Historicist: The Road to SkyDome
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Historicist: The Road to SkyDome

How the 1982 Grey Cup gave birth to SkyDome.

Source: 1985 Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine.

The 1982 Grey Cup game was not a pleasurable one for Toronto football fans. The major disappointment was not that the Argonauts fell apart in the second half and lost to the Edmonton Eskimos 32 to 16—it was the bone-chilling, rainy weather. Downpours caused fans in fully exposed sections of Exhibition Stadium to risk injury in order to find shelter. Among the fifty-five thousand people in the stands observing the miserable experience were Metropolitan Toronto Chairman Paul Godfrey and Ontario Premier William Davis. As the Globe and Mail observed, as Godfrey “surveyed the scene from his dry seat in Section 42 at the 55-yard line, the falling rain brought a twinkle to his eye. There must have been visions of a domed stadium dancing in his head.” While Davis sighed that the Argonauts “played well,” Godfrey told a Star reporter that “if you ever needed proof of the need for a domed stadium, this is your day.”

When asked later why he had pushed a dome for so long, Godfrey noted “I realized that, except for former Toronto mayor Allan Lamport, no one in Metro spoke for the sports fan. The wealthy and influential spoke for culture. Lots of people spoke for senior citizens and kids. But nobody spoke for the people who are middle Metro. Sports is their culture—and it’s mine.” Unlike his unsuccessful efforts a decade earlier, Godfrey would see his long-imagined dome become reality.

Proposed site of domed stadium in Downsview—the black lines are entrance routes from Highway 401 and Allen Road. Source: Domed Stadium Downsview Site Report (Toronto: Beinhauer/Irwin Associates/IBI Group, 1984).

As 1983 dawned, a large number of studies into potential dome sites were underway. While the provincial officials preferred a site near Lake Ontario, potential private investors looked to the suburbs, where it was felt there would be fewer problems with traffic and the weather. Anywhere north of Highway 401 would do, whether it was Richmond Hill (where a Meadowlands-like complex was proposed for Yonge Street and Highway 7) or Etobicoke (where the Ontario Jockey Club offered a parcel of land next to Woodbine Racetrack). One person who tired of being approached with one scheme after another was North York Mayor Mel Lastman, though his fatigue may have had as much to do with being interviewed during a Florida vacation as listening to pitches for stadiums in Downsview and at York University. “I wish they’d stop coming around because,” he told the Star, “unless they have answers to the questions I wanted answered, they are wasting their time and mine.” Lastman’s major concern was traffic spillage into residential neighbourhoods, especially around the York campus.

It didn’t take long for Lastman to change his tune. A provincial committee led by former Ontario Hydro Chair Hugh Macaulay issued a report in early 1984 that recommended Downsview as the ideal site. Lastman had buttons and signs printed that proclaimed North York “Home of the Dome.”

In April 1984, CN stepped forward with an offer to donate seven acres of land for a stadium. The proposed site next to the CN Tower had many attractive advantages, from the new convention centre to reasonable public transit links. As negotiations faltered and residential concerns over Downsview grew, there was a sense that Metro and provincial officials were leaning towards the CN site, much to the chagrin of Lastman, who warned of traffic chaos if the dome went downtown.
By the end of June, the province established the Stadium Corporation of Ontario, a crown committee whose members included Godfrey, Macaulay, and Ontario Treasurer Larry Grossman. A report released in November favoured the CN site and Woodbine as the leading candidates. Political squabbling was well underway, especially after Godfrey resigned as Metro chairman to become publisher of the Toronto Sun. The strong support Metro councillors had shown for a dome began to waver, with several threatening to reassess their approval of $12 million in funding if the stadium was built downtown. Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton and new Metro Chairman Dennis Flynn worried that the longer it took to choose and develop a site, the more interest among the public and fellow politicians would drop. Funding concerns weren’t relieved when new Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government went back on a campaign promise to dish up federal money.

Source: 1985 Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine.

