“If you build it, they will come.” That may have been true in the movie Field of Dreams, but probably not for Northlands’ ambitious Vision 2020, according to the City of Edmonton.
The city says Northlands’ plan to overhaul the arena, EXPO centre and horse racing track overestimates the amount of revenue the changes would bring in, and underestimates the cost of the massive overhaul.
Northlands CEO Tim Reid said Vision 2020 is not dead, but it needs a re-think. “The worst thing to do is nothing,” he said Wednesday, reiterating what he has been saying from the beginning.
Reid said the city’s report is well-researched, but believes it may have been off with some of the financials because Northland’s vision included assumed investment from the private sector, which the city didn’t take into consideration in its analysis.
Back in March, the non-profit organization presented its plan for the future to city council, saying big changes were needed to remain sustainable beyond 2016, now that the Edmonton Oilers and most major concerts have moved to the new Rogers Place arena. The city took three months to analyze the plan, and on Wednesday presented its response.
The proposal included converting Northlands Coliseum arena (formerly Rexall Place) into a six-sheet ice arena for recreational hockey, transforming the racetrack and casino into an urban festival site, and turning Hall D inside the Edmonton Expo Centre into a 5,000-seat concert space and sports arena.
Mayor Don Iveson said he likes the idea of the arena being converted into some sort of multiplex and said there are elements of Vision 2020 that deserve future recognition.
However he doesn’t think this is the solution to meet the high demand for more recreational ice rinks in Edmonton. The city noted that its current Recreation Facility Master Plan calls for an even distribution of facilities across Edmonton, and said Northlands plan would put too many on the north side.
“The Rexall Place repurposed arena with six sheets of year-round ice as Northlands has proposed is beyond the projected market needs in this geographic area of Edmonton up to 2019,” said a report posted online Wednesday morning.
The city also suggested the outdoor festival place and concert hall would not be able to attract enough events to be profitable, and there isn’t enough demand for such spaces.
The city said market research across Canada shows buildings like Hall D have the capacity to attract about 20 to 24 concerts or events a year. However Vision 2020’s plan assumed the facility would host double that amount.
“Research data indicates Hall D could not attract this volume of concerts without impacting the viability of other existing venues throughout Edmonton,” said the report.
As for the plan to transform the race track into an urban outdoor festival or concert space, the city said existing Edmonton festivals have no interest in moving. Even if they did, it would take five to 10 years for the events to attract large enough crowds.
The city said Northlands’ plan was lacking in functional details and operational costs for things like emergency personnel, traffic management, and site maintenance.
Iveson said the future of Northlands is “a little bit up in the air now.”
“There are no easy answers for Northlands and there are no silver bullets,” Iveson said at a news conference. He called the business case for expanding the Edmonton EXPO Centre overly ambitious.
The report acknowledges that although Northlands business operations have historically been sustainable, it is projecting a $7.7 million negative cash flow per year with the loss of the existing business at the arena, the Canadian Finals Rodeo, and the closure of horse racing. As a result, Northlands may not be in a position to make its loan payments to the city beginning in 2017.
Northlands had asked council to consider forgiving the $48 million outstanding debt (plus $25 million in interest) on the EXPO Centre. Iveson said he doesn’t think council will go for that.
The report says if Northlands can’t make its payments, the city may take back the EXPO Centre and terminate the site lease.
One idea the mayor proposed: bringing together the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton EXPO Centre either under Northlands, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation or someone new.
Below: The full City of Edmonton analysis of Northlands’ Vision 2020 plan.