Were it just an economic proposition, the expectations for the Ice District would not be so high. Were it just about creating jobs or boosting investment, then the September 10th open house at Rogers Place may not even be happening. Certainly other cities’ arena proposals have touted billion-dollar spillovers to rally taxpayer support—and most, for the record, have been wrong—but in a city as prosperous as Edmonton, merely boasting economic virtues, let alone hockey pride, to unzip the public purse would never pass muster. From the beginning, this project was about status. The confidence of our city. The face of Edmonton. The glory of downtown.
As Edmonton Journal columnist John MacKinnon put it in 2007, a year before billionaire businessman Daryl Katz bought the Oilers, “In a city with a small market mindset and a lingering inferiority complex even as it grows by leaps and bounds, might a single, heavyweight owner of the local hockey club help change how others see Edmonton? How Edmontonians see themselves?”
How it will change our outward appearance is yet to be seen; it’ll be at least another four years before the $2.5 billion dream is realized with its promised plaza, community rink, premium retail, glitzy hotels and residences. But how it will change our inward appearance is well underway, and nobody knows this more than the people living, working and studying in the core.
To them, the stadium’s silver body and surrounding towers are like a Rorschach test, reflecting their hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties about turning 25 acres of derelict or drab land into a major attraction. Where one sees an opportunity for social cohesion, another sees class division. To one, the promise of big crowds is a much-needed defibrillation for the heart of the city. To another, an unwelcome nuisance.
So, how will the Ice District change our core?
The truth is nobody knows. If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 answers—which is exactly what we did. The Yards listened to ordinary Edmontonians from all walks of life, from arena supporters to detractors, from the corporate executive to the street-involved, in order to get a shake of their crystal balls.
A Downtown Restaurateur Who Played the Long Game Has Big Hopes
Occupation: Co-owner of Sabor, Bodega, Urbano Pizza
“When we got here the arena was just talk. We didn’t even take that into consideration. We just loved the space. Business consistently got better, but the third year was the hardest. We became mentally exhausted and, financially, it’s such a big space, so we considered selling it, put out some feelers. The arena sure helped the idea of going forward. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. If we sold it, one day we’d look back and regret it.
“What I hope and think will happen is, with the extra daily exposure we’ll get from being so close, every time there’s a game there will be thousands of people exposed to our brand. It’s going to be tough competition out there; the chains concern us, but we still have a niche.
“During the 1980s, the chains came in and the independents couldn’t survive anymore. West Edmonton Mall opened, everybody left, the suburbs grew and all the little shops closed down. I was working downtown as a kid and coming here every day. As soon as the rush hour was over you could hear the wind in the streets. So even if I had nothing to do with this business or downtown, I think it’s a great thing.”
A Community Worker Wants to Be Part of the Excitement
Occupation: Director of Operations, Boyle Street Community Services
“There will certainly be more people seeing the inner city, which is a good thing. People think this is an unpleasant part of society, but you’ll see some of the most amazing examples of compassion and citizenship here. Of course, there will be challenges as well. Any time someone interacts with our community and our community interacts with folks who aren’t familiar with them, there has to be an understanding that our guys, who work and live in our community, are as much citizens of Edmonton as anyone else. That takes some time.
“We’re waiting to see what it will look like on an event night. Crowds leaving, public intoxication from the people at the event—it can put our community members at risk when those big events let out and people aren’t thinking rationally. There’ve been a lot of arena developments around the world and they’ve ended up displacing people. This is a chance to do things differently. We want to be part of the excitement around it. We want to be good neighbours and the Katz Group and Oilers want that too.
“The best case scenario is community members whom we serve are getting jobs with businesses there, that there’s a partnership with the Ice District and inner-city services, that we’re working together. The worse case scenario is it becomes a closed space for only a few people who can afford it. The [Alex Janvier tile mural] inside is great, but will our indigenous community members actually get to see it?We understand that it’s business—the Ice District isn’t here to save the world—but if they want to create public spaces, and use public dollars to do that, then the city primarily has a responsibility to ensure that all of the citizens irrespective of income, or whether they’re intoxicated, have access.”
A Boyle Street Client Doubts We’ll All Get Along
Occupation: Casual cleaner
“People around here will be trying to get into their cars and the whole nine yards. I know the kinds of people around here. Whether or not I choose to have [Boyle Street Community Services] here, it has to be moved to keep the conflicts away.
