The Sudden Death of Edmonton Northlands
The sudden demise of Edmonton Northlands is one of them most shocking stories in the history of Alberta business. For some reason though, it seems to have passed us by.
It all happened because of one decision by Edmonton City Council that still seems unfair five years later.
A Sad State of Affairs
A few weeks ago, I was on the northside of Edmonton and had some time to kill in between appointments, so I decided to take a drive through the grounds at Edmonton Northlands. It’s basically now a parking lot – one that isn’t being maintained.
It was sad to see.
The racetrack, that had been a thriving spot for decades, was literally boarded up. The horse barns were falling apart.
Many sections of the parking lot had crumbled, leaving big potholes and it looked like they won’t be repaired.
Across 118 Avenue sat the Coliseum, which used to be one of the busiest arenas in North America. It’s been sitting empty for years, waiting for City Council to finally bite the bullet and bring in a demolition crew.
The only building left that looks good and is operating is the Expo Centre, which ironically led to the death of Northlands.
As I slowly drove around the massive parking lot, I thought about what happened to Northlands and had a sense of sadness, mixed with anger.
Young people and those who have arrived in Edmonton over the last few years have no idea what a magical place Northlands used to be. I grew up a few blocks west of there and in the 70’s and 80’s, Northlands was a regular spot for me.
I was betting the horse races a few years before it was legal for me to do so and remember the days when the racetrack was packed with bettors. It was such a popular spot Northlands used to charge for parking, gate admission and a seat in the clubhouse. You were $15 down before you started, but it was well worth it.
Across the way was the Edmonton Gardens, home of the Edmonton Oil Kings when the junior hockey team was front page news in the 60’s. It was also the location for many concerts before the Coliseum opened. I saw my first concert there – Three Dog Night. Sly and the Family Stone was on the same bill, but the group no showed, likely because of Sly’s drug problems, issues getting into Canada, or both.
The Sales Pavilion was located next to the Gardens and it had Klondike Wrestling every week (Edmonton’s name for Stampede Wrestling) and I can still remember the smell of onions at the concession, just to the right of the main entrance. Wrestling used to be on Wednesday nights and then moved to Saturdays. That old stock show building was perfect for wrestling.
The Gardens and Sales Pavilion were both demolished to make way for the Agricom, which opened in the mid-80’s. It’s now the Expo Centre and still is the best location in the city for trade shows.
Of course, across the street was the Coliseum, home of the great Edmonton Oilers teams in the 80’s and the venue for an incredible list of musical acts.
For 10 days in late July, Klondike Days filled the grounds. Back then it wasn’t just a midway, it was the place to be.
Never Given a Fighting Chance
So what happened? How did we get to this sad state in such a short period of time?
Several years ago, when Mayor Stephen Mandel and Edmonton City Council desperately wanted an arena downtown, they effectively put a bullet in the head of Northlands, by agreeing that the Coliseum could not be used for any sports or entertainment event. With horse racing winding down at Northlands, the Coliseum was the big money-maker for Northlands. When the revenue dried up, it couldn’t pay the loan taken out to expand the Expo Centre, which had been backstopped by the City. It was a quick death. The City stepped in and took over the Expo Centre and everything what was left of Northlands.
It was a bloodless coup and happened so quickly it seemed that many people didn’t realize what had happened. Most still don’t.
Northlands could have played its cards better. At one time it was convinced it would be hired by the City to operate the new arena because of its sports management expertise. Owners Oiler Darryl Katz had other ideas and came away with a sweetheart deal from the City. His company runs the arena and gets every penny from it. You can read about it in the great book Power Play.
Maybe the time had come to put an end to Northlands? The Arena District has worked well for Edmonton and Oilers fans. We’re far better off with an arena and associated businesses downtown. Maybe it had to be this way?
It still feels to me like Northlands should have been given a fighting chance. It still feels like if the Coliseum had been connected to the Expo Centre with a covered walkway and both connected to the LRT, it would be a viable operation.
