Return to the Roots

Return to the Roots The new CEO of Northlands envisions a revival of the organization’s agricultural base – and he won’t let the rodeo go without a fight. by Eliza Barlow Photography by Adam Goudreau Three days after the latest edition of Farmfair International wrapped up at Northlands, bits of hay…

Return to the Roots

The new CEO of Northlands envisions a revival of the organization’s agricultural base – and he won’t let the rodeo go without a fight.

Photography by Adam Goudreau

Three days after the latest edition of Farmfair International wrapped up at Northlands, bits of hay still litter the halls and the scent of cattle lingers. Tim Reid chuckles when a visitor mentions the earthy odour. “It takes two months to get the rodeo out of the building,” he acknowledges. Even though this was his first rodeo, so to speak, he already knows the ropes.

Reid is 36 years old, and president and CEO of Northlands – definitely one of the youngest in the organization’s history. Broad-shouldered, tall and a little beefy, he fiddles with his X-Ring, a keepsake that graduates of St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, are almost never without. Born into a military family, he attended the university on a football scholarship, and laments that years of sitting at a desk and attending food-rich events have left him in poorer athletic shape than he’d like.

Before taking the helm at Northlands in September, he was CEO of the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo. Previous to that, he was chief operating officer of the MacDonald Island Park recreation centre in Fort McMurray. 

In his last job, everything was new. It was Fort McMurray – a frontier city where things can’t seem to be planned or developed fast enough. 

With Northlands in Edmonton, Reid has stepped into a historic business that has developed over the course of more than a century. And yet, in all of its 130-plus years, it’s likely never faced the upheaval being wrought by a competing arena venue.

“Sustainability is the biggest challenge we have, and relevance. If we find one, we’ll probably find the other,” he says. “We’re an organization with deep and historical roots in the city of Edmonton but, like any organization that’s going to be sustainable, you need to change. We probably would have needed to change whether they decided to build a new arena or not. We have a great opportunity to be something different – something special.”

Reid’s challenge is to do that not only without the Edmonton Oilers and Oil Kings, but without other entertainment acts that will undoubtedly be drawn to the new arena. Rogers Place, now under full-tilt construction downtown, is slated to open in time for the 2016-17 NHL season.

“The separation is going to be hard for a lot of people to swallow,” he says. Northlands and the Oilers “were attached at the hip for a long time.” 

And now looms the spectre of more painful separations to come.  

Two days before the start of November’s Canadian Finals Rodeo, Northlands’ biggest event of the year and Farmfair’s partner event, Daryl Katz’s Oilers Entertainment Group dropped a bombshell: It was going after the rodeo, too.

When pressed, Reid first says he was “disappointed” by the timing of the news, saying, “I don’t think anyone would want to talk about venue changes in the middle of the Stanley Cup.” And he can’t resist the tiniest of digs: “If I had a new shiny building, I don’t know that I’d want acres of dirt in there.” 

That said, Reid acknowledges it’s simply business – if he were Oilers’ President Patrick LaForge, he says, he’d want the rodeo too. 

“I don’t fault anybody for trying to strengthen their business. To them, it’s about maximizing venue dates, and I can appreciate that.”

But Reid makes clear he’s not going to let the Katz group rustle the rodeo without a fight.

“Any time you could lose part of your business that’s been with you for 41 years, you should be concerned,” he says. “I’m definitely worried about it. That event needs to stay in Edmonton and, selfishly, I think that event needs to stay at Northlands.”

He firmly states Northlands has proven its worth to the rodeo over four decades. “We produced a better event this year than the year before, and next year’s event will be even better,” he says.  “If that relationship isn’t established by now …” 

He doesn’t finish the sentence. But he seems to understand why the CFR might consider stepping out on him, and has nothing but compliments for the builders of the new arena.

“As an Edmontonian, I’ll be very proud of it … [but] we as North Americans tend to grab on to new and shiny and forget about what was there before until it’s too late.”

