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Competing stadium petitions launched

Queen
Queen's Park Stadium grandstand will be refurbished if the city comes to an agreement with the Vancouver Whitecaps for a development team to play there.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader file

Online petitions by two New Westminster minor sports groups have been launched to oppose and support plans to turn Queen's Park Stadium into a soccer-only facility.

And minor baseball, upset with the city's two open houses on the project, will hold one of its own Sunday.

In early July, the city and the Vancouver Whitecaps announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to pursue the feasibility of the Major League Soccer club placing a USL-Pro League development team in the stadium. Currently soccer and baseball share the stadium.

The proposal would see the grandstand refurbished, bleachers replaced and additional seating provided to meet the USL minimum requirement of 3,500. The details need to be worked out by Sept. 15 so the team can begin play in March 2015.

The city and the Whitecaps held community forums on July 29 and Aug. 9.

"The thing we had with the city was a Whitecaps dog-and-pony show," said New Westminster Baseball (NWB) president Ron Suffron. "They wouldn't take questions at either one of them."

In addition to the threat of losing New Westminster's only adult-sized baseball field—although the city said a new one would be built to replace it—the costs concern Suffron.

Suffron at Stadium

New Westminster Baseball president Ron Suffron Grant Granger/NewsLeader file

"I'm not looking at this not just as baseball, but as a city taxpayer," said Suffron. "We need to tell everybody what this thing is going to cost and who is paying for it. I'm honestly afraid they're going to put this through because it's sexy."

Suffron intends to join other NWB members in speaking to city council Monday.

Meantime, NWB has scheduled a public information session of its own at the stadium for Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.

The organization is aiming to spark discussion and has invited all city council members.

It has also started an online petition opposed to the proposal while the Royal City Youth Soccer Club (RCYSC) has initiated one to support it. Wednesday morning, the baseball petition had 147 signatures while soccer's had 52.

The RCYSC petition said the proposal, which includes building an artificial turf practice field beside the stadium, would finally give New Westminster a home soccer complex to be proud of. However, it also said a new baseball facility must be fast-tracked and the project's costs must be covered by the Whitecaps lease, existing city budgets and economic spinoffs.

The petition expresses concern that baseball's strong objections will win out.

"There is a minority of residents that are against this proposal for a variety of reasons. Dissenters can often have the loudest voice and could derail this unique and golden opportunity for soccer in New Westminster," said the petition.

It went on to claim "there is a clear majority of New Westminster residents and voters that support the development of soccer facilities in Queen's Park."

Club president Guy Ciprian said if RCYSC thought it would hurt baseball they wouldn't support it.

"We don't want this to become a battle between baseball and soccer because many of our kids are playing both sports," said Ciprian.

He pointed out the city has already earmarked money to refurbish the stadium and the proposal provides a tenant to help recover the costs while baseball isn't filling the seats.

"It's good for the economics, good for the kids in the community. It's a win-win," he said.

With 1,200 youth registered with the club, RCYSC needs upgraded facilities, said Ciprian. "This is a solution to a problem we've been dealing with for many years."

The USL team will be owned and operated by the Whitecaps and development consultant Gary Pooni, a New Westminster native, and Port Coquitlam developer Ian Gillespie.

Whitecaps chief operating officer Rachel Lewis said the team would simply be a tenant, but the refurbishment would make the stadium a jewel for the city.

"I certainly understand the baseball community has some concern," said Lewis. "It's incredibly important for us that baseball have a home."

She said the timelines are tight but achievable, although some elements of the proposal could be phased in over two years.

"I really want to say we have a great vision for this and we're really excited about the potential to bring a USL team to New Westminster and create a great asset for the community," said Lewis. "We're hopeful it will come to fruition."

Although Coun. Betty McIntosh is a big baseball fan, she supported the MOU.

"They've given us a lot to think about," said McIntosh of all the comments. "The process will have to have lots more discussion."

She went to the last open house and felt the tension in the room. She said staff "didn't answer the questions because they don't have the answers yet."

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