No more rain in popcorn for Toronto sports fans

Can you imagine lying propped up in bed watching your favorite baseball team - live, not on television? Rain starts, and instead of calling the game, the roof closes over the entire stadium. That possibility awaits Torontonians and their visitors.

Under construction here is the SkyDome, the world's first large stadium with a fully retractable roof. Attached to the stadium will be a 450-room hotel, with 71 of the rooms overlooking the field. The windows of these rooms will open so the sports fan can get the sound of the crowd and smell of the popcorn.

So, with this dream in mind, fans heaved a sigh of relief two weeks ago when Ontario carpenters and concrete truck drivers voted to end a six-week strike. It meant the SkyDome still has a chance of being completed close to schedule next April.

The massive harbor-front structure is rising on old railway lands next to both the CN Tower, a communications facility and tourist attraction, and the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Center.

``What we are doing is equivalent to building the Eiffel Tower,'' says Roderick Robbie, architect for the SkyDome.

The SkyDome's roof is unique in that 91 percent of it will retract in 20 minutes - even though the roof covers eight acres at a height of 31 stories above the playing field. The steel roof is designed to bear the weight of Toronto's heavy snow falls and resist any likely windstorm.

Mr. Robbie's partner, structural engineer Michael Allen, invented the basic geometry of the novel roof. ``To make a roof of that size open up is a tricky, difficult thing,'' says Robbie. ``Everybody assumed it would be so costly. We have demonstrated how it can be done at a reasonable price.''

Construction of the dome, its hotel, health club, sports and entertainment area, TV studio, restaurants, and some office space within the dome structure, plus preparing the site, will cost an estimated $382 million (Canadian; US$317 million). But the public and private sector partners building the dome project immediate operating profits.

That is because of the multiple uses for the stadium. It will seat approximately 53,000 when the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball, with nearly all the seats located in a ``V'' pattern behind the foul poles. It will seat about 54,000 for football (Toronto Argonauts), with some seats moved along rail tracks to their new positions between the goal lines in about two hours. It will seat up to 70,000 for concerts, with banks of seats placed on the playing field.

Altogether, the dome should be used at least 210 days a year. It won't matter if the weather is sub-zero or hot as blazes; fans will be made comfortable. On good days, the roof will be open.

Other profit-making features include some 161 private boxes and 5,800 club seats. All but a handful of these preferred boxes have already been leased for 10-year terms at annual rental rates of $100,000 to $225,000 each. Those outlays only buy first call on the 16 to 30 seats in each box: there's an additional charge for each event.

``I think it will look good,'' says Robbie. ``It is probably the best stadium in the world.''

Apparently some foreigners agree. Robbie and Mr. Allen have been talking to the Japanese and others about construction of similar stadiums, using the patented roof system, elsewhere.

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