Sports  Pain, no gain

The Olympic Stadium has left the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood off the podium

The Olympic Stadium is situated in the once-industrial Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough in the east end of Montreal – its unique architecture makes it a Canadian landmark, and one of the city’s icons. Flanked by Saputo Stadium, the Biodome, and the bi-pyramidal Olympic Village, the Olympic Stadium remains a seldom-used relic. With no Expos to play ball and nothing to draw in a notable crowd on a regular basis, it stands out in Olympic Park like a sore thumb. It goes without saying that the barren stadium and massive public debt attached to it were not in the original blueprints.

The stadium, designed in 1970, was projected to cost $134 million, entirely in taxpayer dollars, and be ready for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. However, labour strikes, increasing cost of materials, and an initially unfeasible tower design rendered it an albatross almost from the moment ground was broken in 1973. Neither the roof nor the tower of the stadium was completed in time for the games. By the time its doors opened in July 1976, Olympic Stadium’s price tag had already doubled to roughly $260 million – an added debt that would be financed with provincial tax aid. With no tower to support the roof, it stayed in storage and the stadium functioned as an open-air building until its completion in 1987.

In November 2006, the Olympic Stadium – including interest and repairs – was finally paid for in full: $1.47 billion, more than ten times the cost of the original proposal. Today, the stadium is reduced to hosting events that fill only a small portion of its 56,040 seat capacity. The three events scheduled for the month of October (Supermotocross Monster Energy, Monster Spectacular, and the Celebration of the Canonization of Brother André) are unlikely to change this trend.

The Olympic Stadium’s role as the playoff home of the Montreal Alouettes is perhaps its saving grace, and is by far its largest remaining source of money. Estimates from the city of Montreal state that one Grey Cup game with a near-capacity attendance can generate $50 million in revenue for the stadium including tax revenue from the businesses around it. However, as Olympic Stadium has only hosted the Grey Cup six times in its existence, in most years the revenues can be rather slim. According to Parc Olympique’s website, the revenues for the stadium, Montreal Tower, and the Sports Centre total $18.7 million annually, which – given the seemingly constant nature of repairs and maintenance to the stadium – is a reminder of the cost and uncertain revenue of the structure.

The impact of this dearth of revenue is evident in the stadium’s own backyard. Over $1.4 billion in public funds were collected, reallocated and, above all, mismanaged in the course of building and maintaining Parc Olympique. The Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough is living proof of the city’s misperception of costs. Then-mayor Jean Drapeau falsely prophesized that, “The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.” Disturbing as they are, the blunders in calculation and judgment of 40 years ago serve to remind citizens and government officials alike that there are consequences to the projects undertaken in the name of pride for those fleeting Olympic weeks. Perhaps the sacrifices made for the Games were worth it for much of the city, but the state of the borough where they took place indicates otherwise.

One of the poorest areas of Montreal, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve has struggled mightily since the Olympic Games came and went. There was nowhere near enough attendance to keep the Expos in town. Compounding the Expos’ problem was the location of Olympic Stadium relative to downtown – 20 minutes on the metro from McGill, and much further for the more traditionally baseball-inclined anglophone population north and west of downtown. Demographically and logistically, the stadium was destined to fail – but regardless of its year-to-year viability, it is sure to be around for the foreseeable future. The stadium rests atop the STM’s Green line, and cannot be demolished with dynamite. The cost of a piece-by-piece deconstruction is estimated at $700 million – the Big Owe, indeed.

Baseball isn’t the only thing that’s left Hochelaga-Maisonneuve – its population as of 2006 had dipped to 129,110 from the 179,085 present when Olympic planning began in 1971. In that same period, Montreal’s citywide population rose from 1,214,352 to 1,620,693, an increase of over 33 per cent. Today the Olympic Village serves as lower-income rental apartments, while the Biodome remains the only real tourist attraction in Parc Olympique. The extent of the damage incurred on the local economy is plain to see. The Olympic Stadium is sitting on property in a district that has stagnated for over thirty years. As a result, growth has been slow to develop, digging an increasingly deeper hole from which Hochelaga-Maisonneuve must escape. In a period where the rest of Montreal had experienced relative prosperity, the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district seems to have been forgotten. Crime rates in the area are sky-high as well, relative to the rest of Montreal. 2009 statistics show Hochelaga-Maisonneuve among the top five boroughs for assault, breaking and entering, theft, car theft, and sexual assault.

The failure of Olympic Stadium comes from the poor workmanship and design in its completion, which hampered its reputation worldwide as a marquee, all-purpose facility and has relegated it to housing large private parties and monster-truck events. While the city of Montreal shares the blame for the out-of-control costs in constructing and maintaining the Olympic Stadium, it is entirely responsible for the lack of revitalization in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough that is perceived as a foregone conclusion. Though the area is just beginning to get back on its feet, one wonders what it would resemble had city officials done their due diligence on materials, cost, and building sustainability, rather than the trial-and-error method indicated by both the stadium’s roof and pedigree.