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Architect: Sudbury Arena 'the worst'

As city councillors examine options for renewing arenas in Greater Sudbury, the issue of whether it’s time to replace Sudbury Community Arena is coming up for debate.
Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau says city staff have done an admirable job of keeping the 61-year-old rink operational, but the time has come to plan for a facility of a size that will attract bigger events. Photo by Marg Seregelyi.

As city councillors examine options for renewing arenas in Greater Sudbury, the issue of whether it’s time to replace Sudbury Community Arena is coming up for debate.

A staff report destined for tonight's community services committee estimates the cost of replacing the downtown arena at between $30 million and $60 million.

“Already over 60 years old, the arena has surpassed its useful life,” the staff report reads. “However, there has been considerable capital investment in the existing facility (a total of $4.2 million over the past 14 years) and the facility does have some historical value for many Greater Sudbury residents.”

The report says the cost of building a new arena translates into about $11,000 a seat, and says the optimum number of seats for a new facility would be about 6,000, up from the current 4,662.

“Replacement of the Sudbury Community Arena would require significant capital investment, and in many cases across Ontario, the municipality assumes/absorbs the risk of the facility, though several new facilities are operated by private-sector contract managers,” the report reads. “Greater Sudbury would need to carefully evaluate and analyze options for management partnerships."

In a recent interview, Conrad Boychuk, of Vancouver-based CEI Architecture, described Sudbury Arena as the least functional major arena he has ever seen, with problems ranging from the basic design to the atrocious acoustics.

“It doesn’t make sense to add on to that building to try and improve it,” Boychuk said, on the phone from his Vancouver office. “There’s too many things wrong.”

He said the physical structure is OK, and it’s “pretty,” with its wooden roof and metal structure. But it’s badly out of date in almost every way.

“As an arena, it’s one of the prettiest little arenas I’ve seen,” he said. “But from an operational standpoint, I’ve never seen a building as bad as this one. Having the snow melt pit in the concourse is shocking.

“So when I look at buildings, I have to conclude Sudbury is the worst. Pretty inside, with that wooden roof, but pretty much everything else, from an operational standpoint, is just wrong.”

Boychuk has been involved in designing several arenas in Canada and the U.S., including Mile One Centre in St. John’s, N.L. and two arenas in Washington state – in Kent and Everett, which both have WHL franchises.

He’s also the lead architect for a development of a 5,700-seat arena and conference centre in downtown Thunder Bay, estimated to cost $106 million. When he heard that Sudbury was talking about the need to eventually replace Sudbury Arena, he asked Sudbury Wolves president and GM Blaine Smith if he could come to town to present the latest information on arena building. He made his pitch in late November.

“What I was presenting to them was information on the facilities I have been involved in doing, and also, what’s coming up,” Boychuk said.

“I’m not sure if you’re aware, but St. Catharines has announced they’re going ahead with a new facility. Medicine Hat is also in the last stages of a design/build process for a 6,500-seat stadium, and Moncton is looking at doing something a few months down the road.”

Officials in Sudbury were interested in Thunder Bay, because their design includes a conference centre. Boychuk said there are two major trends right now: building new arenas close to downtown to maximize the economic impact, and including conference centres.

So when I look at buildings, I have to conclude Sudbury is the worst. Pretty inside, with that wooden roof, but pretty much everything else, from an operational standpoint, is just wrong.

Conrad Boychuk,
Architect with Vancouver-based CEI Architecture

“When the issue of seating capacity came up, it became clear that what was needed is what they did in Thunder Bay,” he said. “And what they did there was let the business case determine the number of seats.”

In Thunder Bay, they had the firm Price Waterhouse Cooper come up with the business plan for the new arena development.

As the process moved along, and they consulted with groups most likely to use the centre, they determined they would need a 5,700-seat arena and a conference space that could accommodate events with about 1,000 people.

“We determined the seating capacity according to a smart business case,” Boychuk said.

“They could probably pack 10,000 people in for some shows, but those would be dead seats most nights. You never build a church for Easter Sunday. It’s a stupid thing to do.

“And if there is a desire to move forward (in Sudbury), that’s what you have to do, design a project around a smart business case.”

While a few arenas do turn a profit, Boychuk said it’s important to remember the current building loses money – about $700,000 a year – and will require major capital spending to keep it operating.

“The other major thing to consider is economic impact, because that’s how you get the attention of the province and the feds when you go looking for money. The economic impact study will tell you how much new money you’ll be bringing into the community, how much new taxes you’ll be bringing into the provincial and federal coffers.”

Another key issue, if Sudbury decides to go ahead with a new building, is sound. While arenas will never have sound quality comparable to performing arts facility, Boychuk said he has an acoustic expert he works with out of Kansas City who helps him maximize sound quality.

“You just want to make sure that the room doesn’t have a ridiculous reverberation time,” he said.

"There are certain things that are core to the building — and acoustic performance is one thing you don’t want to mess around with. Otherwise the acts that are on the road just won’t bother coming. They’ll just bypass Sudbury and go right to the Sault.”

He says the Essar Centre in the Sault is a good example of one end of the spectrum for new facilities, with Thunder Bay being at the other end.

The Sault built their arena for $25 million – about $35 million in today’s dollars – and got good value for their money. But there are big limitations, such as the number of private suites.

The design also puts the concourse at the top of the rink, which means you can’t really get the arena dark for concerts.

“But the Sault had a certain amount of money, so they built themselves a nice rink ... They got good value for the $25 million, but they only got a hockey rink that’s compromised as a multi-use facility.”

Thunder Bay includes a number of amenities the Sault lacks – the conference centre, for example, and a parking garage. Plus they’ll have to blast through four to six feet of bedrock, which added at least $6 million to the cost. Another $4.5 million is being spent on relocating hydro.

“And then there’s the 50,000-square-foot conference centre, which is not an inexpensive piece,” Boychuk said. “And there’s the Thunder Bay factor. Building in the Sault is more expensive than say, in Toronto, but not nearly as expensive as building in Thunder Bay ... And I wanted to make sure my numbers were conservative, so they could come down, rather than go up.”

Darren MacDonald

About the Author: Darren MacDonald

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