Premier Davis set January 17, 1985 as a deadline for negotiations on determining a site. Deals were made up to the last minute—when asked if the deadline sped up the process, Davis smiled and said “who knows?” The winner was the CN site, which would be home to a $130 million stadium set to open by spring 1988. It was also announced that fourteen designs for a retractable roof, an element recommended by Godfrey after he learned during a conversation with Blue Jays catcher Buck Martinez that players preferred outdoor games, were being studied.

Private sector financing was to be put up by twelve corporate donors headed by Brascan CEO Trevor Eyton, nicknamed “The Sportsmen’s Club.” In exchange for $50 million in support, the corporations would receive exclusive advertising rights in the dome, preferred supplier status, use of the logo, “Founder’s Club” membership, a corporate box, and six parking spots. Their participation was contingent on holding 40% of the seats on the dome’s board of directors. These conditions upset Argonauts owner Carling O’Keefe, who wasn’t asked to become part of the consortium—likely because Brascan owned part of rival brewer/Blue Jays majority owner Labatt’s. Carling O’Keefe threw a fit and threatened to pull the Argos out of the dome. After several weeks of lobbying, the brewer was allowed to join.

Setting a groundbreaking date took longer than expected, thanks to hold-ups among municipal governments and 288 objections submitted to the Ontario Municipal Board. Metro Council reconsidered its funding commitment several times once the site was settled, mostly due to concerns over its financial contribution, which had risen from $12 million to $30 million. These debates spilled into another outgoing gift from Davis to the city of Toronto, a three-foot strip of land south of Eglinton that would permanently thwart Metro’s dream of reviving the Spadina Expressway plan (Metro Councillors Esther Shiner and William Sutherland argued that Spadina would ease traffic jams for fans headed down to the dome). A mounting series of delays upped the total price tag to $242 million by the time the first shovel went into the ground on October 3, 1986. The groundbreaking ceremony looked set to be a dreary repeat of the 1982 Grey Cup, but the rain stopped by the time Davis, Eggleton, Godfrey, and half-a-dozen dignitaries turned the dirt.

Source: 1988 Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine.

Now that construction was underway, there remained the question of what to call the complex. A contest in April 1987 netted 150,000 entries and 12,879 suggestions for names that spanned the alphabet from “ABC Dome” to “Zues Stadium” (the curious can check the May 18, 1987 edition of the Star for the entire list, as long as you have a microscope handy). The most popular suggestion was “SkyDome,” which appeared on over two thousand entries. Those were entered into a barrel for the grand prize, lifetime tickets to all events in the stadium. The winner, drawn by Premier David Peterson on May 11, 1987, was Kellie Watson, 25, of Wallaceburg, Ontario. When asked why she submitted “SkyDome,” Watson said that “I tossed it around my head one night and picked the one that fit the theme. The retractable roof was the key to the name. I felt that was the special feature.” Watson and her husband Rob won tickets to all future events at the stadium. Echoing the bad puns scattered among the entries, Premier David Peterson and dignitaries sipped on “Dome Perignon” champagne during the announcement ceremony.

Source: 1989 Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine.

When the ground was turned, the expected opening date for SkyDome was revised to April 1989. This estimate wasn’t far off, as the stadium officially opened on June 3, 1989. Mother Nature was in a playful mood that night, offering up one of the reasons SkyDome was built in the first place. When the dome was opened for the spectators, a sliver of the night sky appeared—and was followed by a downpour that, according to the Globe and Mail, “added an element of chaos and spontaneity—not to mention danger—to what otherwise promised to be a predictably hokey evening.” The show went on, though the performers risked slip-sliding away on the wet concrete floor.
After seven years and over $570 million in costs, what was a little rain?
Additional material from the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine, Like No Other in the World: The Story of Toronto’s SkyDome by Mike Filey (Toronto: SCV, 1989), and the following newspapers: the Globe and Mail, November 29, 1982, January 1, 1983, May 18,1984, November 16, 1984, January 18, 1985, January 25, 1985, and June 4, 1989; and the Toronto Star, November 29, 1982, and May 12, 1987.