“The worst case scenario is we’re still here and there will be fights and arguments every day from the fans. They’ll be scrapping each other, for sure. It’ll be chaotic down here between the white guys and native guys.
“The best case scenario is we move five, ten blocks away from the immediate arena and things go a little smoother. I like it here, but I know it can’t be here. One of them has to be moved and, of course, they can’t move the arena.”
A Businesswomen Hopes for a Safer Community
Occupation: Restaurateur (Viphalay)
“This is going to bring even more people, increase more traffic to the area, which is positive. It will probably also increase property prices and lease agreements, as it becomes more of a desired area, but I see that as more of a benefit. Everything will cost more, but it will renew downtown.
“The one downfall is, if it’s booming, if people are intoxicated, it could increase some problems. I remember the 2006 Oilers riots; I wouldn’t want to see that happen again. The arena will be so central, and people get pretty crazy sometimes.”
A Senior Dreads the Noise
Occupation: Retired project management consultant
“One major problem we have now, living as we do on Jasper Avenue, is the traffic noise, particularly from souped-up sports cars and motorcycles, which basically goes on and on every nice sunny day. I’m afraid we’ll get the same thing in the winter months now when that arena opens.
“The other issue is going to be parking. We live six blocks from it and parking is going to be dreadful. It will spread into Oliver—left, right and centre. It’s going to make driving difficult and we’ll have noise till 11:30pm, when the traffic clears, because there’s only two escape routes to get south of the river. They never thought through the consequences, just like the High Level Bridge suicide barriers.”
A Season Ticket Holder Predicts a Spark for the Team (and a Headache for Drivers)
Occupation: Vice-president Consulting Services, CGI
“I’m an avid sports fan and long-time Oilers season ticket holder—so anything to get the team to the next level. I think this actually could help the Oilers in trades. International events give a positive outlook on Edmonton, and the Ice District will just add one more flavour to who we are as a city. Growing up here, and working downtown for 30 years, I saw it go through its time, from when it was a ghost town, to slowly coming around over the last decade with new bars and restaurants and condominiums and towers, to what it is today. I’ve watched the whole thing get built from my office window.
“We’ll have to see what the logistical problems are with moving all those people downtown, in and out of the building, having them park somewhere. When Katz Group wanted additional parking for their own land, the city said there’s 18,000 spots downtown, what’s the problem? They’re right. I know where to go to park any day, any time of the night. It isn’t an issue if you know
what you’re doing.”
A Psychic Forecasts Good Things, Mostly
Residence: Queen Mary Park
Occupation: Tarot card reader
“This represents a new beginning. It’s going to bring a lot of good energy, a lot of new people. I look at these next 50 years, and it’s going to be a good thing. Edmonton is changing from a redneck town to a metropolitan town, and that’s always good.
It will bring a lot more business to the city, so Edmontonians can set up some standard living allowances for poverty stricken people, and right now I’m one of them. I’ve been in my apartment for two years. The arena is going to build up my area, but it’s also going to raise my rent. My apartment is a Main Street [Equity] building, so this is a moneymaker for them.”
A MacEwan Student Fears the Wrath of Parking Prices
Occupation: Second-year nursing student
“When I started here, parking was $60 a month, which was pricy but reasonable, but it jumped $100. They said they had to match the prices downtown, in other words, the arena. It takes from my student loans, and it will only get worse. The purpose of having it downtown is to get people using buses and commuting here by public transit. For people living here, it will be better. But there’s not a bus I can take.”
A Construction Worker Takes Pride in What He’s Helped Create
Residence: Central McDougall
Occupation: Journeyman plasterer at the Ice District
“I’m also an artist, so I get passionate about creating, entertaining and seeing other people happy. The moment I realized that what I was doing was helping community, bringing people together, it became more than a job. Just to be a part of something that’s that big, for the community and the city, is amazing.
“It will make Edmonton a more iconic place. I’ve seen a lot of hockey players come in to tour the new arena, when they come and see where they could be living, how beautiful the city is. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this? It’s a cool package, especially for the people who say they don’t have a reason to go downtown. I’ve been in Alberta for seven years. I never had a reason to go downtown before; it didn’t feel alive. The arena will bring some life.”
All interviews were edited for brevity and clarity.