As I drove around the lot, I felt a deep sense of sadness of how quickly that chapter in Edmonton’s history was put on a shelf. I know for many people my age who grew up on Edmonton’s northside, it still feels like there’s something not right about the way all of it went down.
As always, your comments are appreciated.
Northlands were a bunch of old dinosaurs and couldn’t even run. race track let alone a hockey arena.
Katz is a smart man and didn’t want Northlands anywhere near his new arena.
Northlands dug there own grave and have no one to blame but themselves.
Excellent article Grant, well written reflecting the reality of the demise of Northlands. I share your sense of sadness that an organization that is older than the city of Edmonton could be dumped and abandoned by the city with no regard of its history and long contribution to northern Alberta. Can you image the uproar if Calgary decided the Calgary Stampede was no longer reverent. I don’t believe the public could stand for it. Northlands knew the day the agreement was signed with EOG basically putting in a non compete clause, the day it could no longer service the debt on Expo Center due to lack of revenue. The city inherited Expo Center and other Northlands assets for pennies on the dollar. And now Explore Edmonton is picking up the pieces and running KDays. RIP Northlands.
I felt Explore Edmonton (Managed by the city) really has dishonored Northlands. They left and forgot the 142 history they left on our city and completely destroyed K-Days this wasn’t the Northlands K-Days I remember. I would have thought they would have something to honor their legacy.
I miss rexall. Enjoyed oiler games more back then.
I grew up in the area and enjoyed the many, many events throughout the course of any given year.
I later had the privilege of working at Northlands in a role that had me interacting with every level of the business. I can't speak to all of the hows and whys of the death of the organization, there are others who can better tell the whole story, but I do know the city did a huge disservice to Northlands and the many wonderful staff.
There were so many fantastically talented and dedicated people who gave so much to the city through Northlands, to toss away what they built and let it go to ruin is a damned shame and an insult to all their work, as well as an insult to all Edmontonians.
We had a great facility and with some encouragement and support from the city it could have been truly world class.
Now it's an under utilized building sitting on a deteriorating parking lot.
Shame on you Mayor Mandell and shame on all the councillors who assisted in this assassination.
Working in the Coliseum for the last 5 years that the Oilers where there. I can say that the building was in need of some major repairs and upgrades that would have been more expensive and time consuming then was available.
Good post and somewhat accurate. Senior management at the time played a huge role in dissing off many officials in the negotiations along the way. This individual was supposedly the savour off Northlands but turned around and help sink it as fast as the Titanic. The mayor of that day had no time for Northlands he even insisted the LRT go NAIT so the arena had an LRT station close by Rogers Place. Katz paid over $1billion of his own money to develop downtown as we see it today and a man who is committed to the Oilers
Great post. It’s so true, we all let it go. Our mayors are embarrassing and unfortunately they are making such important decisions for Edmonton’s future. I am a proud Edmontonian but unfortunately have not been as involved as I should be. I have fond memories of those days too and thank you for reminding me of them. Unfortunately most of us just let the day unfold. We complain and make no actions to improve or sustain places in Edmonton. Me included. I am going to look for ways to get involved. Thanks for gentle push.
Thank you for your comment. So nice to hear. That wasn't my intention. I just wanted to remind people of how this all came down, but if it turns into a positive, that's great!
That's a lot of hyping up for a gambling spot. Relax.
$64m is Ag and CFR week now gone to Red Deer. Two major trades shows a year that generated $76m in post event spending for each show. Endless trade and consumer shows that great new business's. Motor bike show Womens show Mom and Tots Banquets Klondike days. The casino for the record at the track was the worst performing casino in Alberta. When the city has done its next due diligence in rezoning the property it will be filled with retail housing and squeeze the Expo Centre.....
Great article Grant. It definitely was a travesty how the demise unfolded. I spent many years with great staff and volunteers there just to see it fall apart. Dave H
Northlands had the opportunity to develop around the arena, leverage the best hockey in North America and did next to nothing. Look at Roger place, 5 star hotel, casino, giant sports bar(s). Why didn’t they do all that over at northlands?
