Picnickers, festivals lament pending 3-year closure of Edmonton's Hawrelak Park

Edmonton's William Hawrelak Park is set to close for three years next spring as the city renews infrastructure in the 57-year-old park, but closing the park will have a major impact on many, including runners, picnickers and festivals. 

Several festivals still looking for new locations

The amphitheatre and pavilion at Hawrelak Park are well-used venues nearly year-round. (David Bajer/CBC)

Edmonton's William Hawrelak Park is set to close for three years next spring as the city renews infrastructure in the 57-year-old park, but closing it will have a major impact on many, including runners, picnickers and festivals. 

Neil Primrose regularly rides his electric bike on park trails and has family picnics at Hawrelak.

"We all like to come down and bring extended family and get one of these picnic sites and have a get-together," Primrose told CBC in an interview Tuesday.

His 92-year-old mother joins them for family picnics there, he said, and might not be around to appreciate the upgrades.

"If she is, she probably won't be coming down here."

Three years long

Primrose said he used to work in the development industry and believes it shouldn't take that long to complete the upgrades. 

"The streets should be paved with gold in that kind of time," Primrose said. "I really don't know what they're doing. They could build it from scratch in less time than that." 

Jesse Banford, the city's director of facility infrastructure delivery, said the majority of the underground utilities are at the end of their lifespans. With significant construction planned, the city will need to close the entire park for safety reasons. 

The city had been considering a 10-year project in phases but Banford said the cost and schedule exponentially grow in that timeframe. 

"Let's get it done, get it out, replace it, get back and enjoy it as soon as possible," Banford said. 

The work includes upgrades to outdoor and indoor amenities and event spaces.

The underground work includes replacing the majority of the water, sewer and electrical lines and addressing drainage issues. The city will also be dredging the sediment from the lake bottom. 

A sign on a washroom at Culina on the Lake restaurant pavilion at Hawrelak Park is one of the few notices warning that the park is expected to close next year. (David Bajer/CBC)

Above-ground work includes upgrading benches,the playground, picnic tables and sites, replacing the paddle boat dock and adding lighting for security. 

Nearly 50 toilets on the grounds will be upgraded with some pre-purposed to be gender-inclusive washrooms.

The city had estimated the project will cost between $50 and $150 million.

Banford said the city's infrastructure branch is refining the estimate before it presents a final budget request to council this fall. 

World-class venue

Kanchan Sandhu, a university professor from Punjab, India, was visiting family in Edmonton this week and Hawrelak was on the top of her list of spots to visit. 

"This is the right place to meditate, to do yoga, and to sit down, sit away from the city and the loud things in our day-to-day lives," Sandhu said.

"I think it's part of the rhythm of Edmonton," Sandhu said. "It shouldn't be closed — that's sad." 

Cam Hayden, founder and producer of the Edmonton Blues Festival, said the amphitheatre where the musicians play in the middle of the park is a world-class venue. 

"It's a shame that we're going to be closing the amphitheatre for three years."

Hayden said he's travelled around North America, Europe and Australia for music festivals and has only seen a few venues as welcoming as Hawrelak's amphitheatre.

"I can tell you right now, there are very few, very, very few venues that compare to the amphitheatre for the intimacy, the sight lines, the cover over the stage and part of the audience," Hayden said.

Festivals hunt for new homes

Festivals that use the park every year are searching for new temporary locations. 

Hayden said he's still working on inking a deal for a replacement venue that can come close to the amphitheatre for the Blues Fest, but he isn't ready to announce a decision. 

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is also looking for a new site for its outdoor summer event.

Media relations officer Konstantine Kurelias said the ESO is looking for a temporary home for next year. 

"Audiences have enjoyed Symphony Under the Sky in Hawrelak Park for 26 years," he said. "The space is very special to the ESO."

Heritage Festival is still working with the city and Explore Edmonton to potentially move its pavilions to the Exhibition Lands north of Borden Park. 

Jim Gibbon, executive director of the Heritage Festival, said the festival is looking at two sites outside of city limits. 

A decision on a location is expected by November, he said. 

In February, before the park closes for three years, the last major event at Hawrelak will be Silver Skate, the annual winter extravaganza.

Erin DiLoreto, the festival's executive producer, said the luck of the calendar has given them a chance to offer a full program again next year after scaled-down events during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We were the last major event before COVID," DiLoreto said. "We're really excited to come back to that programming." 

 DiLoreto said in 2024 and 2025, Silver Skate will be held at Laurier Park.


Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.


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