Louie Villanueva/the Gauntlet

Past its prime

The harsh realities facing an upgrade of McMahon Stadium

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McMahon Stadium is the least impressive of Calgary’s major entertainment venues. Although the over 50-year-old stadium has hosted a variety of marquee events — from the 1988 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies to the NHL Heritage Classic last year — it clearly shows its age. Cities across Canada are upgrading or replacing their football venues and there has been a lot of talk about upgrading McMahon Stadium. 

While the purchase of the Stampeders by the Calgary Flames in 2011 may mean long-term franchise stability, the ramifications it will have for the future of McMahon are complex and uncertain at best. 

To differing extents, the managers of the stadium — the University of Calgary and the Calgary Stampeders — all understand the issues with the stadium. Stadium manager John Haverstock said that the biggest concerns involve support services, washrooms and concessions an issue highlighted at last year’s Heritage Classic.

“We had zero negative feedback . . . but at the same time, we had 42,000 people,” said Haverstock. “It really does put a strain on the building. It was very crowded — space was a challenge. It takes money and we don’t have funding right now.” 

Heritage Classic attendee 
Darrin Curry said that one of the only negatives from the event was the lack of access to washrooms. 

Curry also brought up issues with the stadium that may be beyond the control of management. “It was not really suitable because it’s so open and gets so cold,” he said. “It’s not as bad during Stampeder games, [but] it’s all made of concrete. The foundation of the whole stadium is very old, it goes back to the heating. There’s no heat inside the concourse.” 

An additional issue is that there are no seats, only bleachers, in the corner sections of the stadium. 

In the past year, there has been a lot of discussion of the issues facing McMahon, but no apparent progress. In March 2011, the U of C put out a call for developers to submit proposals for the land around the stadium, with the idea of using the money to fund upgrades. The deadline was April, at which point the university considered their options. 

“There’s been no conclusion on that [plan],” said Bob Ellard, vice- president of facilities management and development for the U of C. “We have no plans to change what you see today.” 

The Flames are looking to replace the Scotiabank Saddledome as well and want to have a solution in place before 2020. Although the Flames have expressed the desire to build a joint arena and stadium complex, the feasibility of this plan is up for debate. 

“Right now, the Flames’s priority is a new rink,” explained Haverstock. “Where the stadium might fit in, there has been no talk up to this point.” 

Similarly, Ellard stated that the Flames’s purchase of the Stampeders last year has not changed the university’s plans for the development of McMahon Stadium land. Also, Ellard said that the university was not aware of any changes the Stampeders were planning to McMahon Stadium. 

If the Flames really intend to pursue a joint McMahon-Saddledome replacement, the situation could become extremely complex and difficult. One only has to look north where Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz is in a bitter battle with city council — and the public by extension — over the cost of a new arena. 

The process of building new arenas and stadiums involves a lot of negotiation with city officials and politicians. Katz has threatened to move the team to Seattle — and even visited the city and toured the facilities — if he does not receive a suitable offer from the City of Edmonton. 

With McMahon, this may be true as well if the same arena–stadium negotiation process takes place. Without even considering community engagement, the numbers alone are significant. Katz is claiming that a new Edmonton arena would cost $450 million — of which he is willing to pay only $100 million of his own money. 

New CFL stadiums recently built, or in the process of being built, in Hamilton, Winnipeg and Regina have had estimated costs ranging from $150 million to $278 million, all with the support of millions of public funds. 

Even the most basic analysis shows just how difficult it would be for the Flames to finance a stadium and arena at the same time, despite Flames president Ken King stating four months ago the team’s desire to do just that. 

The Stampeders may be in good shape, both financially and on the field, but will not have a stadium to match that prestige. The City of Calgary, which prides itself on being an award-winning municipality, does not have an outdoor venue suitable for modern marquee events. 

One reason a new hockey arena is needed is because the Saddledome’s distinctive architecture makes it undesirable for events like concerts. Although football stadiums admittedly host far fewer non-sporting events than hockey arenas, it will be somewhat embarrassing if McMahon is ignored while the Saddledome is revamped. 

Perhaps short-term fixes are more likely. Along with more washrooms, a main priority for stadium improvement is concessions. 

“They run out of beer really fast,” said Curry. And perhaps McMahon’s patrons need this most of all.