Doable or dodgy? A look at Doug McCallum’s swing-for-the-fences Surrey stadium pledge

Doug McCallum’s promise of a stadium that would seat 60,000 people if re-elected as mayor has quickly become the focal point of Surrey’s municipal election. Monika Gul reports opponents are questioning the promise but one expert says the idea isn’t that absurd.

It’s the talk of Metro Vancouver — Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum’s pledge to build a 60,000-seat stadium if he wins re-election.

And while many have dismissed it as a laughable proposal — especially online — some experts have their own ideas about the promise.

Andy Yan is the director of SFU’s City Program and says for a growing city and region, the idea of a big stadium in Surrey is worth taking seriously, though perhaps 60,000 seats may be pushing it.

“I think it really touches upon the sizable amount of growth that occurs in terms of population in the area south of the Fraser. ” Yan said. “It’s a population that will need a level of social and cultural infrastructure.”

Yan points out Surrey will likely have a population larger than Vancouver at some point, though likely not as quickly as the half-decade suggestion McCallum made as a partial justification when making the pledge.

But it is a reality that at some point in the future, Surrey might be the region’s largest city.

“In one way, while folks are having their fun talking about it on social media, there is a very serious discussion about the kind of layout of regional facilities, of where they are located, and how they best serve audiences and the people of metropolitan Vancouver,” Yan said.

But for sports economist Moshe Lander with Concordia University, it just doesn’t make sense.

“A 60,000-seat stadium for what, precisely? I know BC Place is old and it’s cavernous, but come on,” Lander said. “60,000 seats for what? A bunch of [BC] Lions home games? They don’t fill the existing stadium right now. To get a once-a-decade Grey Cup? They don’t fill the stadium for the Grey Cup. So, what exactly are we talking about? And the price tag on a 60,000-seat stadium has got to be running into the billions of dollars right now.”

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Then there’s the question of where the money will come from. If this were to go ahead, a stadium of this scale would likely require a big partner through a senior level of government or through a private investor.

“If you have a billionaire that shows up, or a bunch of companies that want to go as a conglomerate and say, ‘We feel that there’s a business case here’…. Hey, then Surrey should be bending over backward to bring them into the fold here,” Lander said. “But if we’re talking about a mayoral candidate who says that ‘I want to take taxpayer money,’ and use it for this, there is almost no circumstance I can think of where that’s going to pay itself off.”

Ultimately, Yan believes these kinds of discussions about major projects in Surrey and the Fraser Valley more broadly will start to become more commonplace as the population grows.

“You have to remember, 75 per cent of the people who live in metropolitan Vancouver live outside the City of Vancouver, and you’ve seen the kind of changes that have occurred in those communities,” Yan said. “I think this is part of, I hope, a healthy conversation around where Surrey is going and growing, and really how fundamentally most population projections will see Surrey as being larger than Vancouver at a particular time in the future. Now, how many years into the future? We’ll see.

“At the same time, as that city grows, it is really going to need an economic base, its needs a civic and cultural infrastructure to really meet that growing community.”

Regardless of what you think of the stadium proposal, Yan urges us all to get out for the municipal vote on October 15.

As for the other parties competing for power in Surrey, United Surrey mayoral candidate Sukh Dhaliwal has said the proposal is “unworkable and unaffordable,” saying McCallum doesn’t have the “money, mandate or mettle to make his fantasy a reality.”

Similarly, Surrey First mayoral candidate Gordie Hogg has suggested a stadium like this would be a “white elephant” that would saddle taxpayers with massive debt.

Surrey Forward’s candidate Jinny Sims and Surrey Connect candidate Brenda Locke have also dismissed the project both for its cost and impracticality.

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