TORONTO — As Toronto FC suffers through an extended road trip, construction workers are fighting time and Mother Nature to complete the first phase of a $120-million-plus renovation to BMO Field.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment officials says they will meet the deadline of May 10, Toronto FC’s home opener, with everything but a few elevators complete.
But time is so tight that organizers of a stadium tour Friday elected to avoid the under-construction east stand so as not to interrupt work even for a few minutes.
Some 350 workers were on site Friday, some battling high winds as seats were installed high in the new tier to the east stand.
“It may not look like it now but it will be done, I guarantee it,” said Bob Hunter, chief project development officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
The renovations were pegged as $105 million when the project started last September. Cost overruns have inflated that to more than $120 million with MLSE footing almost all of the bill.
MLSE boss Tim Leiweke says the renovations will be worth it, turning BMO Field into “the most intimidating stadium in Major League Soccer.’
Toronto FC (1-3-0) is feeling short-term pain for that long-term gain, with three more league road games to go before finally playing at home.
The facelift was sorely needed. The bare-bones, city-owned stadium was built on a $62.5-million shoestring as part of the deal to bring the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup and Major League Soccer to Canada.
“The principal purpose of the expansion was to bring this stadium up to the highest levels of MLS standards,” said Mayor John Tory. “It had slipped down.”
The city and MLSE also hope a bigger, better stadium will lead to more sporting events such as hockey’s Winter Classic.
The first phase will expand stadium capacity to 30,000 with the addition of 8,400 seats in the east grandstand. Additional washrooms and concessions will also be added.
The video board in the north stand will be replaced by a larger HD display. And the east and west stands will be linked by a concourse above the south stand.
The renovations will also increase the number of premium options for fans willing to dig deeper into their pocket.
The Rogers Club in the west stand will be upgraded and expanded to house 750 people, up from the existing 500. They will be able to enjoy food and a cocktail while watching the players walk out to the field through an adjacent glassed-off tunnel.
There will be two new private clubs able to accommodate 230 people on the west side and 420 on the east. And there will be 16 new suites, including two large “party suites.”
The second phase will start in October, with a horseshoe-shaped canopy installed over the east, west and south stands. A new sound and lighting system will also be installed.
BMO Field will have a different look if a deal is struck to house the Toronto Argonauts. In order to accommodate the longer CFL field, the 2,000 seats in the north stand will have to be removed while the first seven or eight rows in the south stand will have to be made retractable.
It will make for a three-sided stadium, rather than one with fans ringing the field.
The May 2016 completion date for the renovations will include a new part-hybrid field, that has artificial fibres woven in to reinforce real grass roots. It’s the same system used by NFL teams in Philadelphia, Denver and Green Bay as well as London’s Wembley Stadium.
In an era where MLS has made soccer-specific stadiums a key part of its strategy, some fans worry that Toronto is going the other way.
Leiweke, while noting the stadium belonged to the city and not MLSE, tried to calm those waters.
“We wouldn’t do anything to hurt TFC,” he said. “We wouldn’t do anything to damage the grass.”
The renovations means Toronto FC will also have to start the season away from home next year, although Leiweke hopes the 2016 schedule won’t be quite as gruelling.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
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