THE AMBITIOUS CITY: A rendering depicts a fully renovated FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, formerly Copps Coliseum. The arena opened in 1985. (Courtesy OVG)
Facade work, premium seating, improved acoustics and artist lounges in the works
Oak View Group has signed a deal to develop a $280 million renovation of FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, that will see the 18,000-capacity arena that opened in 1985 revamped into a modern entertainment venue.
Led by OVG and Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group, the extensive upgrades will see the city-owned facility’s facade redone while adding premium seating, improved acoustics and artist lounges, according to the announcement, with a focus on heightened technology and sustainable operations.
“We’re very much a fan of Ontario, the province and the growth here,” Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke said ahead of a press conference announcing the project. ”If you look at where this Toronto metropolitan area’s growing, it’s growing south. We love what’s going on here with the rejuvenation of the downtown core.”
OVG is parent company to VenuesNow.
In 2021, the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group signed master agreements with the city of Hamilton to renovate the FirstOntario Centre, FirstOntario Concert Hall and Hamilton Convention Centre, with an initial $50 million private investment.
The urban group has a previous relationship with OVG Facilities co-chair Peter Luukko and officials saw additional opportunity for the project with OVG as a partner.
“We live by an adage that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,” said PJ Mercanti, president and CEO of HUPEG and a life-long Hamilton resident. “We knew that Oak View Group was the perfect partner to align with.”
Mercanti is also CEO of Carmens Group, a hospitality, entertainment and development company that operates the Hamilton Convention Centre. That venue will see a separate $10 million renovation on a separate timeline, without OVG’s involvement.
The FirstOntario Centre, which opened in 1985, is a prime candidate for modernization for its age alone, but has a built-in feature that helps.
“One of the hidden gems of this venue is there is an undeveloped concourse, so there’s approximately 40,000 square feet of (vacant) space that was initially part of the building footprint,” Mercanti said. “There’s wonderful square footage that will be activated as part of this overall investment that we believe will completely transform the venue.”
Toronto-based Brisbin Brook Beynon is the designer on the project. The architect is also part of a downtown redevelopment known as The Commons, including the convention center, Art Gallery of Hamilton, and other residential, retail and office space.
Leiweke says Oak View Group’s recent CFG Bank Arena project in Baltimore, a renovation of the old Royal Farms Arena, provided good experience for the Hamilton project.
“We’ve learned an awful lot on the $250 million we spent on CFG Arena in Baltimore, which is similar to this. We’re spending more here but we’re putting more resources behind it,” Leiweke said, emphasizing the Hamilton project is fully privately funded.
With only one other construction project under way currently, Co-Op Live in Manchester, UK, set to open in April, Leiweke says OVG is able to devote its attention to Hamilton.
“This is a dream team on renovation,” he said, noting that BBB was design architect for major renovations of Madison Square Garden in New York and Kia Forum in Los Angeles. “It’s the single best group of people that do renovations of arenas like this. We have all of their time and energy now focused on this. It came at a good time for us and it’s fantastic that we have the resources now that we could put on this to make sure we do it right.”
The first phase of construction begins in early 2024, which will see the venue remain open and allow the Toronto Rock lacrosse team to play out its season while undeveloped spaces begin construction. After that, the arena will shut down for remaining renovations, with plans to re-open in fall of 2025.
Music is considered the core tenant for the new FirstOntario Centre, with Live Nation announced as booking partner, although special events including hockey and basketball tournaments are already part of the arena’s programming.
“We’re bullish on music and the fact that they need another arena in this marketplace due to Scotiabank Arena being heavily scheduled, especially during the Raptors and Maple Leafs seasons,” Leiweke said of the big-league arena in Toronto.
“But this is also going to be a sports facility. They have a tremendous history here with hockey at the old Copps,” he said, referring to the arena’s previous name, Copps Coliseum. “So I think there will be a junior team or an AHL team that will be located here.”
A new naming rights partner is expected to be announced later, an OVG representative said.
As a born-and-raised Hamiltonion, Mercanti says the project means a lot to him personally and will showcase Hamilton locally and make an impact on the wider industry.
“I’m immensely proud of this project, proud of southern Ontario and proud that this venue will allow the world to come to Hamilton and that we can showcase Hamilton to the world at the same time,” Mercanti said, noting that local touches will be part of the facility, including design features that celebrate Hamilton’s hockey and music history. “With the expertise and experience that Oak View Group brings to the table, it’s a perfect combination of made at home with an international powerhouse as well.”
Leiweke says the company continues to put its money where its mouth is when it believes strongly in a market or project, even during COVID, and that he’s confident Hamilton will be a success.
“Look, this is what we do,” Leiweke said, emphasizing the financial commitment. “We did this in Baltimore, we did this in Seattle. We’re doing this in Manchester, which is a marketplace that reminds me an awful lot of Hamilton, a good hardworking, blue-collar kind of town.
“It reminds us of some of the bets we’ve made on some of our other eight projects. We’re very bullish on this. Sometimes you’ve got to look around the corner. We’ve looked around the corner and what I see here in Hamilton is a really good bet on the next 10 years and what’s going to happen to the urban core here.”