City leaps into unknown

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

During more than four hours of passionate debate, Kevan Pipe's body language was the only gauge anyone needed to judge the tone of the argument.

Pipe, the CEO of the Canadian Soccer Association, and arguably the individual with the most to lose if city council voted down a stadium deal that melds three levels of government with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., was living and dying on every word.

"It's been three years, one month and 28 days coming together, but who's counting," a much-relieved Pipe said just moments after city council voted 25-13 to kick in $9.8 in cash and land worth $10 million to build a 20,000-seat stadium that will be the centrepiece of the FIFA World Under-20 championship in 2007.

"The face of our sport in Canada has just changed in the last 15 minutes," said Pipe. "The Mayor was right when he said this is about vision-building. We're bringing the world to Toronto. A billion people will be watching on TV and thousands more will come to the city.

"And that's just the start. We've been offered the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup and we're going after the 2011 Women's World Cup."

There were times, though, through the lengthy debate that Pipe looked as if he might be in need of a tall building to jump off when the results were in.

While the project had the unflagging support of Mayor David Miller and his deputy Joe Pantalone, who had fast-tracked the project over the last two weeks, many councillors were bitterly opposed on a variety of levels.

Some objected to the public sector jumping into bed with MLSEL, very much a free-enterprise operation. For others, this hasty process comes to soon after the findings of the Bellamy report in the wake of the city hall computer scandal.

"This is so wrong," Scarboro-Agincourt councillor Mike DelGrande said. "It's so bad, that as a forensics auditor, I would have to question this deal. There's nothing in writing on anything.

"How come this project didn't go through a regular process? Is this open and transparent? How can you make it open and transparent by not allowing anyone else in to bid?"

Beyond that others, like Etobicoke's Rob Ford wondered how Toronto could even consider this project, given its fragile financial situation.

"This is a sucker stadium, not a soccer stadium," Ford said. "We are going to lose our shirts."

In addition to the city's $19.8 million commitment of money and land, the federal government has committed $27 million, and the Ontario government $8 million. MLSEL is in for $8 million and will market the naming rights for an anticipated $10 million.

Even though MLSEL, which will build and manage the stadium, has accepted responsibility for any construction over-runs and has agreed to share any profits and will swallow the first $250,000 of any operating losses, many in the room maintained a healthy dose of skepticism.

"This is a bad process that produced a bad deal for the city and its taxpayers," councillor Sylvia Watson said.

Many councillors favoured deferring the issue for more study but that effectively would have killed the deal. Major League Soccer conveniently had imposed a deadline for the end of the month on MLSEL's tentative agreement to get an expansion franchise. And FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, has been breathing down Pipe's neck for months now, worried that facilities were not going to be up to snuff for the world under-20 championship.

In the gallery, Pipe was confident at the start of the debate that the project already had enough committed votes. But as the day progressed, he sensed more opposition than he had expected.

"I've not experienced this before, so I didn't know what to think," he said. "You just never know how it's going to turn out."

And that's what haunted many of the councillors last evening. They don't know how it's going to turn out. Perhaps Howard Moscoe said it best.

"I'm leery about public-private projects which inevitably become public-pirate projects," he said.


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