It seemed logical in the 1950s that the Blue Bombers move from their downtown facility to the suburbs. Blue Bomber president Culver Riley argued that Osborne Stadium was inadequate to the football club’s needs: it lacked sufficient seating, parking and the playing field was not quite regulation length. He pointed out that the Big Blue fan base had greatly expanded thanks to the talent of the team led by the strong arm of quarterback “Indian” Jack Jacobs.
At the same time, the 1950s were the era of the great outward migration — people and businesses were flocking to the wide open spaces of the ’burbs, where plenty of land tantalizingly beckoned like the sirens of mythology. And by the ’50s, the great expansion in roads and automobile ownership made the call irresistible to almost everyone.
Ironically, the suburbs no longer possess the same allure, especially for Provencher Conservative MP and holder of the federal purse strings in Manitoba, Treasury Board President Vic Toews.
One of the biggest surprises in recent months in the great Blue Bomber stadium debate was a proposal to locate a new stadium in the Point Douglas neighbourhood. Ottawa has been somewhat slow in putting up its $40-million share in the stadium, so the idea by Mayor Sam Katz that a change of venue was required arose. After all, Toews was lukewarm to any stadium proposal that didn’t take into account downtown revitalization.
The problem was that no one bothered to tell Blue Bomber president Lyle Bauer about the change of venue. Bauer was under the mistaken impression that the Polo Park upgrade was the only plan under consideration. In fact, the Blue Bomber executive had already given the David Asper plan for a $145-million stadium with accompanying retail space the thumbs up. The retail space was deemed by Asper as a necessity to make the Polo Park stadium financially viable.
Bauer’s frustration at not being consulted is well-founded. The Bomber president had already gone through public and political bickering over what plan should be approved. Until the sudden veer in the road last week, he probably felt that the football team had finally been on the narrow path toward a new stadium.
What he now recognizes is that the Polo Park site will be laid aside (perhaps permanently) until Asper comes up with another business plan — one that includes the change in venue and satisfies the aspirations of politicians who dole out the public money. It’s a process that could take many months of renewed debate and consultation.
And, there is no guarantee that the South Point Douglas site is viable for just 10 Bomber home games a season or that it will receive political approval.
The political rush toward a downtown site also failed to take into consideration the feelings of people now living in the neighbourhood. Will they welcome thousands of uninvited visitors and cars clogging up neighbourhood streets?
Nor was infrastructure considered — many consider a major upgrade to four lanes for the Louise Bridge a necessity (another idea is to replace the aging Louise Bridge with one linking Nairn and Higgins avenues) as well as other infrastructure upgrades of streets, the creation of additional parking space and vastly improved transit service. This has to be at least the equal of Polo Park, which is a major transit destination and easily accessible from Portage Avenue bus routes.
All these considerations take money — perhaps far in excess of the $145-million deemed necessary for the renewed Polo Park facility.
On the other hand, the Point Douglas location could help inner-city revitalization, and that’s the desire of the politicians. It is apparent that the success of the MTS Centre to draw people downtown for concerts and Manitoba Moose games has caught their attention. Will MTS Centre management accept another facility intruding upon their
monopoly of hosting concerts, etc.?
Stung by the emerging questions about the change in venue, Mayor Sam Katz last Wednesday said it was premature to discuss the relocation from Polo Park until all three levels of government are involved in a memorandum of understanding. Asper told the media he would be glad to make a presentation to the governments on the South Point Douglas site, but that is also contingent on the three levels of government signing on for the plan.
The funny aspect of the new great stadium debate is that once upon a time, the Blue Bombers did play their home games in a downtown stadium. Carruthers Park in the North End served as the home field for the Bombers from 1930 to 1935, after which they played at Osborne Stadium, where the Great West Life building now stands across from the Manitoba Legislature.
By the 1950s, Osborne Stadium was considered inadequate for the team’s needs and a special city committee was formed to oversee the building of a new stadium at Polo Park. Great West Life, which purchased the Osborne Stadium site, floated the $500,000 loan to build the 15,000-seat facility at Polo Park, which was soon dubbed “the House that Jack Built,” a concession to the mass fan appeal of Bomber quarterback Jacobs. Months before the football season began, the Bombers sold 8,000 season tickets, and it was predicted that 12,000 would be sold when the team played its first home game. The new stadium — officially called by the less-than-imaginative name Winnipeg Stadium — opened for the 1953 football season.
“The stadium is a credit to the city of Winnipeg,” pronounced Bomber coach George Trafton, prior to the start of the 1953 regular season. “The field is wonderful and the lighting is just out of this world. You don’t need a seeing eye dog to find your way around out there.”
While lighting and a better playing surface in the suburbs were prime considerations in 1953, times have changed. Perhaps the Bombers could have saved themselves a good dose of anguish if they hadn’t opted for the suburbs in the first place? Actually, where the Bombers finally play probably doesn’t matter a whole lot to fans as long as the route is convenient, parking is readily available and they have a comfortable seat in the stands.