Montreal’s new tourism minister wants to spend $250m on a new Olympic Stadium roof, just like old tourism minister

What do you get for a stadium that’s already had one retractable roof replaced by a non-retractable roof when the original retractable roof failed to retract? How about a new (possibly retractable) roof!

“It’s time we gave prestige and standing back to the Olympic Park and the Olympic Stadium,” [Québec Tourism Minister Caroline] Proulx told reporters at a news conference. “For too long it has been not loved or under-loved by Quebecers.”…

“We will be working on replacing the roof, it is mandatory to change the roof,” Proulx said. “We will change the roof. The business plan will be tabled in the next few months.”

This is not the first we’ve heard of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium getting a new roof — a year and a half ago, the previous tourism minister floated spending about $250 million on one, which at the time I called “just madness.” There are certainly times when stadiums need repairs — for Olympic Stadium, this has historically been “pretty much always” — but spending $250 million on a new roof, retractable or otherwise, is a hella expensive way to provide “standing and prestige,” especially when past roofs have only resulted in scandal and ridicule.

Even if you don’t want to tear down the stadium — which is currently getting $17 million a year in provincial subsidies, according to the Montreal Gazette, though it didn’t specify if these are just operating subsidies or include paying off the cost of past roofs and such — maybe it’s time to consider whether it wouldn’t be a better investment just to take the roof off entirely and leave the stadium open-air, as it was for the first decade of its existence. Sure, then it couldn’t be used for all of the 200 events a year it’s supposedly currently used for — actual number a whole lot less than that, unless guided tours of the stadium count as “events” — but are a handful of extra wintertime concerts or whatever, or even a shot at hosting some 2026 World Cup games (which, you know, take place in the summer when it’s quite pleasant outside in Montreal) really going to be worth $250 million in expense? I guess that’s not the sort of thing you ask when you’re the tourism minister and your job is promoting tourism at all cost and not figuring out how to pay for it, but one hopes that the rest of Québec’s legislators will give this proposal at least a bit more sideeye.

I went to see a sporting event at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, and it wasn’t bad at all

So as part of my vacation last week, I got to attend the Women’s World Cup semifinal in Montreal between the U.S. and Germany, which was kind of a good game. Since the Women’s World Cup isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the Men’s World Cup (because, duh, girls), the tournament isn’t occasioned by the construction of massive new stadiums that nobody will ever use again, but rather is played in whatever stadiums the host nation already has available.

For the U.S.-Germany semifinal, this meant Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the erstwhile Big Owe that helped drive the Expos out of town. I’d been there once before in 2001 for an Expos game, and found it to be a weird place to watch baseball, though mostly because baseball in a cavernous indoor space with only a couple thousand fans is always going to be weird. Since the Expos left, it hasn’t been used for much — Alouettes playoff games, Impact spring games when the weather is too awful to go outside, occasional concerts.

Packed with 50,000 screaming (mostly) USA fans, though, it proved to be a great place to watch soccer. (Albeit soccer on fake turf, but that’s an issue with all the venues for this World Cup.) Olympic Stadium is a “concrete donut” era big oval, which is okay for soccer, and the sightlines seemed fine, though given that we were right behind one goal our sightlines would have been fine regardless:

bigopano

freekickWhat was less fine was the scene outside the stadium when we (and a couple hundred other USA fans) showed up at 2 in the afternoon, two hours before gates opened, hoping to find some souvenirs or food to buy or other cup-related activities to take part in:

outsideoNow, I honestly don’t know whether the near-complete lack of activities (a feeble fanfest finally opened a couple of hours before the game) was because FIFA doesn’t care about women soccer players unless they’re wearing hotpants, because vendors were all busy with the Jazz Fest across town, or because of some traditional Quebecois aversion to providing timely service. But the point is that there was nothing wrong with Olympic Stadium that some better concessions options (and turning over more of the washrooms to women — predictably at a women’s sporting event with half men’s rooms, the women’s room lines were appallingly long) wouldn’t have fixed. Some renovations and a more attentive concessionaire (there were no USA player t-shirts on sale anywhere, which at most stadiums would be enough to get your marketing director fired, then rehired just so that you could fire him again), and Olympic Stadium would still be far from modern, but would be a perfectly okay place to watch a sporting event.

And that’s at a stadium that is perpetually ranked among the worst ever. Consider, then, to what degree bad management and disinterest in upgrading a facility that you want out of anyway contributes to the flaws that are being perpetually trotted out in support of arguments that pretty much any stadium over 15 years old is ready for the junkpile. The fact of the matter is that if the game is fun, it’s going to be fun pretty much anyplace; and if it’s not fun, a ride on a baseball-shaped Ferris wheel can only do so much to save it.

Anyway, soapbox off. Suffice to say that I went to a soccer match at what is rightfully considered one of the worst stadiums ever built, and had a great time. It seems like there should be some kind of lesson in that.