|Photo courtesy City of Edmonton Archives|
In the 1960s, a group of big-thinking Edmontonians came up with a fanciful scheme to build an Omniplex – a covered football stadium, ice arena, live performance and film theatres and trade and convention centre, all under one roof. The all-weather structure was to be located “on a site to be determined” in downtown Edmonton and be built in conjunction with rapid transit to “stimulate revitalization of the city core.”
Over the course of the decade, the anticipated cost went from $10 million to $23 million. “Proposed is a structure unlike any other in the world, as bizarre in concept as the Expo pavilions (in Montreal) and many times more versatile – as well as much more weather-proof – than the Houston Astrodome,” gushed a 1968 city pamphlet printed to inform citizens of the proposal.
Edmontonians were sharply divided on the issue. Between 1962 and 1971, various proposals were floated and the question of a multipurpose complex was put to citizens three times in municipal plebiscites. Alas, the vision never came to fruition, pushing the Omniplex into the annals of history as another grandiose idea that never came to be.
The plan was first touted in 1962, under the mayoralty of William Hawrelak. A report by consultants Webb and Knapp examined the feasibility of a large multipurpose building northwest of 103rd Avenue and 102nd Street.
A seven-person committee was appointed to “explore the possibility of a coliseum in the city centre,” and they toured several cities which had such sports facilities. A proposed budget of $10 million was suggested.
In the 1963 municipal election, the question was first put to voters. Citizens were asked whether the city should borrow $4 million to buy land and buildings between Jasper Avenue and 102nd Avenue and between 97th and 99th Streets.
The property would be used for “a convention centre, an arena for sporting and cultural events and exhibitions, a theatre building, tourist centre and parking garage” as part of “the City Centre Development Plan.” The vote was 57 per cent in favour.
A second question asked voters whether council should borrow $10.25 million “to construct a convention centre, an area for sporting and cultural events and exhibitions, a theatre building, tourist centre and parking garage.” Citizens voted 54.8 per cent in favour. However, because it was a money bylaw, a two-thirds majority was required, and so the project stalled.
By 1965, talks were underway with the federal government about urban renewal, and various city departments were at work looking at the feasibility of replacing the old Edmonton Gardens on the exhibition grounds with the “Civic Centre Coliseum.” In 1966, developer Sam Hashman Construction presented the city with plans for a 9,000 seat arena, 25,000 square feet of exhibit space, 82,000 square feet of trade centre space and underground parking for 900 cars. The anticipated tab was $11 million.
Critics of the downtown proposal cited congested streets and access to parking, and the federal government began discouraging the city from purchasing land in the inner city lest it interfere with urban renewal plans. One group of investors came forward with a scheme to build a domed stadium near the Rossdale Power Plant, while another was promoting a standalone trade centre.
Not surprisingly, citizens began to complain about all the wasted effort and money being poured into studies of the various options, and in the boom times of the mid-1960s, Edmontonians were hungry for some action. Mayor Vic Dantzer wasn’t convinced that the city was big enough to support a 32,000 seat stadium.
Canadian National Railways brought forward a proposal to build a rapid transit system and offer its land north of 104th Avenue for development. By early 1968, there were five proposals before the aldermen – two coliseums, two trade centres and one domed stadium.
The city printed a pamphlet which explained the proposal to put the question to voters in the October 16, 1968 municipal election. “Edmonton’s Omniplex,” it said, would be a “multi-use Trade, Convention & Sports Complex, under one roof, on a downtown site, by 1971 if proven feasible by in-depth studies.”
The proposal called for a 32,000-seat sports stadium and a 12,200-seat artificial ice arena. Architecturally, it was a daring and imaginative design, with a floating or raisable football field that could be elevated to reveal the hockey facility below. The ceiling of the hockey rink was to be the elevated floor of the football stadium.
A trade and merchandise exhibit area would have had 100,000 square feet of convention space with seating for up to 25,000 delegates, a 3,400 seat cultural theatre, a movie theatre, two smaller theatres and 30,000 square feet of office and meeting room space.
The question to voters was worded: “Do you favour the construction of a Trade Convention and Sports Complex containing facilities such as a covered Football stadium and Ice Arena, and a Trade & Convention Centre, at an estimated capital cost of $23 million and to be operated at an estimated annual deficit of not more than two million?” The vote was 72.8 per cent in favour and newly elected mayor Ivor Dent promised rapid action.
However, by the next month, rampant land speculation had increased the costs and the issue was referred to a committee for further study of suitable sites. The study continued through 1969 and 1970, and even included a trip for alderman to other cities that had somewhat similar facilities.
Council was unable to make a decision, and finally, a plebiscite was called for November 25, 1970. Both sides of the discussion ran extensive campaigns leading up to the vote, which asked whether council should borrow $26.434 million for the construction of an Omniplex. More than 70,000 citizens cast ballots and 54 per cent voted against it.
City council then debated whether to look for alternative funding or sponsorship or to divide the project into component parts and at least begin work on one of them. But by 1971, the cost had escalated to more than $35 million, and other groups began suggesting alternatives. The new council elected that year expressed an interest in continuing the process, but it never happened.
Within a year, design work began on Edmonton’s new Coliseum on 118th Avenue near 74th Street and, by the end of the decade, Edmontonians had voted in favour of building a new convention centre on Grierson Hill. The grand dream for an Omniplex had missed its window of opportunity.
Special thanks to the reference archivists at the City of Edmonton Archives for their help researching this feature.