Former Vancouver Canucks owner Arthur Griffiths got Rogers Arena built with private funds at a time when public sentiment was against government-funded facilities.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , Vancouver Sun
Rogers Arena loses its teenage status next month when it becomes a reasonably mature 20-year-old sports and entertainment venue.
The downtown Vancouver arena so carefully wedged between the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts has handled more than 27 million visitors at 3,000-plus events since hometown rocker Bryan Adams opened it with a sold-out concert on Sept. 19, 1995.
The building formerly known as General Motors Place has hosted a who’s who of global celebrity culture the past two decades — including The Rolling Stones, Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and the Dalai Lama.
It’s best known for being the Vancouver Canucks’ home base and for hosting the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies before the team bolted for Memphis in 2001. The Vancouver Ravens National Lacrosse League team (2002-2004) and Vancouver Voodoo roller hockey squad (1996) also had brief stints in the facility that was the brainchild of former Canucks owner Arthur Griffiths.
The Canucks played in the Pacific Coliseum in East Vancouver for 27 years before heading to the bright lights of the downtown core.
Griffiths said the Canucks invested in many Coliseum improvements over the years — including new luxury suites, a restaurant and office upgrades — but it was clear to him by the late 1980s that the most successful National Hockey League clubs were those that owned and operated their own downtown arenas.
“My instincts told me that (staying in the Coliseum) wouldn’t work for a number of reasons,” he said in an interview. “It was in the wrong location for our customers — not near rapid transit and not in the downtown entertainment district where people who literally write our cheques like to go.
“So we had to step up to the plate and find a new creative solution.”
Griffiths said the Canucks considered three potential downtown arena sites before settling on the 2.1-hectare property they bought from Concord Pacific for $12 million in 1993.
Ironically, the undeveloped property was used to display the world’s largest hockey stick during Expo 86.
The club also considered industrial property behind the train station at Main and Terminal and the City of Vancouver’s Larwill Park site bounded by Cambie, Dunsmuir, Beatty and Georgia streets.
The industrial property had contamination issues and Larwill Park might have involved a lease arrangement with the city, rather than outright ownership, so the Concord site was chosen — viaduct restrictions and all.
Then the Canucks had to convince the City of Vancouver — a PNE stakeholder — that moving the team away from the PNE-located Coliseum was a smart move for everybody.
“We assured the city that it wasn’t going to be obligated financially and that this would be a great new downtown asset to revitalize Vancouver,” Griffiths said.
The viaducts clearly constrained the size of the arena and the width of the concourse.
“That’s a very tight site,” Griffiths said. “We kept going back to the architects, asking: ‘Guys, is this going to fit in here?’”
It did fit, and Griffiths feels the physical building constraints created a more intimate environment with superior acoustics.
“You could hear Michael Bublé without a microphone in there,” he said
The new venue became known as General Motors Place after GM paid the Canucks $20 million for a 20-year naming-rights deal but the facility could just as easily have become Air Canada Place if the airline hadn’t missed a contract proposal deadline by 30 minutes.
Griffiths said GM and Air Canada both agreed to the 20-year, $20-million deal but GM responded before the deadline while Air Canada was half an hour late.
“So we were legally and morally bound to accept the first response,” he said.
General Motors nearly went bankrupt during the 2008 global financial crisis and was happy to end the naming-rights contract five years early in 2010, when Canucks broadcaster Rogers Telecommunications stepped in and paid a rumoured $60 million for the right to call the facility Rogers Arena for 10 years.
Canucks Sports & Entertainment chief operating officer Victor de Bonis wouldn’t confirm the naming rights value shot up from $1 million a year to $6 million a year but said those kinds of deals are much different now than they were 20 years ago.
“It’s about how you build your relationships with partners and how they see value in what we can do together,” he said. “We have tremendous partners who really believe in us and Rogers is our most significant partner, by far, based on the sponsorship and broadcast side.”
Ultimately, the debt load created by the $160 million capital cost of the arena, combined with the $125 million US franchise fee to bring the NBA Grizzlies to Vancouver, forced Griffiths to bring in Seattle billionaire John McCaw as a minority partner in 1994 and McCaw bought out Griffiths and his sister, Emily, in 1997.
Griffiths said a weak Canadian dollar at the time made it even more costly to pay Canucks and Grizzlies players’ US-dollar salaries.
“It’s sad it ended the way it did but at the end of the day, I was a millionaire in a business that was becoming a billionaire’s game,” he said.
But Griffiths remains “immensely proud” of the downtown arena he helped create.
“I’m proud that I stuck it out and proud of the people who worked there with me,” he said.
Vancouver sport marketing consultant Tom Mayenknecht said Griffiths deserves credit for building the arena downtown next to BC Place Stadium, the home of the B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps.
“Yaletown was already moving toward renewal but the presence of the Canucks and those 45 game nights a year, in addition to the Lions and the Whitecaps, has made it the real fulcrum for sports and entertainment in Vancouver,” he said.
Mayenknecht said the $160-million cost to build the arena — about $230 million in 2015 dollars when accounting for inflation — represents excellent value when you consider the skyrocketing cost of Vancouver real estate.
“It would probably be in the neighbourhood of $500 million or $600 million to build that arena from scratch today,” he said.
Langara School of Management instructor Aziz Rajwani said Griffiths also deserves kudos for building the arena with private money, noting it’s common now for public money to foot much of the bill for similar projects.
“Governments were committed to fiscal restraint back in 1993 and public sentiment was very much against giving money to businesses whose players were making millions of dollars,” he said.
Rajwani said the subsequent loss of Canadian NHL franchises in Winnipeg and Quebec City changed that feeling and public funds have since been used to help build new facilities such as the new Rogers Place in Edmonton and the Videotron Centre in Quebec.
(Another privately-funded sports stadium could be in Vancouver’s future as it’s a good bet Whitecaps owners still want to own and operate their own soccer-specific stadium with natural grass at some point.)
Vancouver music industry mogul Sam Feldman said the Pacific Coliseum still works well as a concert venue for certain acts but it was important to build a bigger facility in the downtown core. Rogers Arena can hold about 19,000 people for concerts, compared with around 15,500 at the Coliseum.
“Rogers is a much more modern building so acoustically, it’s going to be better,” Feldman said. “Most major North American cities want to create cultural gathering places in the downtown core and Rogers Arena has really fulfilled that function.”
Canucks Sports & Entertainment is building the second of three highrise apartment towers near the arena, two of which will be physically connected to the facility.
de Bonis said the new connected buildings will help alleviate concourse congestion in the arena by providing space for more food and beverage options and more washrooms.
He said the first completed tower will contain a sports bar — expected to open early next year — that will allow patrons to see inside the arena during games and other events.
de Bonis said the bar will be open every day to provide a “multimedia, mind-blowing experience.”
He said the Canucks still want to build an ice rink near Rogers Arena that would serve as a practice facility for the club and a community facility for downtown Vancouver but plans have yet to be finalized.
He also said there’s always a possibility an NBA team could return to Vancouver to play in the arena some day.
“You can never say never but our No. 1 priority right now is the Vancouver Canucks,” de Bonis said. “My experience with having two tenants here is that you can lose focus.”
So will the 20-year-old arena survive to see its 30th and 40th birthdays and beyond?
de Bonis predicts it will, noting more than $100 million has been spent on facility upgrades to ensure it remains as state-of-the-art as possible.
“It’s a cement structure so it’s not going to fall apart or decay,” he said. “If we do the right things and keep reinvesting in it, it could be around for decades to come.