T-Birds nest often empty after Olympics

Taxpayers paid for bulk of three-rink complex construction

"No white elephants" was the mantra when VANOC built venues for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, but the Games left behind a lonely Thunderbird.

The main arena at University of British Columbia's Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre has hosted only eight major revenue-generating events in 2011. The Aug. 6-7 Sesame Street Live was the most recent and there are no future events listed on the website calendar.

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A Freedom of Information request seeking business and marketing plans for event rentals yielded no records, but UBC did provide a one-page financial summary. The venue grossed in one fiscal year what Rogers Arena is estimated to take in one Vancouver Canucks' first round playoff game.

UBC claimed $2.266 million revenue for the year ended March 31, 2011, with a $417,773 profit the year after showing a $130,133 loss. A closer look indicates a $99,000 uptick in revenue during 2010-2011, but the turnaround was driven by cost savings in utilities ($262,000), repairs, maintenance and equipment ($206,000), and salaries and benefits ($96,000).

"We're pretty happy with the current performance, that we're at a stage now where we're on the positive side of the ledger," said Kavie Toor, UBC Athletics associate director of facilities and business development. "I'd say the white elephant comment would be inaccurate, as you have more key learnings and, operating a venue with the complexities of being on a university campus, you're able to revise your strategies."

VANOC contributed $38.2 million, almost entirely from taxpayers, to build the three-rink complex that opened in July 2008. Mitchell, a 1962 UBC law school graduate, pledged the remaining $10 million in 2009. The arena hosted Olympic hockey in February 2010 and Paralympic sledge hockey in March 2010.

Toor said if UBC varsity hockey, student and adult recreational leagues are counted, the arena hosts about 60 events in a year. Those events, however, don't draw big crowds that spend heavily on tickets, food and drinks or merchandise.

Toor said UBC is having "extensive conversations" with promoters of speaker series, children's shows and sporting events.

Toor said there is a perception that UBC is isolated from the Lower Mainland because of the lack of rapid transit and being situated on Point Grey. The complex has a 1,600-spot parkade next door and is only 12 kilometres from downtown.

2010goldrush@gmail.com

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