The Abbotsford Arena: A Cautionary Tale

By: David Brown: January 20, 2017

The Abbotsford Centre is a 7,000-seat multi-purpose arena in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

On September 25, 2006, Abbotsford council voted unanimously to hold a referendum asking voters to borrow $85-million to fund three community projects, including a new entertainment and sports centre.  The arena was approved by Abbotsford voters on November 25, 2006 with a 54.8% majority.  A year after the facility the arena had its anchor tenant – the Abbotsford Heat, a second-tier professional ice hockey team. 

The Abbotsford Heat played five seasons in the American Hockey League (AHL) between 2009 and 2014 as an affiliate of the Calgary Flames.  The Heat had an average attendance of 3900 in their first year but by their fifth and last year it had cooled to 3000.

A National Post article published on April 15, 2014 (Brian Hutchison) describes the sorry story of the Abbotsford Heat and Abbotsford Centre.  Back in 2008 the City was “desperate” for an anchor tenant so they entered into a “supply fee” agreement with the Flames to cover any Heat losses for 10 years.  Five years of losses cost Abbotsford 7.2 million so in 2014 they cut the bleeding by paying the Flames another 5.5 million in a termination agreement.  Bye, bye anchor tenant. 

Update to May, 2016.  The Abbotsford News reports that the Centre was still drifting without an anchor tenant.  But there was good news.  It recorded an operating loss of only 1.24 million in 2015 which was down half a million from the previous year.   No return on investment, however – or as one letter writer noted, no accounting for $2,341,000 interest on the related debt.

What about special events.  According to the Abbotsford New there were 33 of them in 2015 with a TOTAL ATTENDANCE of 70,042 – which is the equivalent of 10 full houses for the entire year.  And the Centre did attract a big name performer – Joan Jett, whoever she might be.

How does Abbotsford compare to Nanaimo?  Is there any rational reason to believe that the Multiplex/Event Centre would fare any better than Abbotsford’s arena?  Abbotsford has a population of about 135,000.  Mission, which is a few miles to the north, has about 35,000 people.  Chilliwack City to the east has a population of about 80,000 and Langley (District and City) to the west another 135,000.  In other words nearly 400,000 people within less than a half hour driving time.

Kim Smythe of our local Chamber of Commerce says that Nanaimo also has a market area of 400,000 but that is a bit of a stretch, actually a very long stretch because to get that number you have to count people all the way from the Malahat to Cape Scott.  In any event it is unlikely that hockey fans in the Cowichan or Comox valleys will abandon their local Junior A teams for Nanaimo’s proposed new major junior hockey team, the Nanaimo Ice.

Will Nanaimo repeat Abbotsford’s history and in its desperation for an anchor tenant for the Mutiplex/Event Centre agree to underwrite the losses of the Nanaimo Ice.  To quote Yogi Berra will it be “deja vu all over again” – a repeat of the very expensive and to date fruitless search for an “anchor hotel” for the Conference Centre.  I wouldn’t bet against it.