It had seen better days, but for many the old Polo Park stadium, which is now being demolished to make way for a retail complex, still holds many fond memories. Although nothing lasts forever, the demise of Canad Inns Stadium — originally known as Winnipeg Stadium — undoubtedly brought a few tears to Manitobans who remember the football games and concerts they watched at the 60-year-old facility.
When it opened to great hoopla, the stadium was considered a state-of-the-art venue and the pride of the city and province. On August 15, 1953, “bands, flags, costumes, fireworks, Blue Bombers, Rough Riders, and a Hollywood movie star” were on hand for the official opening of the new $500,000 stadium in Winnipeg. “Winnipeg scores!” exclaimed Foster Hewitt, the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, who emceed the opening ceremony.
To witness the ceremony, more than 12,000 people were in the stands of the 15,000-seat stadium. The prelude to the ceremony was a Shriner’s parade, which started downtown, travelled down Portage Avenue and ended at the new stadium. Convertibles interspersed among the Shriners carried Ottawa Rough Rider and Blue Bomber players, as well as Corinne Calvet, the Hollywood star mentioned in the Free Press article. Her entrance into the stadium was described as brief, but “vivacious.” She was carried into the stadium on a white-and-gold litter borne by four Rough Riders.
“I am very happy and proud that the Shriners and Blue Bombers made me queen of the new stadium,” she gushed. “I am sure that the Blue Bombers are going to win — I just felt their muscles and I KNOW (Free Press’ emphasis) they’re in shape!” Besides the corny comments by the film star, who few remember today, the more serious speakers included Mayor Garnet Coulter, who described the opening of the stadium as a “dream of yesterday” come true.
In the evening, the Bombers beat the Rough Riders 18-11 in front of 15,600 fans. While the new stadium was touted as the “house that ‘Indian’ Jack Jacobs built,” the quarterback was pulled in the second half in favour of Tommy Thompson, a veteran signal-caller who previously played for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Amazingly, some aspects of the building of the football stadium at Polo Park mirror the lead up today for the new Investors Group Field, which after numerous delays will finally open for the 2013 football season, at the University of Manitoba.
Talk about a new Polo Park facility began when it became evident that the 9,100-seat Osborne Stadium (where Great-West Life Assurance now stands) was inadequate due to site deficiencies and the growing legion of fans attracted to games by the passing prowess of Jacobs.
“The time is ripe now to consider the stadium question,” said Alderman Jack Blumberg on November 9, 1951, telling the city’s finance committee, “There may still be some philanthropists in Winnipeg,” who would share in the cost of a new stadium.
A stadium committee was then formed, and in 1952 a plan for the stadium was approved. The stadium was to be built on city-owned land — the same land now being turned into a commercial development with Target store slated to eventually be an anchor tenant (the American retail chain first opened stores in Kildonan Park and Southdale shopping centres on May 7, another will open at the end of the year in Grant Park). In 1952, W. Culver Riley, the Bomber president, said it was necessary for the land to be donated by the city in order to build the stadium. Riley told the media the stadium was to be organized on a non-profit basis with city council required to back a $500,000 loan (originally the stadium cost was estimated at $400,000) from Great-West Life to the football club for the construction of the stadium, which could later be converted into a 35,000-seat facility. Riley said the city had the option to take over the stadium, and council would appoint a board to oversee the facility’s operations.
The Bomber executive said the football club had to sign a lease to play their 1952 home games at the privately-owned Osborne Stadium until the new facility was completed. At the same time as Riley made this announcement, reports appeared that the new lease — details of which were still being negotiated — meant plans for the new stadium had to be scrapped. The football club paid $92,000 to lease the stadium in 1951 and 1952.
The main problem facing the construction of the Polo Park stadium was federal government-imposed restrictions on steel. Riley said once the lease was formalized and steel became available, construction on the stadium could begin.
Groups appeared before a provincial legislature amendment committee opposing a change to the city charter which would allow the city to guarantee a capital expenditure on the new stadium without consulting taxpayers through a referendum. But Mayor Coulter told the committee that council was “responding to the demand of the man on the street in endorsing a new stadium.” He said council was convinced the city would never have to pay out on its guarantee of the loan. “The net result,” Coulter said, “will probably be that the city will become owner of the stadium and, meanwhile, will have a voice in its construction and management.” Construction was slated for the spring of 1952, he added. “We are rushing because we know that the public is demanding that we do something.” Indeed, it was a rush job as the stadium was completed just a year later.
Two years after a ceremony was held to break the ground for today’s new stadium, there was a delay due to a dispute over costs — specifically, who will pay for cost overruns. The province stepped in to make sure stadium construction continued by providing a $90 million loan. David Asper, who was to have been the new owner of the football club, was afterward removed from the deal when he made changes to the original design, breaking the initial contract. Under the new agreement, the 33,422-seat stadium cost $190 million to complete, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers paying back $85 million and the city and provincial and federal governments spvlitting the remainder of the construction costs.
With the construction delays and arguments over costs, it took four years from initial approval in 2009 to complete the new stadium. On the other hand, it took just two years from conception to open the new stadium in 1953 at Polo Park, and only one year for its actual construction.
But as was the case way back in 1953, the Investors Group Field will give Bomber fans a first-class facility to watch their favourite football team. The big difference this time around is that the new stadium represents a rather significant improvement as a sports facility over the old stadium — it’s now the city’s state-of-the-art entertainment venue.