A new Northlands can be a new opportunity Changes allow Northlands to go back to its roots

Change is in the air, and that means more than the seasonal change to fall. In the blink of an eye, Northlands seems to have been turned on its head. It all happened so fast.

Come Jan. 1, Northlands will hand the reigns of its EXPO Centre to the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), the City of Edmonton’s arm-length agency that manages the Shaw Conference Centre.

The city announced the transition on Aug. 29, after council decided to forgive Northlands’ $48-million debt from renovating  the EXPO Centre in 2009. The city didn’t have much of a choice; it guaranteed the loan, and for the last year, allowed Northlands to defer its semi annual $2-million payments.

It’s a practical move. Edmonton doesn’t need rival event centres. The EEDC is capable of managing both venues and taking on the EXPO Centre’s staff. Although the city can afford to absorb the debt, it shouldn’t have to with nothing to show for it.

In the past, both venues competed for bookings and ran the risk of hosting events that might have been served better by the other—a situation which can lead to missed business opportunities.

Under the authority of the EEDC, both facilities can be managed to coordinate and appropriately accommodate clients. Consolidation also opens the city to new business, such as conferences, expos, and trade shows that require more space, resources, and facilities than any one venue could offer alone. Connected by an LRT line, the two centres could easily share large events.

As for the Northlands Park and the Coliseum, the future is still on ice.

Last month, city council also voted in favour of taking over both, and opted to permanently close the arena by Jan. 1. It was a loss the whole city felt, and with good reason. The Coliseum is an iconic symbol of Edmonton’s greatest sports achievements. It was the home of Oilers during the dynasty years, and the place where Wayne Gretzky made his name known across the world.

But with major concerts and sporting events moved downtown to Rogers Place, the Coliseum’s major revenue streams have dried up, making it hard to justify as an entertainment venue. There’s a silver lining, though: the closure gets the city out of a $17-million sponsorship agreement with the Oilers Entertainment Group, a bitter pill from the downtown arena deal.

The city has entertained a few ideas for the arena’s future, such as teaming up with Hockey Canada and turning it into a hockey centre of excellence. But renovating the arena to add additional ice sheets and training facilities would cost between $100-150 million. Demolishing it, on the other hand, would only cost about $8 million. It might be cheaper to just rebuild.

But nobody is swinging any wrecking balls yet. The area redevelopment plan for the Coliseum isn’t due until later next year. Whatever the city decides, there will be time to adjust, or mourn.

Regardless, Northlands will still have a lot going for it. A leader in agriculture and food events, the non-profit organization has an opportunity to return to its roots, so to speak. For at least the next five years, Northlands will continue to host signature events like Farmfair International and K-Days.

And there’s the 31,200-square-foot Urban Farm, a model of local and sustainable food production. If Northlands can continue operating it, the patch of land in the southwest corner can continue serving as a valuable educational resource for everyone from hobby gardeners to beekeepers. However, that negotiation is still ongoing.

This time next year, Northlands may be a very different place. But change doesn’t have to be a bad thing as long as we’re willing to look forward. This isn’t the end of the world for Northlands; it’s just the end of the season.

Hamdi Issawi

Hamdi is a journalism student at MacEwan University. He cut his teeth as a contributor on Terra Informa, an award-winning, environmental news magazine. He has also written for The Gateway Online and The Griff. Find Hamdi on Twitter @hamdiissawi.

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