As the new $500-million BMO Centre begins to take shape, it is showing the true size of the project — not just from a construction aspect but also in terms of potential impact on Calgary.
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The 565,000-square-foot addition to the existing conference centre will bring it up to more than one million square feet in total, making it the biggest in Western Canada, designed to attract some of the largest international conferences.
When completed, still on target for the 2024 Calgary Stampede, the Calgary Tower laid on its side would fit it inside the new structure. It will also be taller than both the Saddledome and the Stampede Grandstand.
Calgarians will get their first chance to see the enormity of the project during this year’s Stampede.
“The amazing part is with Stampede coming in a couple of weeks, and all of the people walking on the midway, just beside us here, you’re really going to start seeing what’s coming,” said Kate Thompson, president and CEO of Calgary Municipal Land Corp. “Not a lot of people have seen that scale and seen it right up close.”
The project has gone from drawings last year to something more tangible this year. While approaching 30 per cent completion, the swooping grand entrance is beginning to take form.
Thompson said the project is on schedule and on budget, and has avoided many of the supply chain and inflationary issues through well-timed tendering cycles. The site has also allowed contractors easy access to the project and to store materials. They currently have about one-third of the 9,000 tonnes of steel for the project already in place.
The concrete foundation shows just how much more structural growth will take place, but already people will be able to see the beginnings of the 100,000-square-foot exhibition halls on the main floor, complete with 10-metre ceilings. Patrons will also see the second floor, which will be made up of two city blocks’ worth of meeting rooms, while the third floor will have the two largest ballrooms in the province — the junior ballroom at about 20,000 square feet and the grand ballroom at about 50,000 square feet. Currently, the largest ballroom in Alberta is 17,000 square feet. They will be able to sit and feed 8,000 guests in one sitting.
Perhaps the project’s most impressive feature will be the sweeping views of the mountains, the Stampede grounds and Calgary’s downtown from the ballrooms. The second floor Exchange will also have massive windows and a giant skylight to take full advantage of the views.
The project has also worked to incorporate the existing BMO Centre and is updating the original building through the construction of a new pre-function space that will tie the two buildings together.
The main entrance and the grand staircase will open onto a large outdoor plaza, more than twice the size of Olympic Plaza, and will be a year-round gathering spot for Calgarians and feature prominently during the Stampede. The pavilion will be set up with programmable lights to animate the exterior of the centre.
Critically, the project is designed to better tie the Stampede grounds into the fabric of Calgary, through several projects such as the Victoria Park Stampede CTrain Station and Stampede Trail, as well as other infrastructure in the East Village. It is part of the master plan created by the Calgary Stampede and the CMLC.
“How do we bring people through it . . . so that this feels more a part of downtown than isolated away from downtown,” said Thompson. “This is a part of our city. It always has been. It has been blocked off for years. So it’s bringing it back into the grid of our city.”
The project is estimated to have an annual economic effect of more than $260 million, while creating about 1,800 jobs.
It will also entrench Calgary as a stop on the conference calendar for major international events. Jim Laurendeau, vice-president of park planning and development for the Stampede, said there are already “dozens of bookings” for the new BMO Centre beginning in 2024, including the Rotary International Convention in 2025 that will bring 25,000 people to the city.
This will be one of just four conference centres in Canada with the capability of hosting such events, joining Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.
“This building puts the Calgary Stampede, and in fact Calgary, into a totally different league of hosting conventions,” said Laurendeau. “This is an absolute game-changer for this city and allows visitors from all over the world to attend international conventions here. And those folks will all be eating in the restaurants, staying in hotels, riding around in Ubers and cabs.”
Construction will pause during the Stampede this year to ensure a safe, uninterrupted environment.