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‘Transformational’ arena upgrade officially underway

Full financing already secured for $280M project to renovate the Bay Street venue; premium ticket sales to begin at the end of May. 

The $280 million needed to renovate Hamilton’s downtown arena is already in the bank, construction fencing is erected and sales of premium seats will go on sale at the end of this month.

“This is going to happen,” said Tim Leiweke, chair and CEO of Oak View Group, which is leading the upgrade of the nearly 40-year-old venue into a modern 18,000-seat entertainment complex.

He stepped away from the microphone at an official ground-breaking Thursday to slap some construction hoarding along Bay Street to prove work has already begun.

“Twenty years, people have visions, people have had aspirations, people have commitments but for 20 years we haven’t been able to get to the finish line,” he said.

“We are going to do something that no one has been able to do in 20 years. Something that all of us are proud and excited about. And that is not just a rejuvenation and renovation of a world-class music venue and sports venue but the beginning of a second rejuvenation and imagination of what the inner core of this city will look like going forward. This is just the beginning.”

Tim Leiweke, chair and CEO of Oak View Group, says the full-scale renovation of Hamilton's downtown arena is 'ready to go.'
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Oak View Group

Leiweke says “one of the biggest banks in the world” has stepped up to provide all of the financing for the arena project. He said that has never happened in any of the 20 other arenas he's helped to build over 45 years. The bank’s name will be revealed later but Leiweke says he hopes that will reassure those who have been skeptical the project would happen.

"One hundred per cent of the roughly 300 million Canadian dollars that will be spent on renovation is in the bank and ready to go. This is going to happen."

At the official event, dignitaries from the development partnership and the City of Hamilton lined up inside the arena lobby with silver-plated sledgehammers to knock over a ceremonial wall made out of concrete blocks.

This will be the seventh arena construction project in five years for Oak View Group, including projects in Manchester, Seattle, Austin, Baltimore and New York. OVG manages 21 arenas, concert venues and convention centres in Canada, including FirstOntario Concert Hall.

Hamilton’s arena is the only project OVG has under construction at the moment, so it is all hands on deck, said Leiweke. About 100 employees will be based in Hamilton, with about half stationed here full-time.

The unveiling of the newly modernized arena is promised for fall 2025, in time to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of the building as Copps Coliseum on Nov. 30, 1985. Leiweke, who was once president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), acknowledged it’s an ambitious timeline but he believes it’s achievable.

“It’s a complicated project,” he said after the official event. “We’re spending more than we did to build Scotiabank Arena at the time.”

From left: Tom Pistore, president of Oak View Group Canada, PJ Mercanti, president and CEO of Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG), Tim Leiweke, chair and CEO of Oak View Group, Mayor Andrea Horwath, Riley O'Connor, chair Live Nation Canada, and Peter Luukko, co-chair of Oak View Group's Arena Alliance.

Renovations will include the addition of premium seating, clubs, lounges and suites, enhanced acoustics to amplify the listening experience, touchless and self-serve technologies for food and beverage purchases to minimize transaction times and upgraded concourses and concession areas. Additional upgrades to the venue’s back of house include specially designed artist lounges, upgraded production facilities, electrical and lighting upgrades as well as updates to the arena’s telecommunications infrastructure, wireless network, and video, network and security systems.

Starting May 30, deposits will be accepted to purchase one of 20 suites and 600 premium memberships.

Leiweke says Hamilton’s arena will be the only one in Canada built specifically for music. That include millions invested in acoustics, back-of-house amenities for artists and load-in and load-out facilities that will allow for quick and easy set up and takedown.

“It all means artists will be able to make more money here. It’s already been proven that people will come here for concerts even if the experience isn’t quite adequate. What if we make it perfect for music and a great fan experience?”

Leiweke sees Hamilton’s venue complementing, not competing, with Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in luring acts.

“We’ll be a great add-on to Toronto, a world-class venue without the scheduling issues of Scotiabank.”

Simply called the Hamilton Arena for now, Oak View Group has brought on Live Nation as a booking partner. Announcements about naming rights and a future restaurant partner are still to come. Leiweke will only say it’s a major celebrity chef who will back the restaurant that will be accessible from the street and open 365 days a year.

There are a number of yet-to-be-named partners behind the project and they have come on board because of belief in Hamilton and the vision of a city centre “that will be the buzz of Canada.”

Riley O’Connor, chair of Live Nation Canada, said Hamilton has always been a great market for live music. He listed off major acts who have come to the city over the years, including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Paul McCartney, The Tragically Hip, Rush, AC/DC and Pearl Jam.

“All felt Hamilton fans were second to none," he said. Every time an act came here, they always commented when they came off-stage: ‘this place rocks.’ This will be a new era for the city of Hamilton that reflects the vibrancy and resiliency of the community. This state-of-the-art venue will be a sought-after destination for major world-class artists and a reimagined gathering place for the people of Hamilton and their passion for live music.”

Mayor Andrea Horwath says the arena project and the accompanying investments in the district around it overseen by the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG) will transform the city’s downtown.

“This investment by international entertainment leader OVG in our city, and downtown core, will put Hamilton firmly on the map as a world-class sports and entertainment destination, spurring job creation, economic revitalization and attracting new visitors to our great city.”

She praised former and current councillors and City staff for their work, while pointing out that handing over operations and management of the arena, the concert hall and the convention centre for 49 years will save the municipality an estimated $155 million over 30 years, in addition to the capital investments being made.

“The next iteration of our downtown is being seeded by this investment.”

The larger downtown revitalization project, now known as “the Commons,” includes the newly reimagined arena, a renovated convention centre, significant investments in the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the concert hall facilities, as well as new residential, office, and retail space development.

The fact financing is fully in place and construction has begun on the arena should silence the naysayers, the mayor said after the event.

Mayor Andrea Horwath says the $280-million upgrade of the downtown arena, in conjunction with residential, office and retail investment in the district around it, will be transformational for Hamilton.

“Sometimes Hamiltonians doubt, for good reason. But this is moving forward, along with all the housing and investment we are seeing along the LRT line from McMaster to Eastgate Square. Both (of these projects) will be impetus for more investment. Both will be transformational.”

The arena construction and the Commons project are both being managed by the EllisDon, one of Canada’s biggest construction services companies.

PJ Mercanti, president and CEO of the HUPEG, local consortium, says the kickoff of the arena project has been a long time coming.

“It’s a strategic inflection point for the city of Hamilton. We will never look back, in the best of ways. This investment will be the future heartbeat of the city,” he said.

“In 2023, Toronto was the No. 1 destination for live music touring in the world. We have an amazing opportunity to be part of that.”

Lawyer and HUPEG member Louis Frapporti, says he shares far and wide that Hamilton’s star is on the rise.

“If this city were a stock, now is the time to buy.”

Related: Deal signed for $280 million revamp of downtown arena