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.
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