City releases scathing findings on Northlands' future plan

A plan by Edmonton Northlands to reinvent itself after the Rogers Place downtown arena opens will cost $65 million more than originally proposed by the non-profit organization.

City staff question demand for Hall D retrofit, call plan for Urban Festival site too vague

Northlands Coliseum, formerly known as Rexall Place, hasn't seen its last rodeo. (Edmonton Northlands)

A plan by Edmonton Northlands to reinvent itself after the Rogers Place downtown arena opens will cost $65 million more than originally proposed by the non-profit organization.

The cost, the lack of details about a planned festival site and questionable demand for building a 5,000-seat concert and sports hall in Expo Centre Hall D were cited by city administration as reasons for council to reject the plan. 

The non-profit, which runs the coliseum formerly known as Rexall Place, is trying to reinvent itself. The Vision 2020 plan proposed a number of changes to the arena, the Expo Centre, the horse racing track and the casino.

Concerts and Edmonton Oilers games will move to Rogers Place starting next month, leaving the coliseum without key attractions. Horse racing is also likely to end at the Northlands track this fall. Northlands projects a negative annual cash flow of $7.7 million.

Under the plan, the race track and casino area would become a festival site, and the Expo Centre Hall D would be converted into a 5,000-seat concert and sports venue.

The coliseum would be converted into a facility with seven ice surfaces.

City seeks creative solution for Coliseum

After months of analysis, city staff described parts of the plan as insufficiently detailed and difficult to justify.

They found Northlands also underestimated the cost of construction, failing to factor in public consultation and design work. In total, the renovations were estimated at $165 million. But the city estimates the cost at $235 million. Northlands also wants the city to forgive a $47-million loan.

In a news conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Don Iveson said the city has no plans to forgive the loan. He did express support for the plan to turn the coliseum into a multiplex.

Northlands originally pitched the multiplex as a hockey centre, but Iveson said other sports such as indoor soccer and lacrosse may be needed since there isn't enough demand for ice time in that area of the city.

The Coliseum would be converted to a six or seven rink recreational arena if Northlands' plan is approved. (Supplied)

Iveson said he thinks there are likely creative solutions that could compensate for that lack of demand, including creating a hockey academy in the building. He said the public wants to find a way to re-purpose the building, and he thinks the city should do its best to accomplish that.

"I kind of want to go to the ends of the Earth to figure out how to make it work, rather than be deterred by whether it's four or six sheets," he said.

The Katz Group has the power to veto Northlands' plans for the coliseum as part of its master agreement for the new Rogers Place arena. According to the agreement, the city cannot contribute to the renovation of the old building unless it becomes something other than a sports or entertainment venue.

Iveson said he can't speak for the Katz Group, but said he hopes the company won't stand in the way.

Iveson proposes merging convention centres

Even if the multiplex goes ahead, Iveson said it won't solve Northlands financial problems, which he blames primarily on the underperformance of the Expo Centre.

Mayor Don Iveson criticised several parts of Northlands' proposal after city staff released their assessment on Wednesday. (CBC)
If Northlands defaults on its loan from the city, the loan agreement states the city can take back the Expo Centre and end Northlands' lease.

Next week, Iveson will propose bringing the Expo Centre and the Shaw Conference Centre under the same management, either the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation or a new entity.

"If we look at bringing the two conference centres together under a convention and event authority, we will get better tourism and economic development results for our city," he said.

That would leave Northlands future role in the convention centre "up in the air."

Councillors hope to get feedback from a public hearing about Northlands before making a decision next week.

No one from Northlands was immediately available for comment.