Recap: Retrofutures – Edmonton’s Omniplex Debate

Last month I attended the first ever Retrofutures event, hosted by the Edmonton City as Museum Project. ECAMP is a project from the Edmonton Heritage Council that aims to tell the stories of the people, places, things, and moments that make Edmonton what it is. Retrofutures is a new event series they are trying to get off the ground.

The topic at this event was was the Omniplex, one of the big ideas that Edmonton was considering in the 1960s and early 1970s as the arena debate of that era raged on. The Omniplex was never built, of course, but that presents an interesting thought exercise – what if it had been built?

“The first Retrofutures project from ECAMP takes the case of Omniplex to explore these and other questions. When the idea was first hatched fifty years ago, Omniplex was one of the boldest ideas in urban planning in Western Canada.”

Dr. Russell Cobb has done some research on the Omniplex and started with a presentation on what the Omniplex was all about, as well as the context of the time in which it was being considered. If you haven’t already done so, check out his extensive piece on the Omniplex at The Wanderer.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

After the presentation, he led a panel discussion which featured Paula Simons and Alex Abboud. It was a great conversation, filled with interesting anecdotes and insights. Alex kind of took the position that we should have built it, while Paula took the opposite view. Much of the discussion centered around the impact the Omniplex might have had on downtown, and that raised all sorts of points about the LRT construction, West Edmonton Mall, etc. We also had a mock vote, to decide if we should have built the Omniplex or not. By a narrow margin, the room voted against the Omniplex!

If I have one criticism of the event, it’s that the Omniplex was talked about as if it was the only thing being considered at the time, when in fact it was just the most audacious in a series of arena proposals that failed before the Coliseum (Rexall Place) ultimately went ahead in the early 70s (it opened in 1974). I think you could look at three different plebiscites to support this.

The first took place in 1963. Voters were asked if Council should borrow $4 million to buy land for a megacomplex (which included an arena) to be built where the Citadel sits today. That vote failed. They were also asked if Council should borrow $10.25 million in debt to build the facility, and that vote failed too.

The second plebiscite took place in 1968. That time, voters were asked if they favored the construction of a “Trade Convention and Sports Complex” at a cost of $23 million to be operated at an annual deficit of not more than $2 million. That vote succeeded.

The third plebiscite took place in 1970 in a by-election, and that one was the Omniplex decision. Voters were asked if they wanted Council to borrow $26.4 million to construct the Omniplex – they said no. They were also asked if Council should purchase land north of the proposed site for parking. That vote also failed.

Throughout the decade, a series of arena proposals were put forward by local businessmen and politicians including Sam Hashman and Webb & Knapp. In 1966, after it was condemned by the fire chief, the Edmonton Gardens received a $670,000 renovation, extending its life a little while the arena debate continued. The Oilers moved to the Coliseum for the 1974-1975 season, and the Gardens was eventually demolished in 1982.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

ECAMP has said they plan to hold additional Retrofutures events in the future. Topics could include “what would Edmonton be like if we had not built West Edmonton Mall” or “what would have happened to Edmonton if the freeway through the river valley had gone ahead”. Should be pretty interesting! To find out about upcoming events, check the website and follow them on Twitter.

Have arenas on your mind? Northlands and the Arena Strategy Committee that I am a part of are doing an online survey on the future of Rexall Place. Fill it out and let us know what you think should happen with the arena! The survey is open until January 31, 2015.

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