While the city has been all a-buzz about Northland Park’s Vision 2020 that was released on Wednesday, an existential question has not been asked.
Why does the City of Edmonton still need Northlands Park?
In any emotion-free analysis, the most cost-effective way forward is to reduce Northlands’ operations down to its EXPO Convention Centre and K-Days, then shut down/sell off everything else.
The case is cruel, given the not-for-profit Northlands willingly brought itself to the sacrificial alter for the greater good of Edmonton.
Northlands gave up all hockey-related Rexall Place profits to the Oilers to keep the team in town back in the ‘90s.
It has now accepted the closure of Rexall Place, sending all those concert profits over to the equally subsidized Rogers Place.
Talk about signing your own death warrant.
But for all the quality-of-life and greater-good arguments within the well-reasoned Vision 2020, there’s huge risk.
To survive, Northlands is likely to forever suck furiously at the taxpayers’ teat – mostly city hall.
It’s not even risk.
It’s a near certainty.
My heart would like to see Northlands carry on as a leisure/entertainment/meeting centre.
It has been a fine corporate citizen, is part of Edmonton’s history, has done much, is well-meaning and runs a reasonably efficient operation.
But my head says the numbers don’t work.
Very few of the proposed improvements are particularly needed in this city.
Northlands itself, outside of EXPO Centre, has no particularly strong reason for carrying on.
Let’s look at the counter-arguments to the improvements/re-positioning envisioned by Northlands.
Converting Rexall Place into a six-sheet hockey/curling Ice Coliseum: A creative idea, but is it worth $80 million in improvements to an aging building? What is the days-per-year demand for non-local youth tournaments, given school-year limitations? At $80 million for six sheets of ice, that’s $13 million each, awfully expensive on a per-sheet basis. For $80 million, a brand-new Taj Mahal of hockey/curling could be built.
For local hockey, the City of Edmonton already operates 21 indoor arenas, most with multiple ice-sheets. Major new community recreation centres have been built in all city quadrants, all with multiple indoor ice-sheets. The Clareview Community Recreation Centre is two LRT stops northeast of Northlands. The Saville Centre has answered any pent-up demand for curling ice.
The Outdoor Urban Festival Facility: At $45 million, this idea won’t fly. Edmonton doesn’t need more green space around Northlands, not with Borden Park and the river valley within walking distance. For the two-to-four mega-outdoor concerts that come every year, we already have the under-utilized Commonwealth Stadium and, for smaller outdoor events, TELUS Field. No existing city festival has expressed need for new outdoor space. The only tenant Northlands has lined up for such a facility is its own K-Days, which so far has worked fine, 10 days of the year, on a few acres of parking lot.
A renovated Hall D in the EXPO Centre: This makes sense. Even with the downtown arena, there’s still demand for a smaller, cheaper, indoor concert/event venue seating 5,000 or less - especially when Rogers Place will be booked for much of the year. At $35 million, it’s doable and might even move the EXPO Centre into the black ink.
A realistic Vision 2020 scenario has been buried by Northlands’ own survival instinct. Northlands could shrink its operations down to the EXPO Centre with its expanded Hall D, parking space and perhaps a few more acres to stage K-Days … if that event will be self-sustaining.
The rest of the buildings on the city-owned 160 acres (Northlands rents the land for $1 a year) are demolished, including Rexall Place. The land is then re-developed in a manner compatible with surrounding neighbourhoods, be it residential, commercial or light industrial use. With proximity to the LRT, major roads, rail and the river valley, it’s certainly as attractive a long-term re-development proposition as the much-lauded Blatchford on the old City Centre airport site.
With the departure of the Oilers, the Oil Kings, concerts and the Canadian Finals Rodeo from the aging Rexall Place to the new arena, with the decline of horse-racing, with the demand in the city for new leisure facilities largely met, with the City of Edmonton already carrying substantial debt, Northlands’ new role should best be contained to running a subsidy-free EXPO Centre and staging K-Days ... without further extravagant demands on the public purse.