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A Blueprint for the Aud

The old Montreal Forum has been rehabbed and is now called the Pepsi Forum, a multi-use retail and entertainment facility.

The Montreal Forum—it was one of the most hallowed and storied sports venues on the planet. The long-time home of the Montreal Canadiens, winners of 24 Stanley Cups, steeped in history and tradition, where the gods of the sport held sway for generations. A building that inspired reverence in even the most casual followers of the game.

The Montreal Forum closed its doors in March 1996, just one month before the Sabres played their last game at Memorial Auditorium. The Canadiens moved to their fancy new home one mile to the east, now named the Bell Centre, while the Sabres settled into their new digs at HSBC Arena.

Eleven years later, the Aud sits shuttered, and here in Buffalo we continue to debate its future.

Inside the Pepsi Forum, original seats, Canadiens' logos, a museum and memorabilia evoke the venue's storied past.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, the Forum has been gutted, rehabbed and renovated and is called the Pepsi Forum, a multi-use retail and entertainment center which reopened in 2001. The facility is anchored by the 22-screen AMC Theatres; filling out this massive building at the west end of downtown Montreal are a Jillian’s-style game and entertainment facility, numerous restaurants, a food court, a fitness center, a comedy club, retail outlets including a computer and technology store.

Elements of the old Montreal Forum were kept in place or meticulously restored, so that visitors to the building can feel the building’s history.

Embedded into the sidewalk along the Rue Atwater side are bronzed placards commemorating each of the Canadiens’ Stanley Cups and the team crest. A similar walk of fame on Rue Sainte Catherine features some of the entertainers who have appeared here.

Rehabbing the Montreal Forum was a long, complicated and costly project, for which the original developers incurred a huge financial loss. Today it is 92 percent occupied.

But it is only when the visitor steps inside the center atrium that one feels the power of the building. The original developers, the Canadian-based company Canderel, recreated the center ice faceoff circle in the center of the building and built risers using actual seats from the Forum. A bronze statue of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard gazes out onto the floor. Interspersed throughout the building are old photos, seats and other Forum memorabilia, and on the second floor is a “Forum Gallery,” an exhibit and timeline documenting the building’s former glory.

Despite the success story that the Pepsi Forum has become, it did not happen without delays, cost overruns, significant losses by Canderel, the eventual sale of the building and a significant emotional toll on the citizens of Montreal, who have held a huge stake in the rebirth of the venue.

The building was purchased in January 2006 by the American firm Ashkenazy Acquisitions of New York. Ashkenazy has a track record of purchasing and improving properties with marquee value, and the Forum certainly fit into their mix. The building closed for an approximate purchase price of $45 million Canadian.

Andre Jude is vice president and general manager of the Pepsi Forum and was affiliated with Canderel when they initially took over. “Our company got involved in 1995 once we got three tenants on board—AMC, Showmax and Rainforest Café,” says Jude. “The project was announced publicly in late 1996, but then got suspended until late 1998.”

So what happened? Jude explains, “Brian DePalma was in town producing his film Snake Eyes and approached the city to do his film completely in our city and use the Forum as part of it. It wasn’t until the end of 1998 before we could begin the reconstruction in earnest.”

Sadly, much of the memorabilia and collectibles were stripped from the building or just disappeared during the filming. “The Canadiens held a seat sale to raise funds for charities and other purposes, and that was very well received, but within many circles there is controversy as to how the entire memorabilia issue was handled,” says Jude. “A lot of that wasn’t taken under control and just ended up with scavengers or collectors.”

Incredibly, even the Forum’s scoreboard was destroyed after the demolition crew accidentally cut the cables and then allowed it to drop to the floor and crash to pieces. It was cut apart and scrapped.

Like Buffalo’s Aud, the Forum had asbestos abatement issues, but not a mold problem. “We spent several million dollars removing asbestos, then basically gutted the entire interior and even created a basement out of the permafrost base of the building,” Jude says. “We had to build exterior trusses to support the walls of the structure and those braces are now part of the building’s design.”

Jude admits that the project encountered significant cost overruns. “The total cost to refurbish the building was north of $100 million [Canadian]. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. When we finally opened in 2001, it was in the teeth of a recession. And keep in mind that this was almost an entirely privately funded project, free of government subsidies or support.”

Here in Buffalo, many citizens have a strong emotional attachment and vivid memories of their experiences at the Aud. “I can certainly relate to that,” Jude says. “But here in Montreal it is that much more. The Montreal Forum was not just a sports arena. The Beatles’ first indoor concert happened here; Duke Ellington played here; when [Canadiens great] Howie Morenz died his funeral took place at center ice. The historic ‘Yvette Rally’ took place in 1980 right here in the Forum. Until that time, the Quebec Separatists were on the verge of breaking up the country. That event turned the tide for the Federalists, and one can say that Canada was held together because of what took place in this building.”

What Became of Other Former NHL Arenas?

