Community Centre on Saturday, Aug. 9, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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