Prospera Place 20 years old

Graham Lee, CEO of Vancouver-based GSL Group, sits in one of the 6,000 seats at Kelowna’s Prospera Place, the arena GSL built, owns and operates as part of a private-public partnership with the City of Kelowna.

Imagine a Kelowna without the Memorial Cup-winning Rockets.

Without a string of big-name concerts by Elton John, Rod Stewart, Rihanna, Cher, Sting, Jay-Z, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, KISS, Aerosmith and Luke Bryan.

Without world junior championship hockey, all those curling championships, professional figure skating shows, Cirque du Soleil and even those giant home shows and bridal shows.

All this sports and entertainment action was made possible when a 6,000-seat arena called Skyreach Place opened in downtown Kelowna on Aug. 28, 1999.

As the building, now known as Prospera Place, readies to celebrate its 20th birthday, it’s time to reflect on the past two decades and look forward to the next 20.

Over the past 20 years, 5.5 million people have come through Prospera’s doors.

Many have probably forgotten the kick-off event at Skyreach was a concert by Canadian alternative rock band Moist.

The building was named after construction equipment company Skyreach for the first five years because it bought the naming rights for $100,000 a year.

Prospera Credit Union took over naming rights in 2004.

The building, which cost $21 million to construct in 1999 and would cost $80 million to replace today, seats 6,000 for hockey and up to 8,000 for concerts.

“To build a multi-purpose facility for hockey and concerts with a high-end restaurant (Manhattan Point), club seats and suites was really groundbreaking in North America in 1999,” said Graham Lee, CEO of GSL Group, the company that owns Prospera Place.

“Especially because it was in Kelowna, which was considered a small market back then. I’d say the city is a mid-sized market now.”

While Prospera Place can certainly be credited with bringing major junior A hockey, other big-time sports and spectacular performances to town, it can also be credited indirectly with the revitalization of downtown.

Lee took a chance on Kelowna, built a world-class facility, brought people downtown and gave other investors the confidence to put up highrise condominiums and open stores, restaurants and breweries.

“I’d say what is most rewarding is the overall impact Prospera Place has had on the community,” said Lee.

“When you see people enjoying themselves in the building at a hockey game, concert or other sporting event, it proves Kelowna was ready for a purpose-built, multi-purpose building to host hockey and world-class acts.”

The city dubbed the area the cultural district, and it thrives as a gathering place for residents and tourists alike.

“Prospera has been a great facility for the Rockets,” said Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton.

“We played four seasons at (2,600-seat) Memorial Arena waiting for the new rink to be built. A bigger building was the only way the hockey club could stay here and succeed.”

And succeed it has.

Hamilton’s highlight at Prospera was when the Rockets won the Memorial Cup, the Canadian major junior A hockey championship, on home ice in 2004.

The Rockets have also made the playoffs, and gone deep most seasons, bringing an additional 94 games to Prospera, which represents almost three regular seasons worth of home games.

When the Rockets do well, and when there’s Olympic team training, world junior action, big-time curling and star concerts, Kelowna gets national media attention.

Hamilton admits he’s not a big concert-goer, but he was wowed when Elton John played Prospera.

So was Lee.

And, of course, Lee’s other most memorable time in the building was when the Rockets hoisted the Memorial Cup.

The Rockets will have the opportunity to do that again on home ice when the Memorial Cup returns to Kelowna in May 2020.

An entire festival will surround the championship, shining even more national attention on the city.

Lee’s deal with the City of Kelowna was to own and operate Prospera on city-owned land for 30 years.

That means in another 10 years, 2029, Prospera will be at a crossroads.

Will it be handed over to the city?

Are the Rockets interested in taking it over?

Or, does Lee want more?

“Definitely, I hope to seek an extension and see the vision through,” he said.

Lee was able to buy some of the land around Prospera, so GSL is currently building the 14-storey Ellis Parc condo tower behind the rink.

His vision for the parking lot in front of Prospera is to build two more condo skyscrapers, 27 and 37 storeys, with shops, restaurants and attractions at their base to create an entertainment district that could be called Kelowna Live.

It would resemble a smaller-scale L.A. Live, which includes the Staples Centre (home to NHL hockey’s Kings and NBA’s Lakers and Clippers and concerts), a 54-storey hotel, many restaurants and bars, a bowling alley, a 14-screen movie theatre and the Grammy Museum.

Lee’s GSL group also owns and operates the Coast Capri Hotel and mall in Kelowna, the twin-rink CNC in Kelowna, 7,000-seat Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, Planet Ice rink complexes in Coquitlam, Delta and Maple Ridge, a shopping mall with rink in Parksville, and other shopping mall and industrial properties.

Lee laughs at the fact he was Kelowna’s fourth choice to build a game-changing arena in the city.

Residents voted No in a multi-purpose facility referendum in the late 1980s.

Developer Gordon Oxley’s grand plan fell apart in the early 1990s as did Axor Engineering’s, both for lack of private funding in the private-public partnership scenarios.

The private-public partnership Lee struck with the city saw the city lease the land to Lee for nothing for a 30-year term. Lee paid $15 million of the $21-million cost of the arena and the city the other $6 million.

The city also pays an annual fee of up to $1 million for ice time for minor hockey.

“It’s a great arrangement for taxpayers because they are never on the hook for building and operations,” said Lee.

“Public arenas in Penticton and Abbotsford are more expensive and can leave taxpayers on the hook.”