How York caught the stadium ball and ran with it

On the morning of Sept. 29, the first-year owners of the Toronto Argonauts were summoned to the University of Toronto for a meeting that would forever change the future of the football club, begins a double-page, blow-by-blow account by Toronto Sun sports reporter Perry Lefko Nov. 4 of how York picked up the stadium ball that U of T dropped. Here it is in part:

Because Argonauts owners Harold Sokolowski and David Cynamon had vowed to build a stadium, they had to devise a quick change in strategy and go to the hurry-up offence. While the University of Toronto issued a press release explaining its decision to back away from the project because of escalating costs – an idea Cynamon denied quite emotionally in a radio interview – the plan to shift to an alternative stadium site already had begun. Sokolowski phoned York University Board of Governors Chair Marshall (Mickey) Cohen. The two had known one another from a previous deal Sokolowski’s company, Tribute Communities, entered into with the university to build 400 homes on the perimeter of the school’s property. In the summer of 2003, when Sokolowski’s name started to surface as a potential buyer of the Argos, Cohen called him wondering if it was true. When Sokolowski confirmed it, Cohen told him the team needed its own stadium and that York had plans to build one for its own needs, so it could be a perfect fit for both parties.

Sokolowski agreed, but the stadium project shifted back to U of T when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. suddenly jumped into the mix in December of 2003 with intentions to partner with the school on a multiple sports complex/shopping centre in the Bloor/Devonshire corridor. The Argos had no choice but to watch those developments because they potentially would be included at some point, possibly with MLSEL buying a percentage of the team.

Some three months later, MLSEL withdrew from the project because of the low return on investment and the Argos, along with the Canadian Soccer Association, joined together in resurrecting the project at the U of T.

Now, following various twists and turns at the U of T, Sokolowski wanted to know if York still had an interest in building a stadium.

“So, you want your old room back?” Cohen jokingly asked Sokolowski.

* * *

Enter Joe Volpe, the federal minister responsible for Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. For the $27 million federal government funding to continue to be part of the project, it required a partnership with a public institution. Exhibition Place, which had long been mentioned as a possible site by both the Argos and the CSA, was owned by the province and municipally operated by the City of Toronto. The city could supply land on the site but couldn’t provide any funding. Volpe said Toronto Mayor David Miller had called him earlier in the year indicating his preference for Varsity over the Ex. In fact, according to Volpe, Miller said the Ex “was just completely out of the picture.”

So Volpe focused his attention on York after the failed Varsity project and contacted the school’s President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden. York had a group of executives already talking internally about the stadium project, but wasn’t prepared to move forward without government support.

Coincidentally, Marsden happened to be in Ottawa when Volpe contacted her and the two continued their discussion. Marsden indicated York’s desire to make the project happen.

Volpe also spoke to the mayor of Vaughan, North York councillors, federal cabinet ministers, GTA caucus colleagues and the CSA to gauge whether they were interested in maintaining the project. He received a positive endorsement from everyone.

* * *

On Oct. 3, Sokolowski, Cynamon and their business manager huddled at York with its vice-president of finance and administration, Gary Brewer, and a representative of Capital Canada, a consultant/financial house engaged by the university to help out with negotiations and provide advice.

The meeting took a few hours during which the financial splits of the deal were discussed along with a concept – provided by the Argos – of how the stadium would be built and operated so that it would physically and culturally reflect the university’s needs and realities.

Following phone and e-mail exchanges, the parties met three days later in the offices of Capital Canada and banged out the broader terms of the deal.

* * *

On Oct. 11 – Thanksgiving Day – York officials and the Argos put together the final particulars of the deal so it could be presented to York’s 32-member board of directors. The deal consisted of the federal and provincial governments contributing $35 million, the university adding $15 million and the Argos covering the balance of the projected $70-million stadium.

A conference call was set up for Oct. 13 at 8 a.m. Some 20 board members were rounded up on the short notice and Brewer took them through the terms of the deal. The call lasted about an hour.

