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The End and New Beginnings: Inside the Coliseum and the Future of Northlands and the EXPO Centre

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As Rogers Place and the surrounding ICE District begin to see the fruits of over a decade of planning and building, another arena in town has become quiet. The Northlands Coliseum, formerly Rexall Place, is now almost literally a ghost town unto itself. The building is currently in “dark operations,” half-lit and occupied only by a rotating group of security guards. Where once tens of thousands cheered the Oilers to their five Stanley Cups, now only occasional footsteps can be heard, and no one else is allowed in.

Rogers Place was built with a non-competition agreement, meaning that the Coliseum could not host events like concerts. With fewer and fewer opportunities to make revenue, Northlands began acquiring debt until the City itself had to step in. So, on Jan. 1, 2018, the City of Edmonton forgave $47 million of that debt and assumed responsibility for the Edmonton EXPO Centre and the Coliseum. They subsequently closed the Coliseum and assigned management of the Edmonton EXPO Centre to Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC). A little over a year later, the Northlands Park racetrack closed as well, with its successor opening in April near the international airport. But even as the Coliseum and old racetrack are quiet, the area has undergone change. Its future has potential and obstacles in equal measure.

On the surface, this may seem like the end of the road but, according to the City, it actually presents an opportunity. The Coliseum may be the space that is most visibly different, but the area is changing and growing. This is especially true for the Edmonton EXPO Centre, which has welcomed new events and new prospects since being taken over by the EEDC at the beginning of 2018.

When the City took over, the focus was on retaining the talent and key assets of the EXPO Centre, all of which have helped the space be a key part of Edmonton since it was called the Agricom.

“One of our main priorities with the transition was to provide uninterrupted service to our venue clients,” says Arlindo Gomes, general manager of the Edmonton EXPO Centre. “EEDC was able to integrate nearly 800 employees and incorporate the Edmonton EXPO Centre into their business operations, allowing us to jump straight into a busy event schedule to start the new year.”

Since those first days, the EXPO Centre has grown and expanded, especially in the events happening within its walls. “We hosted over 400 events in 2018 and saw more than 1.5 million guests come through our doors,” says Gomes. “This was a year of new experiences in many ways, including in the events we hosted.”

Gomes points to the PBR Monster Energy Tour, 11 performances for Disney On Ice and more as standout events happening in the EXPO Centre. The space will also be the host of Edmonton’s latest professional sports team, the Stingers, who had their first tip-off in May as part of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

Much of the success seen at the EXPO Centre, according to Gomes, is a result of the efficiencies that came with bringing the Centre under city control. “An integrated sales model between the Edmonton EXPO Centre, Edmonton Convention Centre and Edmonton Tourism has been developed,” says Gomes. “This ensures that both the Edmonton EXPO Centre and Edmonton Convention Centre are presented as a viable meeting and conference option within the City of Edmonton while eliminating the competitive pricing with two city venues.”

That said, for members of the local community, the shuttering of the Coliseum and the future of the area is a pressing issue. Many feel they have not been consulted enough during the process. The Bellevue Community League, a group actively working with the City on what should happen with the area, have found themselves only able to react and would like a more active role in consultation.

“Our issue with the City has been primarily related to the belief that all these items and actions should have been part of the process at the time they decided to move ahead with the new arena,” says Brian Finley, the League’s past president. “Instead we found ourselves in a reaction mode over the last 18 months versus already having a plan in place. When the deal for the new arena was approved was when these discussions should have started.”

Originally, the plan was to transform the former home of the Oilers into a multi-rink sport facility. The plan was scrapped, however, when it was discovered that costs of renovations would run higher than building something new. Since then, four proposals were brought forth and revealed at a town hall held at the Bellevue Community League. It was a good first step, according to Finley, but still frustrating.

“What we do want is to make sure the members of our community have a voice and recognize we are at a critical point in either moving this area into a time of positive growth or seeing it stagnant due to missed opportunities and indecision,” he says. “We have started to see things begin to move forward, however we are still months away from having a firm plan in place for the area and the arena.”

The Edmonton EXPO Centre, however, remains economically important for the area. “As an economic generator, we believe we can provide even greater value to our community by attracting and hosting large trade and consumer shows, conventions and events,” says Gomes. “We have been entrusted with a valuable city asset that drives many aspects of economic activity in our city and our team appreciates how they contribute to making Edmonton a better place to live.”

Rogers Place has done something unprecedented in downtown arenas: it has revitalized the areas around it, reinvigorating its neighbourhood with energy and new opportunities. For the areas around the Coliseum, however, this very promise lies in wait as the City struggles to come up with a plan that is both cost-effective and good for the area. Yet even as the Coliseum lies in wait and the racetrack moves to Edmonton’s outskirts, Northlands and the EXPO Centre remain community fixtures, growing and succeeding in new ways. The future is uncertain, but the journey will be interesting to watch.

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