Budweiser Gardens upgrades get green light from city council following debate

A look from above at the ice at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont. Mike Stubbs / 980 CFPL

City council has approved the expansion and renovation of Budweiser Gardens, agreeing to pay more than $26.7 million for arena upgrades.

Councillors voted on Tuesday to approve the report from professional services firm KPMG, which outlined some specifics of the $33.3-million project’s return on investment (ROI) through detailed analysis.

Following councils decision, London taxpayers will pay roughly 80 per cent of the enhancements, but as Mayor Josh Morgan explained, the deal will mean that the city receives enough funds to pay both the debt and principal.

“We would get additional revenues from…the new agreement, as well as the activity generated Budweiser Gardens, which has done very well since post COVID,” he told council.

The KPMG report estimates that city hall will receive $53 million of incremental cash flow over the next 30 years following the completion of the two-phase renovation.

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However, staff predict that the city could exceed the ROI projected in the initial report.

According to the proposal, the project will be divided into two construction phases, the first estimated at around $15.1 million for “customer facing upgrades,” including improvements to the lounge, multi-purpose event space, the London Knights dressing room, and food and concession areas, among others.

The second phase will focus on “back of house” renovations costing $18.2 million and is set to go towards expanding event space, renovating offices, kitchens and bars as well as upgrading audio-video services in the arena.

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Staff estimated that the city’s ROI would be around 15.3 per cent for Phase 1 and 4.9 per cent for Phase 2.

“In fact, it’ll be mainly the activities of Budweiser Gardens, and the municipal accommodation taxes flowing into the city that will help pay for Phase 1 in its entirety,” Morgan continued.

“To me, that’s a creative way to have a win-win on an expansion of what is probably one of our largest tourism driving convention centres that we have in our city and allow it to kind of pay for itself to a certain degree,” he said. “Through the activities of the facility as well as the tourism, nights, and overnight stays that it drives, it actually contributes to the municipal accommodation tax, which seems like a highly appropriate way to fund such an expansion.”

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In echoing similar sentiments with regards to the financing plan, deputy mayor Shawn Lewis expressed his support towards the expansion.

“Making this investment is not just about Budweiser Gardens itself, but it is about our ability to be successful bidders on bigger and better events than we have brought to the city, so far,” he said. “The consequence of us not doing this is that we become less competitive.”

The proposal was presented to the Corporate Services Committee (CSC) earlier this month, gaining majority approval from some city politicians.

However, Ward 6 Coun. Sam Trosow reiterated some of his concerns surrounding transparency in the deal, saying city politicians have still not seen the KPMG report due to “proprietary information.”

“At no point during this discussion have I ever suggested we shouldn’t go ahead with these improvements. [But] I wanted more transparency, and I don’t think I’ve gotten transparency,” he said. “I raised the list of 30 questions, [and] I don’t think they were answered.”

Trosow continued to raise questions to staff surrounding the food services contract being extended until 2051, also calling for a review of the 80-20 per cent cost-sharing partnership between the city and OVG360, the venue operator for the arena.

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“It’s really important to understand that London taxpayers have questions not about whether this is a good facility, or whether it has value. The question that’s been on the floor during this whole discussion is what information are we getting?” he said.

But Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen stressed that “when it comes to Budweiser Gardens, we have to remind ourselves what London was like prior to its existence.”

“It’s clear that the impact that it’s had on our community is immense… that’s helped put our city on the map,” he said. “You can’t overestimate the impact that it’s had for our city. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving, so let’s help it do that. We have to reinvest.”

Council voted 13-1 to approve the proposal.

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