Calgary’s New Mega Event Centre Sparks Major Transformation of Victoria Park while Boosting Downtown Development [Interview]


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Recent news that final agreements have been signed for Calgary’s new Event Centre, which will become the new home of the NHL’s Flames, will be the catalyst for new commercial, retail and residential development in the city’s old Victoria Park neighbourhood just north of Stampede Park.

Today, most of that property is an urban wasteland made up of primarily surface parking lots.

But much of the land is held by private developers, who may now think of pulling the trigger on projects that have been on hold because of the long-drawn out process to move forward with a new Event Centre that will also be home to future major concerts. 

Culture + Entertainment District
Michael Kehoe

“The publicly-owned Event Centre will be a major piece of the ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Calgary and an important component of the new Culture + Entertainment District located in the Rivers District in southeast Calgary,” said Michael Kehoe, Broker of Record for Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary.

“The Event Centre will anchor the Culture + Entertainment District that will feature walkable celebratory / gathering public spaces along with private investment commercial opportunities such as hotels, restaurants, and retail over 10 acres. Expectations are high that unique dining and shopping venues will enhance the visitor experience for locals and visitors from all over the world.

“I am expecting that Calgary will learn from Edmonton’s commercial space success and challenges at Rogers Place and their Ice District along with other such projects across North America. I feel that it is important that a unique year-round Calgary destination be envisioned that will not be dependent only on event dates. The Calgary Flames, Calgary Hitmen, Calgary Roughnecks and Calgary Wranglers and major North American concerts will ensure a solid base of customer footfall and visitation. The long-term success of the Calgary Culture + Entertainment District will need destination food service and retail in an experiential and pedestrian friendly environment.”

Calgary Culture + Entertainment District (C+E District)
BMO Expansion

Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) is spearheading the Rivers District Master Plan. It’s a commitment that supports Calgary’s downtown revitalization and growing a vibrant and welcoming city.

Kate Thompson

Kate Thompson, President and CEO, CMLC, said the addition of the new Event Centre and its supporting infrastructure is a significant step forward in realizing the vision for this dynamic community.

“The ripple effects builds on the previous waves that are ongoing right now. When we started the Rivers District Master Plan, there’s over 40 per cent of underutilized land in the area as vacant parking lots or as surface parking lots. So we see that and see a lot of potential,” she said. “That comes with all the infrastructure we’re building right now and the BMO (Centre) expansion (on Stampede Park). The Event Centre is the next layer of the District which really starts to catalyze development in the area.

“And you know with developers, developers and development crave certainty. So having the deal move forward, having a good budget behind it, support for infrastructure around it, is good for everyone in the District.”

Station Rebuild (September 2023)

In the entire Rivers District which is just south and east of Calgary’s downtown core, there are more than 50 unique landowners including some major developers and the City of Calgary, added Thompson.

Just north of the Rivers District is Calgary’s East Village, which is now a vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood. Years ago, like Victoria Park, it was an urban wasteland dominated by vacant and empty lots.

Years ago, there were plans to turn the main entrance into Stampede Park, called Olympic Way, into an entertainment district. 

“It’s very much about activating that street edge and putting as many restaurants and retail as you can right at grade and I know the Event Centre will be motivated to do the same. Retail streets work the best when they’re double sided and they have something active on both sides so when you walk up and you walk down it creates the vibe,” said Thompson.

“So that will be really important. That continuity and I know everyone involved in the District gets that and is going for that.”

BMO Centre expansion
BMO Centre expansion

The Rivers District development includes the Event Centre, the BMO Centre expansion, a new hotel and a pedestrian friendly Stampede Trail.

“It will be a very different place to visit in an eight-year time span which in city building is actually really quick. It just took awhile to get that eight years started,” added Thompson. 

“I think physically in terms of our city taking 17th Avenue across Macleod Trail (across the LRT tracks) and connecting it into (Stampede) Park and extending our downtown into this area . . . starts changing how we view our downtown and how we use our downtown. The infrastructure will enable us to see our city differently and use our city differently than we do today.