Rexall Place, across the street from where he’s sitting, comes to mind when he says this. Originally opened as the Northlands Coliseum in 1974 – the Oilers beat the Cleveland Crusaders 4-1 in World Hockey Association action to officially christen the building – it’s as much of an Edmonton institution as the Oilers themselves.

Northlands has convened an Arena Strategy Committee to deliver a recommendation on the future of Rexall Place by April 15. The fate of the venerable arena is “bookended” by two decisions, says Reid: Renovate and rejuvenate Rexall under a new name, or demolish it and repurpose the land.

Regardless of the decision, Reid recognizes it’s in his best interests to work alongside the Oilers execs. A folksy wooden plaque in his office tells a little of his mindset with a quote from United States President Lyndon Johnson: “It’s better to have your enemies inside your tent peeing out than outside your tent peeing in.”

Of course, he doesn’t think of LaForge and the OEG as enemies, but he does welcome them into his tent. He’s a welcoming person in general: Big on eye contact and amiable small talk, making people feel at ease.

A collaboration between the two sides “has to happen,” Reid says. “If we can’t collaborate, then neither of us will be operating in the best interests of Edmonton.” And he believes it can happen. He says he sits down with the Katz Group often, just to talk. It’s about being transparent, he says, about being at the table together and sharing information.

LaForge, president and COO of the OEG, describes the relationship between his group and Northlands as “cordial and professional,” even as great changes unfold around them, adding Northlands has always been a “good landlord.”

He says all the “public foofaraw” about the new arena being built downtown and the billions in commercial and residential development that goes along with it is “taking the focus away from what’s going on at Northlands Park.

“I wouldn’t say they’re ecstatic about it, but they understand the need … to create a city centre we’re all proud of.”

Northlands is losing its highest profile tenant, LaForge points out, but he’s committed to working with it through the transition.

“We’re close organizations and we share things before they become public. We’re departing Rexall Place at the end of 2016, and we’re collaborating on making that a smooth exit.

“It becomes less painful if people work on it with you.”

LaForge says Reid is a “good addition” to the Northlands team. “He’s a young guy, he’s creative, he’s a builder. He’s got a lot on his plate, but I don’t think it scares him at all. I think he enjoys it.”

Reid says he does enjoy the challenge of stepping in as Northlands CEO at a time of dramatic change. But other challenges in his life are probably less enjoyable – such as trying to find a semblance of work-life balance.

He has a young family – a wife and two sons, ages four and one. He estimates his wife does 99 per cent of the parenting work since he took the Northlands job. “If I’m home for dinner, my four-year-old will ask me, ‘Daddy, did you cancel a meeting?'” he says. “I have the most patient wife on the planet,” and she understands the importance of serving the community, he adds. 

It’s clear he sees an element of civic service to his role and, indeed, if Reid’s vision for the sustainable future of Northlands is successful, the city of Edmonton and several stakeholder communities will benefit.

A key element in his plans is the idea of taking Northlands back to where it began – as the centre of the agricultural community. It’s a community that was once the lifeblood of the economy, but is now too often forgotten in the shadow of energy, he says.

“Long after we find alternative uses for petroleum, we’re still going to want to eat food.”

The concept of going back to Northlands’ roots applies to K-Days, too – albeit without any more name changes. 

“We need to come up with opportunities to stretch K-Days around the city like we once did. We need to get back to it being a community spirit and pride builder.”

But heritage can’t be the only draw for Northlands, which is why he’d like to take better advantage of the horse-racing facility. “There’s a big upside to horse racing. It has to become less focused on the product on the track and become more focused on entertainment opportunities,” he says. 

“There’s something special about coming into the grounds and seeing 50 horses on the track at 7 a.m. It’s uniquely Albertan.”

Reid’s vision for Northlands is unabashedly big-picture, and agriculture is at the heart of it. As the future of Northlands unfolds without the Oilers, the smell in its hallways might be the best indicator of his success.