In February 1978, China invaded Vietnam, the Bee Gees topped the charts with “Stayin’ Alive,” and the brand-new Halifax Metro Centre showed off its bright orange seats for the very first time.
The world changed in the 37 years since, but not those ancient orange seats, which heroically supported 15 million bums at 5,000 events. When Scotiabank negotiated naming rights to the venerable Metro Centre in 2014, fixing those seats sat at the top of the short to-do list.
“There’s an incredible amount of noise and creaks and groans,” says Scott Ferguson, CEO of Trade Centre Limited, the Crown corporation that runs the centre. “We’re offering a very high level of entertainment product, and you’ve got to make sure you match that with value.”
The rebranding as Scotiabank Centre came with $6.5 million over 10 years from the bank. Some $5 million went right into the building, with workers doubling the size of the washrooms, installing comfy new blue chairs, and overhauling the food area.
Ferguson praises the TCL team that completed all the work in the six weeks between the Tattoo’s last show and the Country Music Awards. But given that TCL also oversees Exhibition Park, rural residents may well wonder why officials were prepared to let that crucial events space close, even as they poured millions into downtown Halifax’s arena. We’ll answer that shortly, but first: prepare for the newborn culinary delights of hockey rink food in 2015.
For the last four decades, hunger during a centre event resulted in patrons eating pizza, hot dogs, or popcorn. Perhaps a chocolate bar if you could get the vending machine to work. Today, you can still get those classics, but the Scotiabank Centre now has a full-time chef overseeing a menu of lobster rolls, Asian food, pulled pork, donairs, poutine, and more.
Oddly, all this local food comes from Centerplate Catering. As the “center” spelling tells you, it’s an American (Connecticut-based) company. But general manager James Demjan raves about the partnership with local sources like Berwick-based Meadowbrook Meat Market, which supplies the meat.
“Not your typical concession fare,” says Demjan. “There’s nothing better than showcasing your own. The idea behind it is to get people into the rink sooner. There’s a reason for them to come here earlier. They can come, they can park, and they can grab something to eat and not just feel like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to eat another hot dog at the rink.’”
Demjan issues something of a challenge to season-ticket holders for the Halifax Mooseheads or the new National Basketball League team. “If you really wanted to, you could probably go a whole season and eat the same thing less than four times,” he says. Kevin Lacey, the Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says while he’s had issues with TCL in the past, he approves of this approach to upgrading the Scotiabank Centre.
“We like these types of deals that allow for corporate sponsorship and reduces costs to the taxpayers, allowing money to go into important areas of the city like recreation, roads and snow removal,” he says.
He thinks we’ll see more of these sorts of deals. “Nova Scotians pay some of the highest taxes in all of Canada,” he says. “If these companies help us build important infrastructure like rinks and recreation centres without further burdening working people, then why not?”
Ferguson, meanwhile, sticks up for the overall health of the building. “We need to keep the building modern and we need to keep revenue streams up. It was a very old and tired building at 37 years,” he says. “I would challenge you to find a facility in the world that’s got 37 years out of the investment on those seats.”
But with the spruce up, and plans to renovate the exterior brickwork and podiums, fix the roof and upgrade the air-handling system and ice plant, the old arena has reclaimed the liveliness of a 15 year old, Ferguson says.
So why is it lavished with renovations when Exhibition Park’s fate hung in the balance for months?
Ferguson explains: TCL manages Scotiabank Centre for Halifax; it manages Exhibition Park for the province. The city puts money into the centre, and the province opted not to put money into Exhibition Park. Plus, the Scotiabank money was tied directly to the Scotiabank Centre.
Ferguson insists there is a strong business case for investing in the centre. It lost the Halifax Rainmen when the team folded, but Halifax’s new pro basketball team is likely to play there. The Halifax Mooseheads remain rock solid anchor tenants along with the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, plus an array of concerts and special events.
“We’ve got a very strong event mix in the building now and I just see it getting stronger,” he says.
In 2014, the centre welcomed the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Tennis Canada (for the Davis Cup) for the first times. Ferguson expects to see both organizations return at least every second year, or possibly even yearly.
He says the work extends the life of the building “as long as the city requires a building of this size.”
He thinks Halifax will outgrow the centre before it out-uses it. “It was exceptionally well constructed and perfectly located. If we had to operate it for another 25 or 30 years, we could certainly do that,” he says.
He imagines a different Halifax in 15 years time, made populous and prosperous by shipbuilding and oil-and-gas money. The citizens of Halifax in 2028 might decide to celebrate the old Metro Centre’s 50th birthday by knocking it down, plush blue seats and all, to treat themselves to a brand-new arena.
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