The V.I. Raiders always have a distinct home-field advantage at Caledonia Park. What they’d really like is home-stadium advantage.
Last Saturday’s B.C. Football Conference home opener against the Langley Rams featured an exciting finish, with five touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But much of the post-game discussion centred not on football, but on the field itself.
A busted scoreclock cost the Raiders a field goal. The sound system wasn’t working at the start of the game. A tent serving as a makeshift locker room failed to impress.
“Really, we have the worst facility, never mind in the BCFC, in Canada,” said Hadi Abassi, Raiders owner. “That’s the truth of it – we don’t have a stadium.”
Caledonia Park didn’t just become worn out this week. It’s been that way since the Raiders entered the league in 2005, and opposing teams have been complaining all along.
None of this is any surprise to the City of Nanaimo’s parks and recreation department.
“The infrastructure, the grandstands, washrooms, they’re 50 years old. It’s quite apparent that it’s got to be improved…” said Jeff Ritchie, the city’s senior parks manager. “We are as frustrated as the Raiders. We want to make it a good facility.”
There has been continual communication between the city and the football club. The Raiders have sketched out their vision, and it aligns with parks and rec’s wishes. But so far, that’s all it is, visions and wishes.
“It seems to be always, next year, next year, next year…” Abassi said. “We have talked a lot and we always plan but there is no money, no budget, no action.”
The city earmarked $400,000 in 2013 toward improvements at Caledonia Park, but other than widening the sidewalk on Wall Street, that money hasn’t been spent, and won’t be.
“We’ve come to the realization it’s going to be more expensive than that,” Ritchie said. “We can carry funds forward, which hopefully we would do, and determine what are our priorities, what it is we need to build and how to move forward.”
The Raiders want a structure that incorporates a grandstand, locker rooms, washrooms and a concession.
“So when we go there on the game day, we don’t have to worry about setting up a rodeo every week,” Abassi said. “We [could] walk in the stadium and just concentrate on the football.”
He said the league had reservations about allowing the Raiders to host the Canadian Bowl in 2009 after the first title game at Caledonia Park in 2006.
It’s conceivable, Abassi said, that the Raiders could earn home-field advantage for a bowl game and then be denied the right to host.
“You can only tell them next year, next year [so many times],” he said. “Eventually they will put a deadline on it.”
The team obviously doesn’t want to see it come to that, and neither do its fans.
Clark Petrick, a former Raiders player who is now the team’s mascot, Shank Show, sees the game-day atmosphere up close. He was disappointed that the silent sound system spoiled the team’s pre-game routine on Saturday, and that and all the other problems with Caledonia Park finally moved him to action. He set up a Change.org petition that was up to 173 signatures at last count.
“We’re trying to get the community behind this football team, but when you don’t have the stadium, it’s really hard,” he said.
He suggested that there sometimes aren’t enough entertainment options in Nanaimo, so people head out of town to Victoria or Vancouver.
“If the city wants to revitalize downtown, they should look at that. Saturday night, something to do in Nanaimo,” Petrick said. “Friday night you could have high school football … We could have so many more things than just football there. [A stadium] is the beat of the city, it’s a little bit of pride.”
Ritchie said petition or no petition, the city is aware it doesn’t have an adequate football stadium.
“We’ve got to get something before council. I think it’s becoming a bigger issue…” he said. “If there’s no funding for it, well, OK, then we’ll have to look at other options – I don’t know what that would be – at that time.”
The Raiders are willing to put up some of their own bucks, though they are a non-profit club.
Still, there has to be a process, which Ritchie said unfortunately takes time. The park’s neighbouring residents would be consulted about any lighting, for example. Other user groups would have to be on board, too – the Raiders only have between five and eight home dates during a calendar year.
One other potential user is the Harbour City Football Club. Coincidentally, the HCFC’s Team France U8 boys happen to be in the midst of a BMO Team of the Week contest that could net them $125,000 to refurbish a local field. The team’s coach, Jazz Sohal, has contacted both the city and the Raiders about the possibility of a grand prize benefiting Caledonia Park.
For now, everyone will try to make the best of things at the field. Last weekend’s electrical problems originated in the Raiders’ press box, not the city’s hookup, but the two parties will work together to solve the problem. As for the tent, it will probably be pitched again.
“This is a very good football league. We have good football players. They can’t just go change in a tent,” Abassi said. “Things start to add [up], and it comes to a point. When is it going to happen?”
GRID BITS … To view or sign the petition, click here. To vote for Nanaimo’s boys in the BMO Team of the Week contest, click here … The Raiders’ next home game is Saturday (Aug. 17) when they play the Valley Huskers in a 4 p.m. kickoff at Caledonia Park.