THIS BUD’S FOR YOU: Budweiser Gardens will undergo $24 million in renovations, with Brian Ohl serving as project manager in London, Ontario. (Courtesy venue)

Ohl’s ninth arena development project

Budweiser Gardens general manager Brian Ohl has announced his retirement after 34 years in the industry, but he’s not walking out the door just yet.

His official retirement date is July 1 on paper, but Ohl plans to fill a new role as Oak View Group’s project manager for the $24 million renovation of Bud Gardens, a 22-year-old arena in London, Ontario, a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto.

Project manager is another term for owner’s representative, whose job is to make sure construction stays on time and on budget.

OVG, which owns VenuesNow, operates the arena, which originally opened as John Labatt Centre in 2002 and managed by Global Spectrum/Spectra before OVG acquired the firm in 2021.

“I’m still with the company and doing a few projects as I ease into retirement,” Ohl said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and working events. It’s going to free up nights and weekends a lot more, which  my wife is thrilled about.”

Ohl has experience running five arenas. Overall, he’s worked on eight arena developments,  including Whittemore Center (Durham, New Hampshire); Tsongas Center (Lowell, Mass.); Broadmoor World Arena (Colorado Springs); and Watsco Center (Coral Gables, Florida).

His tenure in London and deep knowledge for planning arenas made him the ideal candidate to supervise the two-year construction process, which starts in May.

Kelly Austin, Bud Gardens’ assistant general manager and director of marketing since 2015, will take over as GM of the 10,200-seat facility.

Under the financing package, the city of Ontario is responsible for 80% of funding, with OVG and general contractor EllisDon, paying for the remaining 20% with private money, according to Ohl.

Ohl has been at Bud Gardens for 23 years, starting with pre-construction, before he was named GM of the 10,200-seat facility. It’s the home of two minor league hockey tenants, the London Knights and London Lightning.

Brian Ohl

For Ohl, venue management was a second career after he spent seven years as a financial commodities broker in Chicago, following his graduation from the University of Iowa, where he earned an accounting degree.

Ohl went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts and got a master’s in sports management before taking an arena operations job at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1990, where Roger Dixon was GM.

Over time, Ohl was promoted to regional vice president for Global Spectrum, overseeing more than a dozen buildings. He worked crowd management for the 2008 Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona at what is now called State Farm Stadium. In addition, he’s worked multiple NCAA events in basketball and hockey during his tenure in Worcester, Mass., at the arena now called DCU Center.

At Bud Gardens, Ohl was responsible for bringing some of Canada’s most high-profile events to the arena, including two Memorial Cups, the championship of North American junior league hockey; the World Figure Skating Championships in 2013; and the 2019 Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys.

On the concert side, memorable shows extend from Prince, David Bowie, Bon Jovi and The Who, to Canadian natives, country artist Tommy Hunter, and the Tragically Hip, which played their final show at the arena in 2016.

As construction nears, the renovations cover converting concession stands to market-style grab and gos; new concourse bars; refurbishing suites; and expanding back-of-house by 9,000 square feet.

“We’ve found that tours bring more gear every year and the building needs to keep up with the times and shows that we have,” Ohl said. “We need more artist space.”

Ohl gave credit to longtime arena executives Peter Luukko, now with OVG, and Mich Sauers, now retired, for teaching him the business.

“There were a lot of smart people I got to learn from, which was great for me,” Ohl said.