Recently I have been doing some research on the history of Rexall Place. I thought it would be useful to understand what happened in the past when trying to make sense of our current downtown arena debate. As part of that research, I spent some time at the City of Edmonton archives. I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to approach my research, so I simply asked for anything related to the construction of the Coliseum. Sherry Bell, Reference Archivist at the Archives, was incredibly helpful and came back with a thick file folder labeled “File 1, 1963-1974”. She told me it was the first of many, just the tip of the iceberg.
I read through the entire folder, taking notes as I went. The documents inside, mostly clipped Edmonton Journal articles, tell the story of how the Coliseum came to be, from the push for a downtown arena in the early 1960s through to the construction of what we now call Rexall Place in the early 1970s.
The title of this post comes from an article in the Edmonton Journal published on September 12, 1963. In it, Alderman Les Bodie made his case for the proposed downtown coliseum of the day, saying:
“I think the successful city will be the one with a stable economic base combined with a stimulating economic climate, and the coliseum will be a major factor in attracting interest in our city.”
It was one of many gems I found in the file, some of which I have shared below, and some of which I’ll share in future posts.
In total, I recorded 93 headlines (I skipped some). Here’s the breakdown of the articles I looked at by year:
Lots was written early on in the debate, and less was written as construction got underway and progressed. Here’s a sample of the headlines:
- Coliseum Site Studied – May 11, 1963
- City Approves $10 Million Coliseum Plan – June 25, 1963
- City Has ‘Escape Hatch’ If Coliseum Voted Down – August 29, 1963
- City’s Standing As Metropolis Declared To Hinge On Coliseum – September 12, 1963
- Mayor Hits Coliseum Critics – September 24, 1963
- Coliseums Seem To Spark Growth – September 28, 1963
- Coliseum Complex Rejected By Almost Half Ratepayers – October 17, 1963
- Mayor Anticipates Verdict On New Coliseum Proposal – March 1, 1965
- A Coliseum Or A New Arena? – March 25, 1965
- Alderman Warns City Taxpayers Will Have To Subsidize Coliseum – July 20, 1966
- Ex arena to be constructed just north of Gardens – April 22, 1972
- Oilers won game but public the real winner – November 11, 1974
I was immediately struck by how similar today’s debate is to the debate in the 1960s. In short: a downtown arena is proposed and tied to the future of the city, people argue over the location and other details, but the process really gets stuck on the money.
One of the first documents I found in the file was a pamphlet published by The Hamly Press (which as far as I can tell no longer exists) entitled, “the Coliseum Plebiscite: a test of our Faith in Edmonton as a Great Metropolis of the North West”. Here are some of the statements found inside:
- “A downtown showplace that will publicize Edmonton as a progressive, positive-thinking city, developing rapidly in all phases of modern city live and endeavor.”
- “The Coliseum Complex will lead the way in revitalizing downtown activity.”
- “A Vital Necessity for Downtown Development!”
- “Construction of the Coliseum Complex will be the city’s first step in the fulfilment of Edmonton’s remarkable plan for the renewal of the downtown city centre. There is little doubt that perseverance with this project now will be a decisive factor in the eventual completion of the entire Civic Centre plan.”
- And a quote from Mayor Roper: “This plebiscite will be a test of the vision of the ratepayers of our city. How much do we want Edmonton to lead all Canada in bold, imaginative downtown development?”
Edmonton Journal writer Ben Tierney, working in the City Hall Bureau, wrote a lot about the proposed project. In a September 24, 1963 article entitled “Other Cities Find Value in Coliseums” he highlighted what he saw as “three basic benefits”:
- Attraction of major sports, entertainment and cultural events that the city could not otherwise hope to obtain.
- Attraction of outside dollars to the city through increased convention activity as well as non-local attendance at coliseum events.
- Increased tax revenue for the city through construction of new downtown building encouraged by the coliseum’s construction, and a revitalized city centre.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Of course, the initial plan never came to fruition, and subsequent attempts to rescue it failed also. On October 17, 1963 the Edmonton Journal reported the results of the plebiscite that would have authorized the City to borrow $14,250,000 to finance the coliseum:
“The coliseum complex was strongly backed by the former city council, the Edmonton and District Labor Council, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and Jaycees, the Edmonton Exhibition Association, the Edmonton Area Civic Centennial Committee, and the Edmonton Building and Construction Trades Council.”
“55% of voters favored the two money bylaws…but a 2/3 majority was required. Opposition to the project centered on the costs involved.”
Over the next ten years, various attempts to salvage the idea were made, but ultimately the cheaper Edmonton Coliseum was built instead. I wonder how different things might have been had the downtown complex gone ahead?