Plans by the Toronto Raptors to build a $30-million practice facility on the grounds of Exhibition Place by 2016 have cleared the first hurdle at city hall with a deal that will see the team's owners kicking in extra money for new parking and parkland at the city-owned site.
The deal was approved Wednesday by the city's executive committee and still requires a vote by council next week. Under its terms, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., owners of the Raptors, will pay construction and operating costs and rent the facility for 20 years. During that time, the National Basketball Association team will have exclusive rights to use two-thirds of the facility, with the remaining third available for public use.
The new practice courts will be located in what is now a parking lot on the west side of the grounds. Changes introduced Wednesday call for MLSE to cover the cost of paving over a nearby baseball diamond to replace that parking and the conversion of the site back to parkland in four years. MLSE also agreed to contribute $2-million toward a parking study for the grounds and a new parking facility.
"Now we have a home for the Raptors; we have a home for Canada Basketball. Now we just have got to go build it," MLSE president Tim Leiweke said after the vote.
Calling the waterfront location one of the "great urban points of destination in North America," Mr. Leiweke said it will be a key part of the Raptors' plans for playing host to the 2016 NBA all-star game.
"We are going to push dirt as quickly as possible," he said. MLSE is hoping to get planning approvals and begin work by November.
Leiweke said the deal is the culmination of plans that began in the fall in a meeting with city manager Joe Pennachetti. "I sat down with Joe last September," he said. "We shock hands one day at lunch on a vision."
The city manager made it clear, he said, that MLSE would have to bring funding to the table.
This spring, Mayor Rob Ford was critical of MLSE for asking for $10-million from each of the city, province and federal government to help expand city-owned BMO Field, also at Exhibition Place. That request was approved by council.
On Wednesday, Ford gave his support to the Raptors facility, but expressed concern about the $160-an-hour charge for community groups to use the public space.
After the vote, he said he planned to introduce an amendment at council next week aimed at helping young residents from Toronto Community Housing to gain access to the facility, saying he "cannot accept" the high permit fees for them.
Leiweke, who lashed out at Ford over his opposition to the soccer-field expansion, struck a conciliatory tone after the most recent vote.
"I am glad to see Mayor Ford supported it. I think that's a good step forward," he said, indicating when asked that he is not supporting any candidate in the race for mayor.