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BlackBerry boss Balsillie reveals plans for Copps Coliseum renovations

Jim Balsillie. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

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Jim Balsillie. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

HAMILTON, Ont. - Jim Balsillie has unveiled his vision for a revamped Copps Coliseum, the Hamilton arena he hopes will become the new home of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.

Balsillie's plan for the 24-year-old arena, which would seat up to 18,000, includes an atrium-style entrance lobby, luxury boxes, lounges and restaurants, new seats and a state-of-the art video scoreboard.

But it's unclear who exactly will pay for the $150-million renovation to the aging arena, which had its groundbreaking in 1983 and was opened in November 1985.

A Balsillie spokesman said the BlackBerry boss would cover the cost of "short-term" renovations but noted the rink is owned by the City of Hamilton, which could request infrastructure funds from the federal and provincial governments.

"A new team for the best new hockey market deserves spectacular new home ice, and that's exactly what the upgraded Copps Coliseum would offer," Balsillie said in a release Friday. "This facility will deliver unparalleled excitement and bring fans closer than ever to the action."

The co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion has made a US$212.5-million bid for the financially ailing Coyotes on the condition he can move the club to Hamilton.

The NHL is against the move and instead wants to find a buyer who will keep the team in Glendale, Ariz.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty left the door open to using public funds for the project but said he would have to wait and see if "we get a sensible proposal."

"It'd be premature at this point to talk about funding for Copps Coliseum," McGuinty's spokesperson Karman Wong said Friday. "However, the premier continues to be supportive of bringing a hockey team to southern Ontario.

"We'll take a careful look at infrastructure proposals that come to us from the city, keeping in mind that through the Pan Am bid, the government is already committed to making investments in Hamilton to support sports infrastructure."

The province already plans to spend infrastructure dollars in Hamilton to help support Ontario's bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games - funds McGuinty has suggested could be used to fix up Copps Coliseum.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger thinks it'd be fair for the provincial and federal governments to contribute to the project since they'd likely get a good return on their investment through tax dollars.

"The business case, I think, really demonstrates significant dollars returned to both federal and provincial governments and the payback is rather quick," he said.

"Over a period of 20 years say the governments are both well ahead in terms of the revenues that would come to them."

But Eisenberger said he's not comfortable asking his city's taxpayers to pay for part of the project if the other levels of government don't come through.

"If there's a shortfall on that we would expect that Mr. Balsillie will pick up the difference."

On May 13, Hamilton city council unanimously approved a deal giving Balsillie until October to bring a team to Copps.

In exchange, Balsillie has promised to sign a long-term lease up to 32 years if he secures the Coyotes.

The Balsillie release said cost of the renovations "could vary significantly based on timelines, approvals and access to the facility for construction purposes."

There's no question Copps Coliseum would need a facelift to meet NHL standards.

It was originally built for about $35 million and currently seats as many as 19,000, but is lacking in many amenities found in modern-day NHL rinks, such as luxury suites.

"We are confident that a fully renovated Copps Coliseum will comply with the design requirements set out in the NHL's facility standards," the statement from Balsillie's camp said.

The Balsillie plan also calls for new locker-rooms, rink surface, ice plant and climate control systems.

The design is by sports facility architectural firms BBB Architects and its subsidiary, Stadium Consultants International, which is also currently working on renovations at Madison Square Garden and Nassau County Coliseum, home of the New York Islanders.

The Coyotes currently play at the Jobing.com Arena, a modern facility that opened in 2003 in suburban Glendale.

A hearing to determine if the team can be relocated is set for June 9 in Phoenix. The relocation hearing had been scheduled for June 22, but Balsillie has said he will withdraw his offer if the sale is not completed by the end of June so judge Redfield Baum moved up the date of the hearing.

The judge has set two tentative dates for the auction of the team, depending on how he rules on the relocation issue - June 22 if Balsillie gets his way and Sept. 10 if the NHL prevails.

Friday's news is just the latest in a string of announcements from Balsillie as part of his aggressive campaign to bring a second team to southern Ontario.

When he announced his bid for the Coyotes in early May he also launched www.makeitseven.ca, a website where fans can show their support for bringing a seventh NHL team to Canada. He has since expanded the website and unveiled two corporate partners - Labatt Breweries and Home Hardware - to help in his bid.

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