A plan to build a new world-class venue for outdoor concerts and festivals was formally green-lighted by Vancouver City Council on Wednesday.
The project is spearheaded by the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) to replace its worn-down amphitheatre, which was built in 1966 and originally intended to be a temporary facility.
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Unlike the existing facility, the new PNE amphitheatre at Hastings Park will be a 100% covered venue allowing for all-season operations, complete with permanent back-of-house and front-of-house infrastructure. This is contained in a pair of two-storey buildings with storage space, dressing rooms, box offices, production and security offices, catering and prep-area kitchen spaces.
New permanent spectator amenities include washrooms, food and beverage concession areas, bar service, flex space, and overall improved accessibility for spectators.
The venue will have a capacity for 9,340 spectators, including 4,500 on bleachers, 4,250 in floor seating, and 590 in VIP areas. But the venue’s capacity and format are scalable to the needs of organizers, with stage design and floors able to accommodate smaller events in the 2,000 to 4,000 capacity range.
Existing condition of the PNE Amphitheatre:
Future condition of the PNE Amphitheatre:
Currently, due to its poor condition and lack of weather protection and amenities, the existing amphitheatre attracts few events.
The new venue, however, is expected to increase the number of events and concerts held outside of the annual PNE Fair period from five to 49 each year. The number of community events will also increase from zero to 22 annually through dedicated site access and reduced rates to cultural groups and not-for-profit event organizers.
The PNE consulted with local event organizers and conducted a business case to gauge the demand for such a venue in Metro Vancouver. Based on their market research, there is an immense demand for new venues with a capacity for between 5,000 and 10,000 spectators to fill a major gap in the local venue market.
“This is exactly what the industry and music fans in the community desperately needs. The city now has a phenomenal opportunity to build on the legacy with a world-class concert venue at a world-class location backdropped by the mountains, and bring in a new level of excitement and engagement to Vancouver and BC,” said Paul Haagenson, the president of the Canadian division of Live Nation Entertainment.
Live Nation operates the Commodore Ballroom in downtown Vancouver, and over 40 outdoor amphitheatre venues across Canada and the United States, including the 16,000-capacity Budweiser Stage amphitheatre on the downtown Toronto waterfront.
“I believe this opportunity is the single best one the city has seen in decades to reshape and elevate the concert experience in this city. The market has been yearning for a marquee outdoor amphitheatre play in this vision and with a plan to match the demand the fans and artists have been asking for,” continued Haagenson.
Catherine Runnals, the president of Brandlive, the event management group responsible for major Vancouver events such as the Honda Celebration of Light, Canada Day at Canada Place, and Skookum at Stanley Park, says the permanent fixtures and infrastructure of this venue will greatly reduce the costs of putting on an event.
Essentially, organizers will not have to build and teardown a temporary venue, and it allows for the planning timeline to be greatly reduced.
Currently, at the existing amphitheatre or in a setting like Brockton Oval at Stanley Park, event organizers need to set-up temporary back-of-house and front-of-house facilities at a significant cost, which could make or break an event. She also emphasized the importance of its weather protection and scalable capacity.
“What’s exciting about this design here is it can go from 2,000 to up to almost 10,000, and when you think about that, in Vancouver, we have clubs, theatres, and then the next venue is an arena, so having something like this of this size for up to 10,000 guests addresses the significant gap in Vancouver,” said Runnals.
“Companies like mine need a space like this. I believe the city needs more arts and cultural facilities overall.”
The venue provides event organizers with a new major and attractive option, but it also enables the PNE to improve its programming for the annual Fair and Summer Night Concert Series, which are held at the existing amphitheatre.
Up until about two decades ago, the amphitheatre was used for demolition derby shows during the Fair. In more recent years, it has been used for the Fair’s nighttime pyromusical.
Patrick Roberge notes the new amphitheatre’s design also allows for events held under the roof to spill into the adjacent areas surrounding the venue. He is the president and creative director of PRP, the entertainment company that is contracted by the PNE to produce the Fair’s entertainment and Summer Night Concert Series.
He says there has been a desire amongst event producers in the city for an outdoor concert venue ever since the 4,000-seat Expo Theatre, located just east of the Plaza of Nations in Northeast False Creek, was demolished after Expo ’86.
The glass roof of the Plaza of Nations’ outdoor amphitheatre was also demolished in the late 2000s, eliminating yet another all-season venue option.
“I’ve produced many events in the temporary parking lot style amphitheatre currently available at the PNE site. When we produced events there, the main challenge is the lack of weather protection, backstage infrastructure, and the guest experience is lacking with much-needed repairs to seating and landscaping areas,” said Roberge.
“Despite all that, many artists have said this is one of their favourite places to come and perform. Imagine what it could be for the event producers and artists alike. The Lower Mainland needs a venue like this to produce wide-range events and festivals.”
Existing condition of the PNE Amphitheatre:
Future condition of the PNE Amphitheatre:
The benefits of the new amphitheatre to Metro Vancouver’s arts, cultural, and music scene are clear, but it would also have a long-term positive bottom line outlook for the PNE.
The ability to attract significantly more events is forecast to increase the PNE’s amphitheatre rental revenue from $1.4 million to $9.7 million annually, which will go towards covering the venue’s construction cost and the PNE’s future expansion and improvement projects at Hastings Park.
The design chosen, considered the “mid-level” option, is anticipated to carry a construction cost of $69.7 million, including $64.8 million for the actual cost of the venue, $4.6 million for on-site infrastructure and utility connections, and $300,000 for the daylighting of a stream west of the amphitheatre site.
The City of Vancouver will provide construction financing of $60 million, which will be repaid by the PNE over time through the rental revenues. Another $9.4 million will come from the Hastings Park Reserve and $300,000 from the development cost levy for parks. The PNE is owned by the municipal government, and operated as a not-for-profit organization.
It is forecast the new amphitheatre will have a 40-year net return on investment of $49 million, and a 12-year period to recover the construction costs.
PNE and city staff previously considered a public-private partnership for building, operating, and financing the new venue, but this was later deemed unfeasible due to “significant labour relations impacts.” Instead, the only major potential private partnership possibility that has been identified is a naming rights partnership, which is valued at about $600,000 per year in new revenue for the PNE.
When complete, the new amphitheatre will provide over 40,000 hours of additional annual employment for union employees at the PNE.
However, the exact timing of the venue’s construction is up in the air.
Currently, the PNE is anticipating construction will begin in late 2024 for an opening sometime in the first half of 2026, just in time for that year’s PNE Fair. Construction cannot begin until the venue’s detailed design is completed and on-site infrastructure and utility connections are built.
PNE and city staff have indicated they are exploring ways to expedite the completion date so that the venue can be used sooner during the COVID-19 recovery period.
City council also approved a motion by independent councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung that formally directs staff to explore expediting the construction timeline, possibly for a completion in 2024.
“Across the board, there is a view that this venue is a fantastic opportunity, not just for the PNE and Hastings Park but the city at large,” said independent councillor Lisa Dominato, who is also the chair of the board of directors of the PNE.
“This is really a win-win-win all around for the organization, and for the city in terms of supporting arts, culture, and entertainment. I think it’s fantastic. I’m thrilled it has come to council at this time, and I look forward to opportunities to expedite it.”
The new amphitheatre is a component of the overall decades-long plan to expand green space at Hastings Park, while also revitalizing the PNE’s facilities and Playland.