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Bob Young, the new owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is introduced at a news conference in Hamilton, Ont., Tuesday, Oct.7, 2003. The Hamilton-born businessman, who now makes his home in North Carolina, was officially unveiled as the troubled CFL team�s new owner at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. (Ron Pozzer/CP)
Bob Young, the new owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is introduced at a news conference in Hamilton, Ont., Tuesday, Oct.7, 2003. The Hamilton-born businessman, who now makes his home in North Carolina, was officially unveiled as the troubled CFL team�s new owner at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. (Ron Pozzer/CP)

Stephen Brunt

Ticats owner takes stadium battle public Add to ...

This is a war, and this is a test.

Yesterday, after many broad hints that it was coming, Bob Young, the owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played the best card remaining in his hand.

He published an open letter to the CFL team's fans on the subject of the Ticats' potential future home - a stadium that will be constructed to house the track and field competition for the 2015 Pan American Games.

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The new park was supposed to be a bit of a panacea for the franchise, a replacement for beloved but crumbling Ivor Wynne Stadium. But Young paints a rather bleak picture of what will happen if the facility is built on the West Harbour site favoured by local politicians.

He starts out by acknowledging he has lost bags of money since buying the club out of bankruptcy in 2003. "Financially it has been one of the worst ideas I've ever had," Young writes. "No, scratch that - it has been easily the worst financial idea I've ever had."

(So much for the myth that everything's rosy in the business of Canadian football these days.)

Then, Young makes the case that in the club's first season in the new building, it would lose an astonishing $7-million.

And so the battle is engaged and the question asked: Just how much do the Tiger-Cats really mean to the people of Hamilton?

Unstated but implicit in every word of Young's letter is the sense he's not prepared to swim in red ink much longer, and that it would be hard to find someone else rich enough, generous enough or dumb enough to do what he's done.

Ever since the Pan Am Games stadium was promised to the city, its potential location has been a sore point. Politically, such a grand, publicly-funded project had to be about city-building, about putting resources into a town where they would do the most good.

It's no secret Hamilton has floundered in its attempt to renew its urban core, and so building on abandoned industrial property in the scenic West Harbour, creating a link from the restored waterfront to downtown, is an extremely sexy proposition both for local politicos and for the other levels of government kicking in funds.

But from Day 1, the Tiger-Cats found the site problematic, to say the least.

It isn't visible from a major highway. Access would be extremely tricky - especially given the city's pledge not to further disrupt the neighbourhood by building new roads. There is little or no parking, and no money for new public transit links. Counting on cash from stadium-naming rights and spin-off retail and commercial development as part of a plan to finally make the Tiger-Cats profitable, Young and his advisers didn't think that was possible in the West Harbour, and began making their case quietly, but forcefully, behind closed doors.

They wanted it built somewhere else - preferably beside one of the area's major highways - where it would be a whole lot tougher to make the political argument for urban renewal, but a whole lot easier to make a buck selling CFL football.

The city didn't budge, and so now the public battle is engaged.

Young frames it as a question of throwing tax money away on a facility that will never, ever pay for itself, that won't work for football or anything else, that could become an embarrassing and expensive white elephant (he even goes so far as to compare it to the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and to the Miami Arena - both expensive sports facilities built in the wrong part of town). There is certainly a debating point there.

But really, what this is going to boil down to is winning hearts and minds. What would it mean to Hamiltonians - politicians, taxpayers, the old-timers, the north enders, the diehards, and also the newly arrived commuter class, the extended suburban and rural areas that are very much a part of the community - if they didn't have a football team any more, if they couldn't wrap themselves in black and gold, if that tradition, that focus of local identity, simply disappeared?

Cities do continue on after they lose professional sports teams. And of course, if Hamiltonians cared enough to pack the park all of these years, it wouldn't be an issue in the first place. Young wouldn't have lost his shirt, and if he wanted out, there would be potential owners lining up.

Sometimes, though, as has been demonstrated over and over again, the mere idea of what a team means to a community and how that contributes to a healthy sense of belonging, can be a powerful thing indeed.

That's what's being put to the test. And now there are only two alternatives: Someone backs off; or someone, sooner or later, leaves town.

 

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