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Woodbine Entertainment to provide land for soccer stadium, training facility

TORONTO — Jim Lawson says Woodbine Entertainment wants to provide Canadian soccer with a national training centre. Woodbine announced Wednesday it is partnering with private investors to build a soccer training facility and soccer-specific stadium.

TORONTO — Jim Lawson says Woodbine Entertainment wants to provide Canadian soccer with a national training centre.

Woodbine announced Wednesday it is partnering with private investors to build a soccer training facility and soccer-specific stadium. Woodbine has designated a portion of its land for construction of the venues with the goal of creating a centre of excellence for the sport in Canada.

"With Canada on the brink of qualification for the 2022 FIFA men's World Cup, the women's national team's Olympic gold medal win and Canada co-hosting the 2026 World Cup, it's certainly the right time," said Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment. "We've got the potential investors here, we have politicians at all three levels (municipal, provincial and federal) who appreciate the value of sport and are community minded.

"That's what this is all about -- community and sport."

There's certainly a buzz these days about soccer in Canada.

The 33rd-ranked men's team can clinch a spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as early as Thursday in Costa Rica. Canada's only previous trip to the World Cup was in 1986 in Mexico.

Last summer, the sixth-ranked Canadian women's squad struck Olympic gold in Tokyo. And the 2026 men's World Cup will be staged in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

For Woodbine, the project would be an opportunity to get involved in a sport that's definitely on the rise in this country while also making Woodbine a more desirable destination. Canada Soccer, in recent years, has used Toronto FC's training centre in Downsview, Ont., or moved its teams further north to Alliston, Ont., to prepare for games.

And Lawson said a legacy of Canada co-hosting the '26 World Cup could be the establishment of a home base for a women's pro circuit.

The soccer venues would be located on Woodbine's property within walking distance of Woodbine Racetrack and be part of the organization's overall development.

"There's going to be one or two hotels adjacent to this national training centre," Lawson said. "(Pearson Airport) is just five minutes away, which is great for international people.

"We're also expecting mass transit in the form of a GO station, which would make this site unequalled in maybe the country in terms of access with three major highways (407, 401 and 427) nearby. We think this is the prime location in the country for a national training centre for soccer."

Lawson said Canada Soccer was apprised of the project roughly a year ago and the hope remains the country's national governing body can become involved in it moving forward.

"We do want to talk to Canada Soccer about this," Lawson said. "Canada needs a national training centre and there needs to be some sort of legacy coming out of the (2026) World Cup so we're excited to pursue these discussions with Canada Soccer."

But Lawson said the key to the project is the GO station at Woodbine. In 2019, the Ontario government unveiled plans to build a stop at Woodbine on the Kitchener GO rail line but construction has yet to begin.

"We're waiting for final approvals on zoning," Lawson said. "But we think it's more of a timing thing, it's a 'when' as opposed to an 'if.'

"Woodbine is prepared to privately fund it and spend approximately $150 million to bring a train station to the site. This makes all the sense in the world once we bring the mass transit."

The project would include a soccer-specific stadium and 38,000 square foot training facility with a natural grass surface.

Woodbine is situated on about 684 acres of land located just over 30 kilometres north of downtown Toronto. Roughly 250 acres is already earmarked for horse-racing (synthetic, grass and dirt racetracks as well as stables for horses and employees).

Once completed, the Woodbine facilities would give the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) two quality soccer venues. BMO Field, home of Major League Soccer's Toronto FC and the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, currently operates at Exhibition Place.

BMO Field can seat over 27,000 spectators for football and 30,000 for soccer but can also be expanded to 40,000. Its playing surface is hybrid grass.

The soccer-specific stadium would have a seating capacity of 8,000. Woodbine said the projects would provide "a key training base and stadium for Canadian Premier League clubs, including York United FC."

York United FC currently plays its home games at York Lions Stadium on the campus of York University. The franchise's principal partner is Greenpark Group, a company specializing in residential and commercial construction in Canada, the U.S. and Europe that's owned by the Baldassarra family.

"We are a family of builders and share Woodbine’s vision of creating communities for a better Toronto,” Michael Baldassarra, York United chairman and Greenpark Group executive, said in a statement. "We have been so proud to invest in the future of Canadian soccer in recent years and a high-performance training centre and stadium is perfect for what is to come as we see the women's game poised to take giant leaps across the county.

"This would also be an ideal site for Canada's first women's professional club, and I could see the wider community getting such a wide variety of uses from a facility like this."

The venue could also serve as a practice facility for the 2026 men's World Cup.

"The 2026 World Cup is an amazing target for so many of us working in Canadian Soccer right now, but before there are many other major events that Canadian athletes will need to prepare for,” said Angus McNab, the president/CEO of York United FC. “Facilities and infrastructure for the professional game to thrive are required and this location is ideal.

"We would also be very proud to plant the flag to bring the first women’s professional team to Canada as part of a much-needed domestic league.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press