MY SHOT: A rendering depicts a fully renovated FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, formerly Copps Coliseum. The arena opened in 1985. (Courtesy OVG)

Oak View Group has officially broken ground on its $280 million renovation of FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, with reopening planned for fall of 2025.

“I think everyone is beginning to figure out we’re really going to do this, because there’s been 20 years worth of different ideas and plans on how to fix the old Copps Coliseum, and the reality is many have tried and have not been able to get to the finish line,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group. Discussions with the city and other partners began about three years ago.

The extensive renovation will modernize the facility, which opened in 1985, with premium seating, clubs, lounges and suites, enhanced acoustics, new touchless and self-serve technologies for concessions purchases and upgraded concourses and concession areas.

Designed by Brisbin Brook Beynon Architects, the arena is part of a larger downtown revitalization project known as The Commons, which includes renovated convention center, significant investments in the Art Gallery of Hamilton and concert hall facilities, as well as new residential, office, and retail space development. The Commons project is managed by the Hamilton Urban Precinct Entertainment Group (HUPEG). Canadian construction services company EllisDon is overseeing the renovation project.

“There’s only a couple of companies on the face of the Earth that do what we do, which is build finance and operate arenas,” Leiweke said ahead of a press conference celebrating the groundbreaking in Hamilton, and just one day after the opening of Co-op Live in Manchester, UK, with local favorites Elbow. The venue’s original opening was delayed by three weeks after construction was not complete in time.

GROUNDBREAKING: L-R: OVG’s Tom Pistore, HUPEG’s PJ Mercanti, OVG’s Tim Leiweke, Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath, Live Nation’s Riley O’Connor, OVG’s Peter Luukko

“I have a whole team that is moving from this beautiful Co-op Live building to now the Hamilton building, and that helps immensely. Secondly, I have three dozen people that work in Toronto: our sales organization, sponsorship, naming rights and premium. We’re boots on the ground already and have some really good veteran leadership here.” Oak View Group is parent company to VenuesNow.

Additional upgrades include specially designed artist lounges, upgraded production facilities, electrical and lighting upgrades and upgraded telecommunications infrastructure, wireless network and video network and security systems. There will be completely new mid-level and event level suites, with deposits for annual memberships accepted starting May 30.

“The bones of the building, the steel and concrete are good, and that’s the only thing we don’t have to fix,’ Leiweke said. “Everything else is going to get fixed, including the customer experience, the concession stands, the entry points, the bowl itself. Also we will announce soon a world-class restaurant going in the building with a pretty famous chef who’s going to put that building on the map.”

The venue will be music-first content wise, with Live Nation as booking partner and the experience focused mostly on concerts. The model is somewhat similar to two other OVG developments: CFG Bank Arena in Baltimore, a $200 million renovation of the Royal Farms Arena that reopened in April 2023, and the new Co-op Live in Manchester, designed specifically for music.

“The biggest conversation last night and tonight with Co-op Live is how phenomenal the acoustics of the building are,” Leiweke said. “The band Elbow just loved it and said it was the best arena acoustics they’ve ever played. Tonight we have The Black Keys. They were also commenting about how brilliant the acoustics are. We will be very focused on making sure that the music experience is phenomenal (in Hamilton).” Sports will be a factor in Hamilton, however, including potentially an AHL home team.

The venue will remain open during phase one of renovations, later closing until completion. Leiweke says there is more opportunity for venue development worldwide than the company can currently meet, but to expect more.

“We have to pick and choose internationally as well as in the U.S. where our priorities are going to be, whether renovation or a new build,” Leiweke said. “We can’t do them all. I would guess you’re going to see two projects a year introduced by our company going forward.”