History Repeats: An Edmonton Case Study

That history repeats itself is a well-worn truism. Born by both anecdotes and theory, most students of history or society see trends and activities re-emerge and repeat over time.

I’ve been thinking about this as I follow debates on downtown revitalization and other issues in Edmonton. My thinking in recent months has been heavily influenced by Colin Woodward’s book American Nations, which relies heavily on the idea that the founding culture remains constant and dominant over time. That is to say, rather than forcing it to change to their own norms, outsiders tend to conform to the culture instead. Other ideas like Howe and Strauss’ generational theory lend credence to the idea that things stay constant, and tend to repeat themselves in cycles.

I’ve spend some time looking through Google Archive at Edmonton’s old news coverage, and this seems to hold true. Similar themes, ideas, and approaches reoccur. In particular, this comes into play with civic arenas and downtown revitalization. The Omniplex, which dominated Edmonton discourse for close to a decade in the ’60s and ’70s. Last year, Mack wrote a great post that touched on some of the arguments used then that are similar to ones used now.

The Omniplex was touted as a unique project for Edmonton, and its defeat, of course, hurt its chances of landing an NHL team.

Like now, proponents toured what were considered the model sites across North America at the time.

Business and citizen groups treated it as imperative for Edmonton, saying it “would put Edmonton on the map as THE outstanding city in Western Canada” (we have since raised our ambitions to be iconic and world-class, not just best in the west).

Of course, while City Hall touted downtown, the Edmonton Exhibition (Northlands) played coy, noting its support for the project, but constantly reminding people that the Northlands grounds could be a home for it as well.

Eventually, when Omniplex plans fell apart, the Exhibition swept in with a sensible, real plan, which is what will probably happen if the downtown arena doesn’t go ahead this time.

Just like now, pro-arena columnists then were also prone to hyperbole. Of course, Wayne Overland went further, when touting the city’s support for the Commonwealth Games long after the Omniplex defeat, writing:

Naturally in other cities they asked: “How could you good people vote down a good proposal like Omniplex?”

Sound like an argument that would be used against arena critics today?

The similarities continue. People were surprised when the Katz Group requested that the City agree to move into new office space in the arena district before it goes ahead. This, however, is not unprecedented. Construction of the CN Tower went ahead on the condition that the City lease space, and the developers of Eaton Centre made a similar request using this precedent (I don’t believe that tower went ahead). That this happened at the expense of existing buildings (probably the old Civic Block on old Market Square) seemed as inconsequential then as discussion about what would happen to Chancery Hall, Century Place, or whichever building(s) the city would vacate for its new space does now.

Of course, downtown revitalization plans are at least 50 years old. Back then, unique was the operative term, not ‘once in a generation‘:

Given that these stories pick up again in the 1980s, I’m going to assume the planned revitalization didn’t go as planned. Maybe the levy of new development didn’t have its intended effect:

Aside from the arena, recent years saw Edmonton’s civic leaders push for Expo 2017 as a way of boosting the city’s image. This wasn’t the first time either. Nordex 73, a World’s Fair specific to northern cities, was targeted for the early 1970s, and projected 11,000,000 visitors over 6 months. This fair also would have brought untold riches to the local economy:

Civic leaders also saw a way of tying together Omniplex and Expo support from the federal government:

This was far from the only ask. Back then, civic leaders pushed for more funding for rapid transit and infrastructure from other orders of government. 40 years later, the problem still remains unsolved.

One final thing. In August, EEDC and Travel Alberta teamed up to fly The Bachelorette to Edmonton for a weekend. It was justified under the auspices of the incredible value its earned media represents. Original, right?

In the 1980s, enterprising Edmontonians looked to promote the city through game shows (the reality TV shows of the time), using many of the same arguments

These are only a few examples, and of course, this cycle of repetition is not limited to Edmonton, but this does give us a window into the approach and mindset of the city, and what we might expect to come up again in the future.


One Response

  1. As a downtown arena supporter, I suppose I should acknowledge this, but I don’t think you’re going to like how, Alex.

    The debates around the downtown arena and the Omniplex definitely had more similarities than the buildings involved in said debates.

    Did we build an arena from the Omniplex momentum?


    Did it attract an NHL team?


    Would an arena located downtown have also accomplished that?


    Would the currently debated new downtown arena cement a _competitive_ team in Edmonton through the next recession?


    I declare complete vindication for the pro-Omniplex and pro-2012arena ideas thus far.

    But the Omniplex itself was the wrong idea. It wasn’t an arena, it was a stadium. It would have dwarfed even Montréal’s Olympic Stadium in terms of mechanical and construction complexity and probable cost, if not seat count, and it would have neither been ideal for CFL nor NHL nor the conferences or concerts it was also intended to serve.

    As ideas go, it certainly didn’t lack audacity, but I predict it would have been between a mediocrity at best and Olympic Stadium class eclipsing failure in a much smaller city at worst.

    However what we’re debating in 2012 is essentially a well built garden variety arena, not unlike close to a hundred similar in concept and scope (oh, and funding…) around the world. On construction and resultant experience it is a perfectly known and expectable outcome.

    In regards to contribution to downtown revitalisation, I’m honestly at a loss for how that isn’t obvious to you Alex.

    But I’ll try again anyway by listing the great classic cold weather downtowns of North America and whether they grew up with an arena or not:

    – Montréal – Yes
    – Toronto – Yes
    – Boston – Yes
    – New York – Yes
    – Chicago – Yes

    Am I missing one? So far that’s 100% corelation, which I realise doesn’t imply causation, so why not look at some dismal downtowns and see if they didn’t grow up with an arena:

    – Dallas – No (and that’s despite not having cold weather too…)
    – Cleveland – No
    – Atlanta – No
    – Edmonton – Not since 1912, when downtown rocked, by the way.
    – Calgary – No

    Okay, so Alex your borrowed argument from non-Edmontonians like Cosh and Hennig has just hit 10 strikes in a row we’re already down an entire inning with one more for good measure. Shall we look now at cities who have built arenas and at least until the 2008 recession experienced obvious and undeniable turnarounds in their formerly hopeless cores? Of course we should:

    – LA – perfect corelation
    – Kansas City – perfect corelation
    – Indianapolis – perfect corelation
    – Oklahoma City – perfect corelation
    – Pittsburg – perfect corelation (talking Mellon, although no reason not to expect similar from Consol)
    – Columbus – perfect corelation
    – Winnipeg – perfect corelation once the NHL did return.

    At this point, Alex, we are 17 supporting cases for downtown arena = revitalisation to 1 case on the contrary (Detroit), and I find it interesting that anybody even bothers to debate this anymore:

    Arenas cause revitalisation of downtowns.


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