More questions over FirstOntario Center renovation timeline

Just in case there weren’t enough unknowns about the construction timetable for the promised renovations to FirstOntario Centre, a new puzzle has emerged.

The company that produces Disney On Ice says the popular skating show will make its annual visit to the arena next year.

“Our dates for the 2024 Disney On Ice in Hamilton at FirstOntario Center have been confirmed but have not been announced at this time,” Feld Entertainment said in an email to The Spectator.

That would surely be happy news for families who look forward to the show’s annual visit that traditionally lands on March break.

But hold on a second. The local group behind the $100-million-plus construction project says there are no shows of any kind planned in the new year because long-awaited renovations will be starting.

“ … (I) can simply share that there are no plans of booking into 2024, which we confirmed with OVG executives last week,” said Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG) president PJ Mercanti in an email. “Our focus at present is on finalizing plans with the City and OVG regarding renovations.”

HUPEG is the consortium tasked with renovating the 38-year-old rink. OVG is Oak View Group, an international firm that designs and builds arenas (among other things) that has partnered with it.

“I can confirm that there are no events booked at FirstOntario Center beyond December 2023 due to the upcoming renovations,” said Jill Kurtz of OVG360 — OVG’s venue management arm — in an email of her own.

Obviously both things can’t be correct.

Questions surround the timing of proposed renovations for First Ontario Centre.
Questions surround the timing of proposed renovations for First Ontario Centre.The Hamilton Spectator file photo

If Disney isn’t coming, someone might want to tell them.

But if it is, a visit by Mickey and Donald would mean the project that was initially set to begin in 2021 but most recently got pushed back again until after the Gray Cup events and a recently announced Cirque du Soleil skating show in December would be delayed even more.

Feld declined to release the dates or even the month for the show it says is happening. But a show in its traditional March slot would have been far enough into the new year that the Bulldogs could’ve played their entire schedule in Hamilton for one more season before heading to Brantford.

Plus, with the project slated to take 20 months, that would push completion almost into 2026. Assuming everything went smoothly.

Regardless of what’s going on, this bit of confusion — combined with the numerous changes in expected starting times for construction and the questions councilors say they’re being asked by their constituents — has surely reached the point that they should be asking HUPEG to drop by for an official update.

A public update, not one done in camera.

Unless, that is, councillors already feel like they know what’s going on. Do they?

“No,” Coun. John-Paul Danko said a couple weeks ago.

“I don’t think anybody does,” Coun. Esther Pauls added.

“To be honest, the only thing I know about the project is what I read in the paper from last term,” offers Coun. Jeff Beattie.

They all say there has been no official update in months, certainly since the new council was sworn in.

There is a meeting slated in the next few weeks to discuss the master agreement between the city and HUPEG and whether parts of it can be publicly released. Right now, most of its contents are known only to the principals due to a decades-long confidentiality provision that was put in place to protect the city’s competitive advantage in future projects.

However, some — including Coun. Cameron Kroetsch, in whose Ward 2 the arena is located — has expressed concerns about a lack of transparency.

While a peek at that document would be fascinating, that meeting wouldn’t necessarily include any clarity on where things stand with construction or timelines. So is an in-person briefing warranted?

“Given that there’s a new council with 10 new people, it’s most certainly overdue,” says Coun. Brad Clark.

Major Andrea Horwath says she’s been asking questions of city staff about what’s going on and expects some news to arrive soon. Still, because the arena is such a centerpiece of the community and such an important piece of the downtown, she believes there will be value in an update.

“Always,” she says. “Not just for councillors but for the community at large.”

Agree.

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