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McMahon Stadium was built in 1960 for what was then the University of Alberta campus.
Aly Gulamhusein/the Gauntlet

U of C tries a new play with McMahon land

University looks at redeveloping area as way to pay for rising stadium costs

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Compared to brand new bowl stadiums in North America, the University of Calgary's McMahon Stadium is old and small. After 51 years, aging facilities mean higher expenses for upgrades to the dated facility. The U of C has started looking into potential development on land around the stadium for funding opportunities to finance such improvements as washroom and concession additions.

The university has had complete ownership of the 41.5 acres of land around McMahon Stadium since 1985. The stadium itself sits on about 14.5 acres of land, said U of C vice-president of facilities management and development Bob Ellard.

The university does not own the nearby Foothills Stadium or Foothills Athletic Park.

The U of C set up the McMahon Stadium Society to manage the stadium and its operations in 1960. The society draws funding through arrangements with the Calgary Stampeders, outdoor concert tours and other groups who use the stadium, as well as through government funding.

"They're a management entity, they have limited access to money," said Ellard. "On an annual basis they do spend about $800,000 to a million dollars a year on required maintenance. Other than that, they have no money for long-term upgrades to the stadium. So the problem is that we own it, we're not in a position to put money into it, McMahon Stadium Society is not in a position to put money into it, nor are the Calgary Stampeders."

McMahon Stadium is currently used by both the Calgary Stampeders and the Dinos football team.

The stadium was built in 1960 with 20,000 seats. After several renovations the stadium now seats 35,000 people, said McMahon Stadium Society stadium manager John Haverstock.

"As that seating has been augmented, the facilities to support the extra people, although they've been increased, have not really kept pace. So what we have essentially is a building that just doesn't have the kinds of facilities in terms of support that you'd like," said Haverstock. "At a game when there's maybe 20,000-25,000 people it's not that big of a deal, but when you get to capacity, or close to it, then the space crunch is really noticeable."

There are two main expenses associated with managing the stadium -- general upkeep and larger renovations.

"Every year it gets more difficult just in terms of keeping the building safe and operating in a reasonable manner," said Haverstock. "We're doing that as we go here and managing not too badly, but where we're having trouble is generating the kind of funds that are needed to make significant changes to the building."

According to Haverstock, the biggest problem facing the stadium is a shortage of concession stalls and washrooms leading to considerable lineups. Any additions will come with other issues that also need attention.

"If you want to actually renovate or do any major changes to the building, aside from just replacing the stuff that needs to be replaced, then that's a whole other can of worms in terms of the funding requirements," said Haverstock. "When you put those two categories together -- what we call the life-cycle replacement plus the renovations and improvements category -- it's sort of an endless list."

Students are also noticing the age of the stadium. Fifth-year commerce major Cody Williston said he felt the amenities are noticeably outdated.

"I thought they were a little dated but it's only good for the summer and when it's actually warm out," said Williston. "I think it definitely could use some improvement."

The university is now investigating the potential of developing land around the stadium in an effort to aid with improvements.

"What we've done at the first stage of that is to see if anyone's interested in working with us," said Ellard. "If it comes back that nobody wants to work with us or that the people who want to work with us are not ones that we want to work with, then it will all stop at that in the next month or so. Assuming that we get some responses we will then go into a second stage of this proposal and actually sit down with a shortlist of developers and see what they would like to do."

Ellard said residential or commercial development would be the most likely as industrial use is not suitable.

"We've got an LRT station right there, we've got the university right here," said Ellard. "I think there's an opportunity for some type of commercial. I think it's going to be more related to the residents that might be there or the LRT station."

Students' Union vice-president operations and finance James Delaney said having more housing in the area would be good for students.

The university has yet to consult with surrounding communities on the issue.

"They will certainly have an opportunity to become engaged," said Ellard. "That would be our intention. The problem right now is that we don't know if there's a project. We would engage the community at the next stage, once we have something to show them."

The deadline for proposals is April 8. After the application period closes, a U of C committee will go through applications received and create a shortlist of potential development projects.

At this stage the university is unsure what kind of revenue is possible or how it will be shared between the McMahon Stadium Society and the university.

"I'd like to see a minimum of a million dollars a year go to the McMahon Stadium Society but there has to be some money that comes back to the university as well," said Ellard. "Part of the puzzle is how much money would come back to the university."

Delaney said a lot of student athletic groups use the stadium's facilities and that the needs of athletic groups must be met by any proposed development.

"Our football team at most gets out 7,000 spectators a game," said Delaney. "I think it's a really great facility and any improvement to it would certainly be welcome."

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