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Timeline too tight: Council

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

A tight timeline might have to be loosened for a Vancouver Whitecaps development team to play in Queen's Park Stadium in 2015.

Acting mayor Jonathan Coté said he is concerned the Sept. 15 deadline won't be enough time for the city to do its due diligence. He made the comments a day after listening to 21 speakers oppose the idea during Monday's council meeting.

"The residents that came raised a lot of legitimate concerns regarding the proposal. The reality is there's a lot of information that council needs and the public needs to be able to evaluate whether or not it is good for New Westminster," said Coté on Tuesday. "There are still many, many questions that need to be answered mainly regarding the financial details of this type of project."

In early July, the city an the Whitecaps signed a memorandum of understanding to work toward converting the stadium into a soccer-only facility capable of holding at least 3,500 spectators. The soccer club would like to place a USL-Pro League development team in the stadium to provide a competitive level for its younger players. The plan is to begin play in 2015 but the USL deadline for applications is Sept. 15.

The Whitecaps would operate the club along with development consultant Gary Pooni, a New Westminster native, and developer Ian Gillespie.

CoteCoté said the city has to address the tight timelines with the Whitecaps to get a bit of breathing room to work out the details and get public input. Earlier Monday, city staff delivered an update to council behind closed doors, but "there's still a lot more information that's required," said Coté.

But it's a timeline the Whitecaps appear unwilling to budge on. President Bob Lenarduzzi said Wednesday if New Westminster can't make up its mind by Sept. 15 the club will still put in its application to the USL and look to another municipality for a quick decision. Most of the other facilities under consideration wouldn't need the renovations required at Queen's Park Stadium, he said.

"In a perfect world, there could be more time," said Lenarduzzi. "Unfortunately we can't do much about extending that. We appreciate it is a tight timeline and we all knew that going in.

"Our intent is to play next year, whether that's in New Westminster or elsewhere. Right now we're just focused on seeing this process through to a conclusion. Hopefully it's a positive conclusion from our perspective."

Lenarduzzi said setting aside the emotion, which he understands, the baseball stands are not needed for spectators. A renovated facility would not only have stands for the Whitecaps but make it "an even more significant attractive asset" for the city to hold other events.

He noted a lot of commenters have complained the community won't be able to use it.

"That's garbage," said Lenarduzzi. "When we're not using it as long as the weather is cooperating there will be events taking place there which is much like the situation in Burnaby [with Swangard Stadium]."

He said ideally over time the team's rent would address the investment made by New Westminster.

Lenarduzzi believes the club has proven it will be able to attract fans to Queen's Park for lower level soccer, especially since it's likely the rival Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers will have teams in the league as well starting in 2015.

"When we played USL prior to going to MLS our attendance was around 4,500 at Swangard and our average now is just under 21,000. We have a very loyal fan base, and we have heard from a number of them that they would love to see the up and comers and those players not getting regular minutes on our regular team play," said Lenarduzzi. "We've already proven we can get those numbers, we're getting those numbers now."

The city has said if the proposal goes through it would build a full-sized baseball diamond elsewhere in New Westminster to give those 15 and older a place to play. Parks staff has south of the current stadium and upper Hume Park as potential locations for a new park.

Most of the opponents who spoke Monday had a connection to baseball some did not, including a couple of soccer fans.

"It sounds great to drive around in a Ferrari until you have to pay for it," said Rocky Suffron of the Whitecaps coming to Queen's Park.

Richard Harder said the process seemed to be going "lickety-split" with few financial details being revealed.

"Will you know by Sept. 15 how much is going to be spent?" asked Harder.

He warned since a lot of work would have to be done over the winter in time for the 2015 season to start in March costs would be 20 to 40 per cent higher than normal.

"I don't quite get this. I don't see the financial gain for this. [The Whitecaps] must think they've found the biggest sucker in the City of New Westminster. It's staggering to me. If feels like somebody is holding a gun to your head. I don't understand why this is going ahead. Give this time."

Harder added there's no guarantee the development team will draw spectators. While many Major League Soccer teams like the Whitecaps are planning to have USL development teams in the same city as the MLS club, the only one that does is the Los Angeles Galaxy. Nine USL teams have an average attendance of at least 2,300 but the Galaxy has only drawn 652 per game.

At the urging of Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, city administrator Lisa Spitale informed the packed gallery the Local Government Act doesn't allow cities to aid a commercial undertaking. It also says there must be an expectation of recouping the costs to justify going ahead. Council next meets Sept. 8 and 15.

Lawn signs supporting and opposing the plan have sprouted up across the city. New Westminster Baseball and the Royal City Youth Soccer Association have initiated competing petitions. As of late Wednesday afternoon, baseball had collected 386 signatures opposed to it while the soccer club had 379 signatures in support.

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