Founded in 1879, Northlands’ presence has loomed large for over a century.
Northlands Park has been operating since 1900. The Edmonton Coliseum opened its doors on Nov. 10, 1974 for an Edmonton Oilers vs Cleveland World Hockey Association game. The first concert, Stevie Wonder, followed a few weeks later. Since then, the Coliseum has hosted the Commonwealth Games, the 1981 and 1984 Canada Cup hockey tournaments, seven NHL Stanley Cup finals, the Canadian Finals Rodeo and too many concerts and events to list here.
Northlands’ management of the Coliseum (later called Skyreach Centre and then Rexall Place) and the 64-hectare property on which it sits hasn’t been without controversy over the years.
I can remember residents in Borden Park and north Cromdale fighting the demolition of hundreds of homes in their neighbourhoods to make way for Northlands’ expansion in the late 80s and early 90s. I also remember that when Peter Pocklington threatened to move the Oilers unless he was let out of his lease and granted a laundry list of concessions, Northlands got an injunction against the Oilers’ owner which prevented him from negotiating such a move. And while many were critical of the deal that was ultimately hammered out, I always felt that Northlands did a much better job of protecting its interests than city council did protecting ours and wasn’t prepared to blame them for that.
To this day, there are people who like to point fingers at the organization for relying so much on city subsidies and tax breaks, but those people are forgetting that Northlands negotiated many of those terms because of breaks being given to the Oilers to keep them here. To me, all of that pales in comparison to the times Northlands has proven itself to be a good neighbour, not just to those of us in the immediate vicinity, but to people across northern Alberta.
It was Northlands who received Slave Lake residents during the fire in 2011 and again this year when tens of thousands Fort McMurray residents faced evacuation. Northlands support our communities and have proven, these past few years, a commitment to broad community consultation about the future.
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying Northlands has left an indelible mark. From its Urban Farm (which operates on the southwest corner of the site to K-Days) the organization continues to contribute to our recreational and cultural life.
Most of us would balk at the idea of building and financing a brand new house without giving any thought about what to do with the old house. However, that’s precisely what city council did when it struck a deal with the Katz Group to build a new arena downtown. Shutting Northlands out of the picture and removing its main source of revenue wasn’t enough for the Oilers Entertainment Group. They sought and received the power to veto any city contribution to improvements at Northlands that involve either sports or entertainment, creating the potential to hamstring future plans.
In 2014, the Northlands’ board formed an arena strategy committee to look at what the future might hold. With members from both the board and the community at large, the committee conducted research and consulted with stakeholders before delivering a report last year that described shuttering Rexall Place as the worst possible scenario for Northlands and the communities surrounding it. I wholeheartedly agree.
Last month, after rejecting a proposal that would see the horse racing track repurposed as an outdoor festival site and Rexall Place as a multi-purpose sports complex, city council voted to defer Northlands’ $47-million loan for the Expo Centre for a year to give the organization time to come up with a viable plan.
Northlands has committed to working with our communities to develop a plan for the future that will enhance, not impede, the revitalization efforts that we’ve seen over the past decade. I, for one, think it’s in all of our best interests to help them succeed. Good neighbours are awfully hard to come by.