“2024 is actually a huge year for the District in terms of $600 million worth of work coming online. The demo and all the infrastructure. It’s a really transformative year for how Calgarians experience our city and so I think we’ll start seeing a lot more land assembly based on the definitive clarity that developers see as ‘wait a second, this is not just changing, but it is changed’.”

Stampede Trail

The BMO Centre $500-million expansion is adding an additional 565,000 square feet of space in time for next year’s Calgary Stampede. 

Joel Cowley, CEO of the Calgary Stampede, said the Event Centre will serve as a catalyst for development nearby.

Joel Cowley

“With the BMO Centre expansion coming on, that has already spurred some interest. We’ve heard from some local developers, particularly with regard to hotel development, and we need that for the BMO Centre to be successful. But also we talk about a new facility and kind of the vision for this is we worked with the city, the province and CSEC (Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation which owns the Flames), yes this will be an additional anchor for that Culture + Entertainment District,” said Cowley.

“We will definitely see additional development in this area whether it’s retail, restaurants, entertainment facilities and not just . . . the area where the Stampede operates but there’s a lot of land to the north of Stampede Park and the Culture + Entertainment District that would be prime for development as well for all of those purposes.

“So we’re really excited about that because it will really transform this area and will be a benefit as we book conventions because it will help us become established as a true tier one convention city with the BMO expansion but also with everything that will be going on near the BMO expansion. Look no further than Nashville as a great example of how you combine a convention centre in an entertainment district and the draw that has globally in terms of bringing in conventions and generating economic impact. So we’re really excited for what this means for the Culture + Entertainment District and for the Calgary Stampede.”

BMO Expansion Ballroom

Cowley said the current Saddledome building is fully programmed right now with three hockey teams, a lacrosse team and concerts.

“If we can surround it with other things to do, either before or post event, it really becomes a draw and it becomes a draw on non-event days which is what’s really exciting about this because of all the development,” he said. 

“Right now it’s the Saddledome, it’s the BMO Centre, it’s whatever we might host. Obviously Cowboys Casino is there on the corner. But unless there’s an event happening, people aren’t coming into this area. With this surrounding development that we’re talking about, it will give people reason to come to this area even in the absence of an event.

“The space between Stampede Park and East Village I see a lot of development there. Both in terms of residential, hotels, restaurants, retail, nightclubs and entertainment centres . . . The new Event Centre is built on land that now belongs to the Calgary Stampede. Well, in essence we have traded that land for the land where the Saddledome now sits and so once the new Event Centre is open and functioning, the Saddledome comes down and the Calgary Stampede receives that land that we can further integrate into both our 10-day festival and our year-round programming. One thing in particular that excites me about that is the riverfront.”

The first hotel in the area is envisioned to be a 300-room building connected to the BMO Centre through Cowboys Casino. Cowley said the Stampede has two additional sites it would like to develop hotels on in the future. One at 12th Avenue and Macleod Trail which would be connected to BMO and another at 17th Avenue on Stampede Park in what is now called Weadickville. 

“The building itself (Event Centre) and the subsequent development is what seems to be capturing most of the attention but we’re really excited about the infrastructure improvements that are going to come about as part of the provincial contribution of this project,” said Cowley. 

“If you look at an aerial view of Stampede Park and therefore the Culture + Entertainment District, we are surrounded by rivers and rails and that is not conducive to access and so you can have the most spectacular facilities in the world but if they’re not accessible they are not the most spectacular facilities in the world. And because of those rivers and rails we only have a limited number of routes to get into and out of this area.

“So to really get better at providing access to the area, whether it’s ingress or egress, you either add another artery so that you can get vehicles and buses and things in or you become more efficient on the roads you have. And the provincial contribution allows for both. The provincial contribution includes a new 6th Street underpass (at the rail tracks) which will complement the 4th Street underpass to get people in and out easier. 17th Avenue opening up to vehicle traffic for the first time since the 1980s will help in that regard. But also envisioned in the provincial contribution is improvement to roads both on Stampede Park and around Stampede Park. Making the roads better.”

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.


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