Abbotsford Centre deficit decreases, but tenant proves elusive

Taxpayers kicked in $1.24 million to fund centre in 2015, the lowest total since its opening. But search for anchor sports tenant continues.

The Abbotsford Centre continues to host big-name musicians like Joan Jett (right)

The Abbotsford Centre continues to host big-name musicians like Joan Jett (right)

Nearly two years after the Abbotsford Heat played their last game in the Fraser Valley, the arena the American Hockey League team once called home is consuming fewer tax dollars than ever, council heard Monday.

The Abbotsford Centre recorded a deficit of $1.24 million in 2015, and is on pace for a better year in 2016 council was told. The 2015 figure is nearly $500,000 better than 2014 and about half of the subsidy the facility received between 2010 and 2013, when the city was also paying millions of dollars to guarantee the now-departed Heat broke even.

If a new major tenant is found, city manager George Murray told council that he was confident the arena’s deficit would drop below $1 million.

But finding a hockey team for the facility is proving elusive.

Although rumours suggested the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants may be considering moving, possibly to the Langley Events Centre, the team’s owner has ruled out playing further east in Abbotsford. And while a Giants’ move to Langley could affect that city’s British Columbia Hockey League team, the Rivermen, there has been no indication that club would consider the Abbotsford Centre as a possible home. And while it was announced earlier this month that two American Hockey League teams will relocate for next year, neither is coming to B.C.

Mayor Henry Braun told The News that he was less hopeful a tenant would be found than he was three months ago. He confirmed the city had spoken to the Giants, but those discussions hadn’t progressed. Talks with other potential tenants – both hockey teams and some from other sports – have taken place, he said, but other obstacles remain, often beyond Abbotsford’s control.

“We’re letting it be known to everyone and anyone that we have an arena that is looking for an anchor tenant,” Braun said. “We can’t make something happen if there’s other stuff going on in the league.”

And the next year could prove critical.

“If [finding an anchor tenant] doesn’t happen in another year, it might not happen in the next five years, in terms of hockey,” Braun said.

A lack of a tenant also makes it impossible to sell the naming rights to the Abbotsford Centre, cutting off another source of revenue. Despite that, the facility has improved its books since the launch of the arena’s “A New Game” strategy, by focusing on hosting profitable shows and hosting more community events.

“We really focus on ensuring we try to bring the best quality of events to the venue while we keep an eye on the bottom line,” the facility’s general manager, Andrew Nash, told council Monday.

Last year, the facility hosted 33 such events, with paying attendance of 70,042. That number is down considerably from the 90,129 who paid to take in a show in 2014. Nash attributed the drop primarily to touring schedules by major acts, and predicted that the venue would be busier in 2016. A two-year touring rotation often sees artists play large arenas in major markets one year, then return the next to perform in secondary venues the next, Nash said.

Nash also stressed higher community usage of the facility, with ice time by local groups up more than 20 per cent.

Braun was pleased with the decrease in the arena’s deficit. And while he has expressed skepticism the facility can ever break even, he said “we are going to get to that $1 million subsidy, one way or another.”

The city continues to pay down the cost of building the Abbotsford Centre. Last year, it paid $2.34 million down towards the debt and interest incurred in the construction of the facility, according to the centre’s annual report.