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Retractable-roof ballpark puts Canadian firm at bat Add to ...

When it opens in 2012, the new Florida Marlins ballpark in Miami will be hailed as an awesome feat of engineering. The stadium's retractable roof panels - more than 8,000 tons of steel - will be stored on rails 40 metres above the ground outside the park.

More stunning than the engineering, though, is the fact it's being built at all. Since 2007, the value of commercial property in the United States has plunged 36 per cent. Even so, new and more spectacular stadiums continue to go up. The cumulative price tag of new projects and those under construction easily tops $10-billion.

But sports teams have a long history of economic resilience, and analysts say that during a recession it's one of the last things fans are willing to give up. One Canadian company is poised to take advantage of this fact.

In early August, Quebec-based steel company Canam Group Inc.'s structural steel branch won a $60-million contract to help design, then produce and assemble the components for the Marlins' roof. "You may start digging when times are good and then all of a sudden things get rough. But tough times are the best time to build a stadium because people are more likely to make sacrifices and give you a deal," says Marc Dutil, Canam's chief operating officer.

In the past 20 years the company has tackled the construction of structural steel skeletons for 52 stadiums and hockey arenas - among them the Ottawa Senators' Scotiabank Place and Toronto Maple Leafs' Air Canada Centre - gathering experience and expertise that places it on the frontier of stadium building both here and in the United States.

"Early on we were able to get into the heads of our customers and find out what they need," Mr. Dutil says.

Luc Pelland, president of Canam Structural Steel, adds, "What we contribute to these projects is likely the most important work in the contract. If we're late or go over budget the project will be a nightmare since contractors like electricians and plumbers work from our steel structure."

By taking on a number of complex projects in recent years the company has solidified its reputation.

In mid-2006 Canam was awarded a $70-million contract to build the structure of the New York Mets Citi Field ballpark. Only two months later it won a $40-million contract to help erect the new Yankee Stadium. "Then six months later we announced we were taking on a $100-million contract for the New York Giants and Jets Stadium in New Jersey," Mr. Pelland says. "The talk of the town was that we were going to die on it."

It took a lot of gymnastics, but this spring the Yankees and Mets moved into their luxurious new digs, and next season the Giants and Jets will kick off in their New Meadowlands stadium. "There's a reason Frank Sinatra said that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere," Mr. Pelland jokes.

"In terms of stadium building I believe they have no equal," says Frank Falciani, senior vice-president of Skanska USA Building Inc. "It was clear when we started building the new Yankee Stadium and one for the Giants and Jets that having Canam as a major player would be a significant asset. There are very few companies who have the resources, expertise and who can control the market like them."

Nevertheless, the roof of the Marlins ballpark marks a new challenge.

It's the first time Canam has taken on the construction of a retractable roof. In recent years bids on retractable roofs in Dallas and Indianapolis fell through.

"For the last two months I've been working with the structural engineer in Tampa to make sure we have a building that's going to be easy to erect and fabricate," says Serge Dussault, Canam's vice-president of engineering. "We employ hundreds of engineers and once we get a contract we use modelling software to help optimize it."

A regular roof in an NHL arena spans about 90 metres, but the Marlins roof is almost double that. Which means the structure will move quite a bit, Mr. Dussault says. "When we actually install the roof each panel will slide down about 15 to 20 inches, but the engineers have come up with a pretty slick concept."

The rails that support the immense roof and house the sliding mechanisms will be erected and two platforms will be built between them like a bridge. Then each section of roof will be assembled and pushed from the platform onto the rails in a controlled movement.

"One thing we've also had to consider is that there are hurricanes in the area," Mr. Dussault says. "That poses a real challenge and it's why we've got a plan to stabilize the different sections."

Canam faces other hurdles, too. Around the time it won the Marlins contract in early August, the company reported a 57 per cent fall in quarterly profit and forecast profit margins of between 16 per cent and 20 per cent for the coming quarters.

But this is a recession Canam was prepared for, Mr. Dutil says, citing a strong balance sheet and healthy backlog of projects worth $278-million.

"People just keep coming back to us over and over because they don't want to miss that opening game."

ALUMINUM RISERS A STEP UP

Not only are new stadiums going up across North America, but many older venues are looking for an upgrade.

Last week in Kansas City voters approved a 3/8-cent sales tax to fund nearly a half billion dollars in stadium improvements to the 36- and 37-year-old Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums.

Closer to home, the University of Laval in Quebec City renovated its seating at the end of the summer. "We asked them to open their stadium to us so we could install a new product we've developed," says Marc Dutil, chief operating officer of Quebec-based steel company Canam Group Inc. "We've created seating risers made of aluminum. It's 75 per cent lighter than what's being used right now."

Traditionally stadium seats rest on stepped risers made of concrete which is heavy and requires extra steel support beams below to stabilize it.

"It's the mass of it that's really the problem," says Serge Dussault, Canam's vice-president of engineering. "It makes a very good product, but to install it you need big, high-cost equipment. And it's a pretty slow process because of its size and weight."

Although promising, there is still between nine and 15 months worth of testing that needs to be done to ready the risers for mass production.

"What we need to know is what happens if you put aluminum risers in a big arena? Are the acoustics terrible? We also need to test how it responds to vibrations when someone walks by."

Still, lightweight risers could open up many new possibilities.

"There are lots of college football stadiums that are looking for upgrades," Mr. Dutil says. "If we can offer them the ability to add extra seating without adding extra weight it could save them a lot of money."

Graham Lanktree

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