Whither Big Owe? Public to ponder stadium's future

Quebecers are being invited to come up with ideas for the future of the billion-dollar Olympic Stadium — the seldom-used building with the unstable roof they're still paying for.


  • Stadium has cost $1 billion since 1972
  • Last mortgage payment made in November 2006
  • Estimated demolition cost: $700 million

Quebecers are being invited to come up with ideas for the future of the billion-dollar Olympic Stadium — the seldom-used building with the unstable roof. 

Everything's on the table for Montreal's "Big O" except the frequently touted one: blowing it up.

For the first time, the provincial agency in charge of the aging stadium – also known as the "Big Owe" – will accept suggestions from the public beginning next week.

A committee will present a report on the brainstorming sessions in 2012.

Committee head Lise Bissonnette said virtually all options are up for discussion, but demolishing the stadium isn't among them.

Bissonnette said she's been told that blasting alone couldn't take down the 35-year-old concrete behemoth.

"The way the stadium is built you cannot demolish it by just putting some dynamite in it and getting rid of it in a day — it would take months," she said Wednesday.

"You would have to do it almost by hand with the kind of concrete that's there."

Bissonnette, the former publisher of Montreal Le Devoir, said the province's desire to map out the future of the stadium, and the surrounding facilities, marks a historic shift for a site that has long been an infamous symbol of cost overruns and bad government planning.

She said the money would be better spent on improving Olympic Park, which includes the stadium, museums, a sports centre and a 165-metre inclined tower.

Bissonnette described the stadium and its tower as important components of the Montreal skyline, and compared them to the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House.

"Though the stadium had its problems, as a piece of architecture it's absolutely famous and beautiful," said Bissonnette, whose committee first announced the public consultation process in the spring.

"To demolish that would be, I think, a sort of failure that we would not recover from symbolically."

Committee to report suggestions in 2012

The committee expects to receive ideas from community, tourist, cultural and sports groups as well as individuals at meetings that run through the fall.

Quebecers are about to kick off brainstorming sessions on the future of one of Canada's biggest white elephants: Montreal's Olympic Stadium. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)
It will also be accepting online proposals and holding sessions in different regions of the province.

"This equipment belongs to all Quebecers – they all pay for that – not only in Montreal," Bissonette said.

The stadium, which has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion since 1972, housed the 1976 Summer Games, was home to Major League Baseball's Expos, and has been the venue for numerous concerts and the Grey Cup.

The Canadian Football League's Alouettes have also used the 56,000-seat venue in recent years for playoff games.

The province made its last mortgage payment in November 2006 for all the facilities at Olympic Park — which totalled nearly $1.5 billion, including the stadium.

More public investment will be necessary, including a planned, $300-million roof for the stadium.

The building is no longer open during winter months after an old roof caved in a few years ago under the weight of a heavy snowfall.

Critics, meanwhile, have long complained that the building is no longer profitable. The 2009 annual report says it ran a deficit of $7.3 million that year.

But a geography professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM), who has presented potential options for the site to the Olympic Installations Board, believes it still holds a lot of promise.

Sylvain Lefebvre said the concrete-dominated area around the stadium is not a pleasant place to hang out, but more green space could be added, as well as restaurants and maybe even a hotel.

"It's still a very important urban landmark in Monteal — it's a powerful symbol," said Lefebvre, who has compared the post-Games life of Montreal's venue with those in other former host cities, like Sydney and Munich.

"But there's no city that has a slope like Montreal has to climb, so there's quite a significant challenge here. There also aren't any cities where the stadium has carried such a negative image for so many years."