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The aging FirstOntario Centre will soon be torn back to the studs as part of the City of Hamilton’s vision for a new multimillion-dollar sports, entertainment and cultural district.City of Hamilton

When Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG), a global sports and entertainment company, went looking for its first arena project north of the border, it found its sweet spot in Hamilton.

FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum) may have witnessed Canada’s 1987 Canada Cup victory against the Soviet Union, but the aging venue will soon be torn back to the studs and brought up to 21st-century standards as part of the City of Hamilton’s vision for a new multimillion-dollar sports, entertainment and cultural district.

The privately funded downtown project is driven by the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group LP (HUPEG), a regional consortium led by Carmen’s Group and the Mercanti Family and Associates working in collaboration with venue operators, industry consultants and development partners, including Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), Meridian Credit Union and Paletta International.

None [of our projects] looks like they were produced by the same developer. They all have unique elements that are appropriate for their markets.

Stephen Collins, president, global venue development and special projects at OVG

OVG, which recently launched its Canadian division in Toronto, was brought in for its sports venue expertise and entertainment industry connections; the renovated building will serve Hamilton’s hometown teams as well as visiting big-name acts.

OVG is making headlines for its arena projects in the U.S. and Europe. Founded in 2015 by Tim Leiweke, former president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and entertainment industry trailblazer Irving Azoff, the company just announced a new US$3-billion arena-casino-hotel-amphitheatre development in Las Vegas; it recently completed the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and the UBS Arena in Belmont, N.Y.; and Manchester’s Co-op Live, at 23,500 seats, will become the largest indoor arena and live-music venue in Britain.

Stephen Collins, OVG’s president, global venue development and special projects, says some of the innovations built into the company’s other arena projects will be tailored to FirstOntario Centre. “None [of our projects] looks like they were produced by the same developer,” he says. “They all have unique elements that are appropriate for their markets.”

With construction work set to begin in late spring 2023, FirstOntario Centre will get a new exterior façade and video board and will better integrate at street level, along York Boulevard and Bay Street, with a year-round sports lounge, e-sports zone and local restaurants.

FirstOntario Centre will better integrate at street level along York Boulevard and Bay Street, with a year-round sports lounge, e-sports zone and local restaurants.

The overall redevelopment plan aims for a live-work-play experience similar to Toronto’s Distillery District and Maple Leaf Square (aka Jurassic Park), Edmonton’s Ice District and L.A. Live in Los Angeles, says Jasper Kujavsky, director of the arena renovation project and a HUPEG founding partner.

The arena has “good bones,” Mr. Kujavsky says, and is situated close to downtown hotels, restaurants, shops and public transit, including the future Light Rail Transit system. While the venue is currently home to the Hamilton Bulldogs (Ontario Hockey League), Hamilton Honey Badgers (Canadian Elite Basketball League) and the Toronto Rock (National Lacrosse League), the renovation will give it a better shot at hosting additional sporting events such as the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup, he says.

The three teams have not yet announced where they will temporarily relocate to during the renovation, Mr. Kujavsky says.

Inside the venue, with seating remaining at about 17,500, there will be expanded concourses, comprehensive transformation of the lower bowl, more comfortable seating and better sightlines. A flexible curtaining system will block off the upper-bowl balcony when not in use to help create a more intimate attendee experience in the lower bowl.

The venue’s locker rooms will be modernized with on-site training facilities and social spaces where athletes can unwind, and the roof structure will be reinforced to handle a modern scoreboard as well as rigging for concerts and shows.

The renovation will convert about 80,000 square feet of storage space to restaurants, suites and club areas. “That will change the dynamic of the building,” Mr. Kujavsky says.

“We can open up that space and provide a greater experience and help drive more revenue for the building and the community,” Mr. Collins adds.

Part of the plan is a sort of democratization of the venue’s social spaces, he says: “We come from the mindset that we need to provide something for everyone so there aren’t the haves and the have-nots. There are different opportunities for different areas of the building.”

OVG-designed venues offer traditional executive suites as well as theatre-style seating adjacent to club spaces for those who require only a few seats to entertain clients.

The luxury box as a driver of revenue is a significant development in modern sport venue design, notes Peter Sealy, assistant professor at University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design – fast WiFi, the latest big-screen technology, sophisticated sound and light equipment, and streetscape integration are all must-haves these days.

“Revenue from luxury boxes plays a huge role in the overall financial picture,” he says.

OVG’s arena projects have veered away from traditional food and beverage concession stands toward innovations such as Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, which is in Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena and New York’s UBS Arena.

A customer’s scanned credit card is automatically charged when they take food and beverages off the shelves, eliminating checkout lineups. OVG is also looking at a marketplace concept for FirstOntario Centre that’s similar to the grocery store self-checkout experience, Mr. Collins adds.

With Hamilton as its Canadian entry point, OVG is interested in communities that wish to revitalize their sports and entertainment offerings or are underserved by their current venues, Mr. Collins says.

As for size, OVG’s sweet spot is typically just over 20,000 seats. “We try to stay in that ballpark because that’s what we feel we do best,” Mr. Collins says. “Our strategic relationships with content providers scale to that size and the economics work better for us.”

The view from the luxury box is considered a driver of revenue and a significant development in modern sport venue design.

Hamilton’s new sports, entertainment and cultural district by the numbers

  • The $500-million residential-office-retail development will include 5 per cent affordable housing.
  • HUPEG is responsible for the operation and maintenance of FirstOntario Centre, the FirstOntario Concert Hall and the Hamilton Convention Centre for 49 years, with no monetary contribution from the city and with the city retaining ownership of the lands and facilities.
  • $12.5-million-plus in upgrades will be applied to the existing Hamilton Convention Centre and Concert Hall.
  • A one-time contribution of $2-million will be made to the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
  • Savings to taxpayers: $155-million over 30 years, according to a 2019 study by Ernst and Young.