“The board asked all the right due-diligence questions and were absolutely unanimous in their enthusiasm – students, staff, faculty, external governors,” Marsden said. “They gave me permission to go ahead and make the deal on those terms.”

Marsden called Volpe and indicated unanimous support for the project from the university’s governors. Miller also was briefed.

On Oct. 15, York officials issued a press release indicating an important announcement at the school on Oct. 18. By this time, the word was out that the deal was done.

  • It is one thing to announce plans to build a stadium. It is quite another to go through the process to make it happen — and in only six or so months, wrote the Sun’s Lefko, in a sidebar. Before the shovels can be put in the ground in the spring of 2005 on the proposed $70-million York University football/soccer stadium, permits must be obtained, site plans drawn up, public tenders offered to prospective builders and official funding put in place by the federal ($27 million) and provincial ($8 million) governments. Marsden does not perceive any significant problems. “I think we have really good relations with the city [of Toronto]. At least I hope we do. We intend to,” Marsden said. “I can’t think complexity and I certainly hope there won’t be complexity because we’re in a tight guideline here.” The York University Development Corporation already has begun the “proof of concept process” and that’s expected to be completed in the next 45 to 60 days. “Until we actually go through the [proof of concept] process we won’t have the detailed implementation schedule, but certainly our objective is to get in the ground as quickly as possible and get this thing ready for ’06,” Brewer said.

Brand U

York University in north Toronto is trying to shed its image as an “up there” university, says Richard Fisher, chief communications officer, reported Marketing Magazine Nov. 1. “The 905 region is the fastest-growing region in North America, and [York] is primarily a commuter school. York is really now in the centre of the GTA geographically,” Fisher said.

But geography isn’t the 45-year old school’s biggest challenge. “It’s being a much younger university than our largest competitor [University of Toronto], which happens to be down the road. We have to establish ourselves somewhat in their shadow, and the way you do that is by being different. So it’s kind of a Coke/Pepsi thing. If they’re going to be IBM, we’ll be Apple. And I have no problem being a challenger brand; the challenger brands always have the most fun.”

York’s brand message highlights its interdisciplinary approach, meaning students can study subjects from different angles. In May, York moved in on its competitor’s territory by covering the St. George subway station, which serves U of T, with campaign posters. One ad shows an image of a stubbed-out cigarette with the message: “A chemist see formaldehyde. A child psychologist sees peer pressure. A law student sees class action.” The posters and two TV spots, posted on York’s Web site, were developed by Doug Agency in Toronto.

Creativity found and lost

The Globe and Mail‘s magazine Broadcast Week called Alter Egos, a new documentary by Laurence Green, a film and video professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, a “moving threnody of creativity lost and found,” in its Oct. 30 issue. Depicting the tragic story of Ryan Larkin, a once-heralded Montreal artist and animator who has been panhandling on Boulevard St. Laurent for the last decade, the documentary was selected as one show to watch during the week. It aired Nov. 4 on CBC Newsworld’s “Rough Cuts.”

Pagers for deaf kids afford independence and freedom

Preliminary research shows that two-way pagers help improve both the social skills and the independence of deaf students, reported Canadian Press in a story printed Nov. 4 in the Toronto Sun and Cape Breton Post. Connie Mayer, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education, said her researchwill have implications for education policy in terms of making a case for different technologies to be funded by the government so that deaf students stay on par with their peers.

On air

  • Bernie Wolf, economics and international business professor at York’s Schulich School of Business, discussed how Canadian trade may be affected by the re-election of George W. Bush, on CBC Radio’s “Ontario Today” Nov. 3. Stephen Newman, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, was also on hand during the program’s phone-in focusing on callers’ reaction to the US presidential election.
  • Daniel Drache and James Laxer, political science professors with York’s Atkinson School of Social Sciences, commented on Torontonians’ reactions to George W. Bush being in office for another four years, on Global TV news programs Nov. 3.