The Northlands was leased and was a non profit. They had already been paying off a loan for renovations on the Expo Centre and worked closely with the city which never helped.
Well when you think of Northlands over the past 3 decades think about this. Late Seventies built and paid for the Coliseum. Along come the Oilers and concerts to make it the 11 busiest arena in North America. Build the AgriCom Farmfair International and CFR joined to make a huge western showcase with economic impact of over $54M. Built 2 new horse barns and invested in the racetrack. Completely gutting the track and rebuilding it. Bought up every piece of property within its demised zoning and either rented or flattened the property. Expanded the parking lots and very often in the 80's and 90's at capacity. As soon Northlands lost control of the arena to the Oilers ownership group they had all rights to beer food sponsorship revenues for Oilers events only . Leaving Northlands to generate revenue from what was left and to stay whole. That was the beginning of the end
That was the City’s call. Many projects were floated by Northlands, Community Associations, and private business over the years.
At the end of the day Katz got over $200 million for the naming rights to the city owned and paid for arena while not having to contribute a dime of his own money while forcing his pal Mandel to put the knife into Northlands business model… the Pacific Coliseum is still being used in Vancouver almost 30 years after Rogers Arena was built downtown.
It wasn’t Northlands fault really remember they are a non profit that always took the bad end of the deal to continue to hold the Oilers. Edmonton still has a smaller base of people who attend events with low tourism which already has Stadium and Rogers Place which didn’t give Northlands a shot. They mainly relied on the city and provincial governments for support which had also been lowered and was put in a clause that they would have friendly competition. Vision 2020 came trying to save themselves which ended up making the city take ownership of all of Northlands Grounds slowly. They ran strongly for at least a year after.
Very good article, tells a story that needed to be said. I was on the board of Northlands for a few years about the time Katz was taking over. Northlands had been around many , many years connecting urban Edmonton to rural Alberta. Except for the staff, everyone connected with Northlands were unpaid. It was an honour to serve our community. When the oilers ownership group, Edmonton business leaders, took over from Pocklington... they kept the Oilers in Edmonton thus deserved and required the use of the facilities at a favourable rate. They were Edmontonians keeping the Oilers in Edmonton. When Katz worked out the sweetheart deal with the then mayor and council he (and the Mayor) took the city for a ride and dumped all over Northlands. It is a sad tale indeed. The area needs to be completely redeveloped. Perhaps Katz would be interested if he got everything for nothing and kept all the profits.
Excellent commentary. The loss of the racetrack and grandstand has been damaging. Anybody still going to the races?
Great piece. I grew up in the Homesteader neighbourhood, not far away. Klondike Days were part of my upbringing. We attended Oilers practices at the Coliseum, because we couldn't afford to attend games. We listened to the games on AM radio, instead. I still remember cheering loud every time we heard Jeff Beukeboom's name.
I agree that not allowing any sports at the former Coliseum was a colossal and costly mistake. I also agree that a covered connection between the expo and coliseum would have been a game-saving move. A replacement for Commonwealth Stadium would fit incredibly well at Northlands and would take advantage of the existing infrastructure; but I don't hear any whispers of that.
The white elephant Northlands site is an embarrassment to the city, which grovelled to Katz's demands for the downtown arena with no plan whatsoever for Northlands. The former Northlands board and city council at the time deserve Fs on any report card for the handling of this. And someone like former city councillor and Northlands board member Tony Caterina deserves a double-F with a kicker. Shameful.
The board had nothing to do with the deal Katz got from the city. The city had complete control and veto power over the board. The board had members appointed by the city, province and feds as a result of historic funding. The board did not grovel to Katz. Katz made the deal with the Mayor and council and the Northlands board had to suck it up.
Would have been very interesting to have been in the room during some of those meetings.
Great article Grant. Northlands was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Growing up in North Edmonton I know exactly what you mean. Thank you for this piece, Grant.