Hicks on Biz: Northlands empire has fallen BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 01, 2017
It is the way of the world.
Seasons come and seasons go. Empires rise and fall.
Northlands had a good run — 138 years.
But now its empire, sitting on city-owned land, has all blown up.
The aging Coliseum sits empty other than the occasional C-circuit concert and the Canadian Finals Rodeo this fall and in 2018.
Horse racing will be gone by this time next year.
The Edmonton Expo Centre, a questionable expenditure 33 years ago, was originally financed with a $75 million city-guaranteed loan. Northlands still owes $47 million and is unable to pay the mortgage, so the Expo Centre is being taken over by the city.
A visioning experiment caused much interest last year — but none of the alternative roles envisioned for Northlands has panned out, especially with tight government purse strings in this oil-depressed economy.
Today, Northlands is de facto bankrupt. The city is turning the Expo Centre over to the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, which has long run the Shaw Conference Centre.
The 160 acre city-owned parcel of land on which Northlands sits — roughly from Wayne Gretzky Drive to 80 Street, 112 Avenue to 118 Avenue plus the Coliseum — is a long-term asset, with residential, commercial, leisure and light industrial potential.
But when does potential translate into action? Other than condo towers overlooking Borden Park and urban infill, there’s not much short-to-medium term demand for the site.
Anybody looking for large tracts of land in Edmonton’s northeast, along major transportation routes, has much to choose from. The large acreage off Fort Road and Yellowhead sat empty for decades until the city itself decided to build a new transit operations centre. The city has poured some $50 million into re-developing Fort Road north of Northlands. A decade later, most of that land still sits empty.
Northlands still has one unique mandate that hasn’t changed since its 1879 incorporation: To serve Northern Alberta’s agricultural community — hence the annual Farmfair International held, until now, in conjunction with the Canadian Finals Rodeo.
Northlands also produces the annual K-Days Exhibition … but any number of festival organizations could do the same.
Staging K-Days and serving the agricultural/food community means Northlands will likely carry on, albeit as a much smaller organization.
City council will help. It still feels guilty about the death sentence imposed on Northlands when a new downtown arena was picked in 2013 over re-building the 40-year-old Coliseum.
The city will subsidize Northlands in small ways as it does other festivals, i.e. minimal charges for use of the site and buildings for K-Days and Farm Fair.
A report to city council about Coliseum options will arrive shortly. It’s difficult to believe the arena can justify ongoing maintenance costs for just one multi-day event (the rodeo, if its contract is extended past 2018) and a few C-circuit concerts per year.
Unless a partner puts major skin into the game, converting the Coliseum to other uses is a pipe dream. No such partner is on the horizon. The likelihood is the Coliseum will reluctantly be demolished at a cost to the city of $10 million to $20 million.
The Northlands board and executives feel badly about layoffs and downsizing. Much history, tradition and community service is already fading into the past.
The jobs, however, have not disappeared. They have moved to Rogers Place, to the new racetrack/casino by the International Airport that will open in late 2018. Front-line workers at the Expo Centre will still be needed when new management takes over.
Not resolved is the future of the Canadian Finals Rodeo. The impact of 15,000 rodeo fans descending on the city in November is crucial. The rodeo people won’t negotiate beyond 2018 if there’s no certainty of an arena.
At Rogers Place, the Oilers Entertainment Group appear more excited about filling the new arena for the sexy extreme-sport Professional Bull-Riding Global Cup (with its TV potential) than the rodeo.
It’s quite possible the bull riders will be a modern replacement for the rodeo, bringing the same number of rural neighbours to town for a working holiday, especially if staged at the same time as Farm Fair.
Northlands did many good things for the city. It may remain, with its large-but-aging volunteer base, an organization capable of producing specialty events.
But the glory days are long gone.
That was then. And this is now.