Opinion

'Fleecing the taxpayer': Why are Edmontonians on the hook for demolishing the Coliseum?

As Edmonton city council debates the future of Rexall Place, the debate should be limited to only two options: implosion or the wrecking ball.

It was either oversight or negligence that downtown arena deal with Katz didn't take $20M bill into account

Northlands Coliseum should fall to the wrecking ball, writes guest columnist Moshe Lander. (John Robertson/CBC)

As Edmonton city council debates the future of the former Rexall Place, the debate should be limited to only two options: implosion or the wrecking ball.

The old building, forever Northlands Coliseum to me, provided Edmonton with amazing sports memories — seven Stanley Cup appearances, five Stanley Cup championships, Wayne Gretzky and the Boys on the Bus, an Oilers-laden team-Canada roster in the 1984 Canada Cup and numerous international skating and curling events, to name but a few.

Seeing the arena is a visual reminder to all Edmontonians that the city was and is The City of Champions. But those memories are in the hearts of the citizens and it should not cloud the minds needed to make the tough decision to let the building die an honourable death.

Keeping building open 'a selfish decision'

Keeping the building going is a selfish decision and one that is likely to cost more than any benefits that its continued life support would provide. The city and province contributed around $250 million (through threats and cajoling by Oilers ownership, I might add) to a downtown arena that has contributed greatly to an ongoing rejuvenation of the downtown core.

What can the Coliseum provide that Rogers Place cannot?
'Sexy' Rogers Place is a more capable venue for concerts and international events, Lander says. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

An amateur sports space, once a suggestion, could be built cheaper and in a better location. K-Days and Farmfair can be relocated without the ongoing and escalating costs needed to maintain the building for only a few weeks of usage. Concerts and international events will not consider the aging Northlands site when sexy Rogers Place is more capable.

I understand the difficult decision to let the building go. I suffered when my beloved Buffalo Sabres moved to a new arena and the historic Memorial Auditorium met its fate in 2009. I continue to speak out about my other cherished hockey team's plans to abandon its aging Saddledome for a new taxpayer-funded arena.

The decisions are made easier when the product on the ice is something worth watching.  Sorry, Oilers fans, but that does not look like it will be happening soon.

So in accepting the Coliseum's fate, the issue of how to bring it down should be the focus.

Regardless of the method decided, the arena should be stripped first. The asbestos in the building needs to be removed safely. Anything valuable, such as chairs and symbolic or iconic signage, should be sold off, auctioned or stored. Much of the piping and "guts" should be hauled away.

When the only remaining parts are the concrete and the safe bits that are too irrelevant to extract, then it is time to finish it off.

Implosion or wrecking ball?

An implosion is quick; it is exciting; it is like ripping off a Band-Aid.  Now-you-see-it, now-you-don't, scream in pain for a moment and let's move on with our lives.  

But it is messy too. With the crushing thud of cement hitting the ground, debris flies into the air and blows where the wind chooses, possibly over downtown or the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood or even hovering over passengers on the LRT.

It can be expensive. Explosives need to be placed carefully and strategically around the arena so that it collapses in on itself rather than fly everywhere.

Last week's "routine" implosion of the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. took an unusual two attempts, and should serve as a cautious reminder that success is not always guaranteed (at least, not the first time). 

The wrecking ball, on the other hand, is slower; it is lingchi — death by a thousand cuts (or swings, as it were). With the first swing, the die is cast and the building is forever doomed. Yet the task is incomplete and the demolition can easily take months, torturing the passersby with every swing.

I remember driving to Chicago with my father as a teenager in 1991, heartbroken to see old Comiskey Park, half-demolished, girders dangling from the upper deck as workers tried to remove the historical baseball park, while the gleaming new stadium sat across the street.

The thing is that the wrecking ball is cheaper with less potential dangers to the surrounding area. It can be done at a pace the city can afford. It is how I would vote to put that part of Edmonton's sporting history to rest.

Two lingering questions

But as we prepare to euthanize and eulogize the Northlands Coliseum, there are two lingering questions that should bother Edmontonians. Why is the debate about what to do with it happening now and how did the city get stuck with the bill?  

In September 2012, Oilers owner Daryl Katz, team president Patrick LaForge and president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe mysteriously surfaced in Seattle in the heat of a debate about the future of the Oilers in Edmonton.

City council, initially resistant to contributing to a new arena, panicked and, under pressure, finally buckled. An already-rich ownership group had $250 million funnelled into its pockets at municipal and provincial taxpayer expense.

According to Forbes magazine, that decision propelled the value of the Oilers from $225 million to $475 million. Why didn't the city think about what would be done with the Coliseum when approving the funding for the new arena?  Why didn't the city demand that part of the government handout given to Oilers ownership be set aside to deal with the eventual decommissioning of Northlands Coliseum?

That oversight or negligence is not just an Edmonton problem either.

The Calgary Flames ownership group has thrown periodic temper tantrums ever since, demanding a similar arena deal for themselves. If the provincial government changes its current position (or its political stripes) and agrees to fund that project too, that will cost the Edmonton taxpayer not just for their share of Calgary's stadium but also for the inevitable debate about how to dispose of the Saddledome.

Edmontonians should want to know how this was allowed to happen. Fleecing the taxpayer for another $20 million is a terrible epitaph to a wonderful building.


CBC Edmonton accepts occasional community guest columns of up to 800 words, which will be edited if they are accepted for publication. Please send suggestions to webedmonton@cbc.ca clearly marked as a suggested guest column for the web.

About the Author

Moshe Lander

Economics professor, Concordia University

Moshe Lander is a professor of economics at Concordia University in Montreal, specializing in the economics of professional sports. He has called Edmonton home since 2001.

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