Buffalo and Montreal are not the only cities that have had to deal with the dilemma of an old arena. Here is a scorecard of some more notable cities and the fate of their grand old barns:

Atlanta, the Omni—Located downtown, the Omni was demolished and the land used to construct the replacement venue, Philips Arena, as well as part of the breathtaking CNN World Headquarters.

Boston, Boston Garden—Demolished in 1997 after the replacement venue, now called TD Banknorth Garden, was erected literally a few feet away from the old place. The old Garden scoreboard is on display at the Arsenal Mall in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Chicago, Chicago Stadium—A massive arena, this building was situated right across the street from the United Center. It was demolished for parking in 1995.

Dallas, Reunion Arena—Shuttered since the Stars and Mavericks moved across downtown to the American Airlines Center, numerous plans for reuse have faltered. Right on the edge of downtown, looks now that it will be demolished.

Detroit, Olympia—This perfectly fine arena was abandoned in the early 1980s because money talked, and the Red Wings moved downtown to the hideous Joe Louis Arena. The Olympia was demolished in 1986 and the US National Guard Armory erected on the site.

Los Angeles, Great Western Forum—The Kings and Lakers are long gone, but the building still stands in Inglewood next to Hollywood Park and is used for concerts and shows.

Philadelphia, the Spectrum—Still standing, still open and part of the four-venue “sports complex” in south Philly. The city’s AHL team, the Phantoms, is the primary tenant.

St. Louis, St. Louis Arena, a.k.a. Checkerdome—The Blues moved to their spiffy new downtown arena in 1994. This old venue sat vacant for five years and was demolished in 1999.

Toronto, Maple Leaf Gardens—Initially used for minor league hockey and special events after the Leafs left in 1999, now mothballed and debate for reuse is ongoing.

Vancouver, Pacific Coliseum—The Canucks might have moved out to their glitzy new GM Place downtown, but the old Coliseum is still used by their WHL junior hockey team.

Winnipeg, Winnipeg Arena—No longer an NHL city sadly, and the gorgeous new MTS Centre in downtown opened in 2004 and houses the city’s AHL team. Winnipeg Arena, located in the inner suburbs, was demolished in 2005 to expand parking for an adjacent shopping mall.

Montrealers became more and more emotional and upset as the building’s 1996 closing date grew nearer. “People didn’t want to see it go, they demanded solutions to the re-use of the building; there was a great deal of hand-wringing and consternation,” says Marcel Dupuis, a sports enthusiast who maintains a fan Web site called “Go Habs Go.”

Since opening in 2001, the building has struggled to get its footing in Montreal’s vibrant downtown retail scene, but the picture is improving. “We have gone from 62 percent to 92 percent occupancy in just one year,” says Jude. “On the upper floor we are building large private club rooms for meetings and special events. The second floor restaurant is being rehabbed to provide large window vistas to the outside. And we are now treating the atrium as a venue in and of itself, not just a public gathering space.”

Jude says that 82,000 students attend school in Montreal’s 11 colleges and universities, and that represents a tremendous marketing opportunity. Says Jude, “We want to create a pipeline of continuous entertainment events. Our retail outlets also allow almost a real-life laboratory for graphic and game design as well.”

What advice can Jude offer to Buffalo, as we wrestle with the ultimate destiny of the Aud? “Well, for one thing it will be almost impossible to get anyone to take on the investment and risk without some sort of public subsidy,” Jude replies. “Here in Canada we focus on social welfare, while in the US your system embraces corporate welfare. With that in mind, what we did here with private funding you could never accomplish in the States.”

He continues, “Entertainment and retail is a tough industry. It evolves quickly. It takes no prisoners. Then you have to deal with a building that does not adapt easily. One has to be able to develop ‘column free’ space for financially sensible uses.”

Jude also says that the Aud probably won’t hold the same significance for younger people. “We regard ourselves as the caretakers and custodians of this building’s history. We are re-hanging photos and artifacts from the old Forum and want our visitors to feel the history in this venue. But keep in mind that in the end museums don’t make money. They take up space. It is retail and commerce that will drive the success of the building, and that certainly will apply to any reuse of the Aud.”

Marcel Dupuis also offers sage advice, whether the Aud is refurbished or torn down: “People such as yourselves still come in to admire the building, or whatever is put in its place. To reminisce. To remember. My advice is to catalog and archive every bit of your Aud before anything is done. Every piece of that building has value and history; do not allow it to be stripped.”

Jude concludes by stating that the ultimate reuse of the Aud will be a difficult challenge. “Your mayor might be right that it could be better to just tear it down and start over. Look at the other cities and how most of the old arenas are long gone because they were just too expensive to maintain or retrofit. The Pepsi Forum is here today, but not without some huge financial losses for the original developers and a lot of pain spread across our community’s spectrum.”

The Pepsi Forum stands proudly at the corner of Rues Atwater and Sainte Catherine. Make it a must-see on your next visit to Montreal. Stand in the center and feel the ghosts. Listen and you will hear them. They are there. If done right, Buffalo’s corner of Main Street and Lower Terrace—whether it is home to a remodeled Aud, the old façade and lobby attached to new construction, or a completely new structure—might one day resonate as powerfully.