With Whitecaps rejected, a great opportunity lost in New Westminster

The news that the Whitecaps will not be bringing their USL Pro Soccer franchise to Queen’s Park Stadium has left a lot of Royal City residents scratching their heads. It looked like a win-win deal and public support was strong.According to a city report, 66 per cent of the 106 emails received by the city were in favour, with only 29 per cent opposed. Out of 327 resident feedback forms collected at the consultations, 59 per cent were strongly in favour and an additional 7 per cent voiced support with some reservations. Only 32 per cent were opposed. And 80.3 per cent of Chamber of Commerce members were in support. A pro-Whitecaps online petition had almost double the support of an anti-Whitecaps petition.

So what happened?

First of all, small but vocal special interest groups were very effective in their opposition, exaggerating small deficiencies and literally shouting down proponents. You can’t blame the baseball community for screaming blue murder. It’s a proven strategy for even the smallest of minorities to sometimes get their way.

Second, a perceived information vacuum was quickly and happily filled with misinformation by opponents. Huge cost figures were pulled out of thin air and rumoured. Some “heard” a brand new soccer stadium was going up. Traffic would over run the neighbourhood day and night. No more May Day, etc.

“There’s no information!” opponents cried. But there was information. For example, it was disclosed over and over that there would be only about 14 games per year on weekends, that no civic events would be disrupted, and the facility would be open to youth sports.

But even now triumphant letters are coming in about “stopping the bulldozers.” An effective misinformation campaign is hard stop once it gets going.

From a financial perspective, it seems the Whitecaps and the City were pretty close to a deal. The “$11.4 million” cost figure being quoted as justification for turning down the proposal is bogus. It does not include the funds already set aside in the city’s budget for the facilities and ignores completely the contributions coming from the Whitecaps side.

To me, to make sense of the Whitecaps proposal, as with any business case, you need to look first at the business model.

The current business model, a large, empty and aging stadium, is clearly not a good one. You have all the costs, including potentially huge investments for seismic upgrades, with zero chance to recover the investment. Under this model, its best to bite the bullet, knock it down and replace it with a very low maintenance facility.

The demolition plan is exactly what Parks & Rec recommended.

It makes zero sense to invest further in the structure, as the chance of another pro sports tenant is gone. Baseball’s “victory” will probably be a pyrrhic one, with their shrine going the way of the buffalo anyway.

The other business model, upgrading the facility to secure a big-name, well-liked tenant, was a good one, with an array of positives, both tangible, and intangible.

On the tangible side, you have direct and indirect revenues to offset the expenditures. Directly, rent would be paid. Indirectly, local businesses would have a larger audience to market to. There were also direct, local job opportunities.

On the intangibles side, we have heritage, brand awareness and regional relationships. Heritage is likely the most valuable asset New Westminster has, and putting money into the stadium and filling it with fans would have improved that asset.

As a city, our brand is vital to attracting new residents and businesses. A lot of money is being spent marketing New Westminster as transforming, revitalizing, embracing the future, on the rise, and welcoming.

The Whitecaps have developed a tremendously loved and admired brand, and linking that image would have helped city’s “rebranding” efforts considerably.

All number crunching aside, I feel bad for the thousands of New Westminster children and their parents who have seen a dream evaporate. No soccer or baseball player is being denied a chance to play, but kids will not be walking or riding their bikes in droves to Queen’s Park Stadium to see and engage with professional athletes anytime soon.

And that, as the kids say, sucks.

David Brett

© New Westminster News Leader

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