During the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Nashville received a lot of attention for how its downtown came alive on game days as the Predators strived to win the Cup. On game nights, tens of thousands of fans who didn’t have game tickets flooded their downtown to watch the game on huge screens outside the arena.
Nashville’s arena and the next door convention centre were thought by some to be the model for what a new arena and expanded convention centre could do for Calgary’s Stampede Park and City Centre.
I had to see this for myself, so I planned to be in Nashville for the opening home game of the Predators’ 2017/18 season.
Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald (New Condos section), titled, "Nashville is wrong model for reviving Stampede Park" on Feb, 3, 2018.
What I found
I spent 12 days in Nashville, wandering the area around the arena and convention centre almost every day.
What I found was the streets next to the arena and convention centre were dead except on game days.
Only once did I find the arena plaza animated and that was for the annual “Gold Walk.” That’s when, before the first home game of the season, at around 4 pm the Predator players walk into the arena along a gold-coloured carpet.
Lined with fans and cheerleaders, it’s a bit like how football players enter the stadium before a game. Though, it seemed a bit hokey to me, the few hundred Nashvillans in attendance clearly enjoyed it.
But, on opening game night, it was not hockey but the 50th anniversary celebration of the nearby Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge that drew thousands of people to the street outside the arena. The block of Lower Broadway - across from the arena - was closed for an all night outdoor concert with free live music by the likes of Alberta’s own Terri Clark.
For the entire 12 days, the cavernous 2-block long convention centre was empty, or at least it appeared so from the street. I did go in several times but nothing significant was happening and it certainly did nothing to create street vitality.
The Bridgestone all-purpose arena was built in 1996. However, only now, 20 years later are new private sector developments happening around it – Bridgestone and Pinnacle office towers, a mixed-use building (including the National Museum of African American Music) under construction, as well as numerous hotels.
It is the new convention centre, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the growing popularity of the live music experience along Lower Broadway that are the real catalysts for new downtown developments like the impressive Omni hotel.
Nashville’s main street, Lower Broadway is a gritty street lined with of loud honky-tonk bars that offer free (no cover charge) live music from 10 am to 3 am. The bands play at the front the bars with the windows open so you can hear the music and see the musicians as you stroll along. Think of it as one long street party 365 days of the year.
Over the past decade or so, Nashville has done a good job of revitalizing its downtown by making it a major tourist attraction. The key to the revitalization is the free music 365 days of the year (similar to Las Vegas’ gambling and shows). Note: The NISSAN stadium, home of the NFL Titans, is across the river from downtown sits vacant most of the time. Opened in 1999, to date there has been no other development around it. That should be a “red flag” to anyone thinking a downtown stadium is an automatic catalyst for other developments.
As Calgary contemplates the development of an expanded BMO Centre and new arena at Stampede/Victoria Park, we need to be realistic with our expectations. Calgary’s ability to become a mega urban tourist attraction is limited by our accessibility to major tourist markets. For example, there are 12 million people within a 2.5 hr. drive of Nashville and 250 million within a 2-hour flight. In comparison, Calgary has but a small fraction of that – one million within a 2.5 hr. drive and maybe 15 million within a 2.5-hour flight.
Our weather is also a factor. In North America, the peak convention and trade show months are from September to June, which for Calgary means cool if not downright cold weather. In Nashville, even in mid October it was warm enough for shorts - daytime and evenings.
And to be brutally honest, Calgary also lacks a unique sense of place or history essential to becoming a year-round urban tourist attraction. Nashville is well known internationally as the birthplace of country music, which it has capitalized on to become a year-round music destination. Unfortunately, the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day event, doesn’t allow for a year-round tourist experience.
If Calgary is serious about becoming a tourist city, albeit not on the scale of Nashville, we need to transform Stampede Park into vibrant Sports Hospitality Entertainment District (SHED) for locals first and then tourists.
What is needed?
- Expand the BMO Centre and repurpose the downtown Calgary TELUS Convention Center. We can’t afford to market and manage two similar facilities.
- Create a vibrant Main Street (live music venues, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops) along 4th Street SE linking East Village, Victoria Park and Stampede Park.
- Build a new arena or an upgraded Saddledome and manage it as a major entertainment/events facility not just a sports centre.
- Build a Stampede Museum/IMAX where tourists and visiting family and friends can enjoy the history and “spills and thrills” of the Stampede experience year-round.
- Open up Stampede Park along Mcleod Trail so passers-by can see into the park.
- Open up the 17th Avenue entrance to vehicular traffic.
- Remove guard huts at the entrances to allow free flowing traffic through the park 24/7
Stampede Park: A place to live?
Given Calgary doesn’t have access to a large tourist market, the key to a vibrant Stampede Park SHED will be to surround it with thousands of condos that are attractive and affordable to Calgarians of all ages and means.
Stampede Park must become the front yard, back yard and outdoor living room for thousands of Calgarians living in East Village, Victoria Park, Erlton, Inglewood and Ramsay. It must become a year-round urban playground.
We need residential projects like Lamb’s The Orchard (485 units), Anthem’s Crosstown (874 units + grocery store) at Erlton Station and Cidex’s HAT@Elbow River (1,200 units) on the Elbow River Casino site to happen sooner rather than later.
Calgary will be hosting 25,000 International Rotarian Convention attendees in 2025. What a great opportunity to showcase Calgary’s new 21st century Stampede Park as a year-round tourist destination to the delegates.
There’s no time to waste. The Stampede Board, Mayor, Council, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation must begin working quickly to develop an exciting share vision for Stampede Park.
We MUST work together if we want to make our city a major year-round tourist attraction.
Richard White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @everydaytourist
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