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Going, going gone? Not yet
The sun shone brightly as Ron Suffron gazed across the lush, green Queen’s Park Stadium baseball field.
The sounds of balls smacking gloves and pinging off bats echoed off the grandstand in the grand, old ballpark. The press box behind home plate stood sentry as it overlooked all the activity. Flowers atop a rockery lined the right field fence with trees standing tall behind left field providing a picturesque backdrop.
It has the feel of a field right out of a Hollywood movie like A League of Their Own.
“God, I love this place. It’s got such character,” said Suffron with a touch of sadness of the park he calls a city jewel and icon. “How can you even think about knocking it down?”
Suffron is president of New Westminster Baseball Association (NWBA). His organization is upset the city has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Vancouver Whitecaps to turn the facility into soccer only.
The Whitecaps want to base a USL Pro League team there to develop the team’s younger players.
The sadness is lined with a tinge of inevitability. But the MOU is far from being a done deal, despite the perception it is. A myriad of details have to be worked out between the Whitecaps, investors Gary Pooni and Ian Gilllespie, and the city. And they need to be done by Sept. 15.
That’s the deadline for an application to be made to the USL for the team to start play in March 2015.
Even though the city says it will build another full-size diamond elsewhere, Suffron and the baseball community won’t give up easily. Queen’s Park Stadium is where their juniors and midgets play, and they want to keep on doing it.
They were to meet Tuesday night to form a game plan to oppose the proposal. And they are scheduled to meet with the city next Monday (July 28). The first open house on the proposal is July 29 (see sidebar).
“They’re not overly happy about it,” said Suffron. “Visiting teams are not happy about it either.”
He pointed out that the NWBA has put thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours toward a batting cage, a baseball scoreboard and the grass field.
“All of a sudden it gets canned on you which is a little bit upsetting,” said Suffron. “I’m upset with the city because there’s no Plan B. They tell us they’re looking at alternatives for baseball, but how are you going to replace that? For baseball that’s the crown jewel of where the kids want to play.”
He feels realistically it would take at least two years to come up with a new park in New Westminster.
“We’re going to be out of luck for at least a year, unless they find an alternate facility outside of New Westminster,” said Suffron. “It’s shortsighted on their part.”
The scoreboard is of the items New Westminster Minor Baseball Association, whose president is Ron Suffron, helped pay for at Queen's Park Stadium.
Coun. Jonathan Coté, chair of the city’s parks committee, said the baseball community’s views will have to be considered as the process unfolds.
He said they’d have to figure out if that level of baseball field could be built elsewhere in New Westminster, and if so what would it cost. He added any replacement baseball field likely wouldn’t require the seating the stadium has. (It currently has less than 2,000 but USL requires seating for at least 3,500.)
“You wouldn’t need to replicate Queen’s Park Stadium because the stadium is not very well utilized. Having said that you would need to find an adequate field,” said Coté.
While the city is interested in the opportunity the Whitecaps are proposing, Coté emphasized it is not a done deal because council needs to understand all of the implications.
“We’re going to need numbers before anything is put forward,” said Coté. “The devil is going to be in the details in respect to this proposal. Now it’s the city that has to do its due diligence to make sure this is the right proposal to go forward.”
Big plans go public
New Westminster and the Vancouver Whitecaps will present their grand plans for Queen’s Park Stadium to the public next week.
An open house will be held at Centennial Lodge in Queen’s Park on Tuesday, July 29. It will start with storyboards and informal discussion at 7 p.m. Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis will make a presentation at 7:30 p.m., said city assistant parks and recreation director Jennifer Wilson. City staff will also speak to the project’s feasibility.
A similar session will be at Centennial Community Centre next to the Canada Games Pool on Saturday, Aug. 9, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Wilson said the city has already either met with or is setting up meetings with different groups. Those include baseball and soccer organizations, residents associations and the Chamber of Commerce.
Any perception the initial announcement created that it’s a done deal is incorrect, said Wilson. There’s a great deal of due diligence to be done by all parties to determine financial, traffic and community implications.
“We’re really only looking at the feasibility of this. We need to understand what the different requirements are and the different impacts and only when we have that detail will we be able to reconcile what the financial impact would be.”
The USL Pro League has a Sept. 15 deadline for new applications.