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Remembering the glory days of Molson Park (18 photos)

'It was an incredible opportunity for people in this area to see top world talent for many years. Even Weird Al and Spinal Tap, they all played Molson Park, usually at the peak of their popularity,' says deputy mayor
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There was once a time when you'd regularly see 'Barrie' emblazoned on tour shirts from some of the biggest names in rock. 

Barrie native Phil Heels, who saw plenty of world-class bands come through the former Molson Park in the city's south end over the years, says it was a favourite for not just fans, but performers, too. 

"That was literally every band's favourite stop in Ontario," Heels tells BarrieToday. "That was the best concert site ever. It had the natural bowl and lots of room. It was very safe, but it was also very liberal in allowing you to have a good time.

"It just seemed to be something that brought everyone together. It made Barrie cool."

The list of bands that came through the city and performed at the park, located in the south end at Mapleview Drive (formerly called Molson Park Drive) and Highway 400, was diverse and illustrious.

If you're of a certain vintage, you likely saw a world-class performer or two at Molson Park.

Names such as Green Day, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Tool, Deep Purple, Canned Heat, Mick Taylor, Motley Crue, The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, Buddy Guy, Fats Domino, Verve Pipe, Sheryl Crow, Journey, Radiohead, Silverchair, Offspring, Dropkick Murphys, Joan Jett... Heck, even The Monkees played Molson Park in August 1987!

Pretty much every well-known name in Canadian music also played the park at the time, too, from Bryan Adams to the Bare Naked Ladies, Tragically Hip to Our Lady Peace, Stompin' Tom to Jeff Healey, and Nickelback to Blue Rodeo. 

Heels points out that if you took the time to write out the names of all the performers who played Molson Park over its two-decade run, your hand would cramp up.

"We used to get some of the biggest bands in the world! Better than Toronto," he says. 

At least one major summer festival or show stopped at the park each year throughout the '90s and into the 2000s. Some of the higher-profile events included Edgefest, Lollapalooza, Live 8, Canada Day parties and the Warped Tour. The Mariposa Folk Festival, now a popular summer event in Orillia, was also staged at Molson Park from 1984 until 1991. 

World tour were also known to include stops at the park, including Oasis for their What's the Story? (Morning Glory) album, the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape, Pearl Jam's Yield, Neil Young's Broken Arrow, and Green Day's American Idiot.  

One of the biggest concerts, though, was held on Canada Day 1993, when some 50,000 people piled into the park to see Van Halen, Kim Mitchell and Vince Neil. 

For Heels, his first show at Molson Park was Lollapalooza '95, which included Hole (one of his most memorable performances from the park), Cypress Hill, Beck, The Jesus Lizard and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. 

"The Cypress Hill pit at that show was psychotic," he says. "That was death-defying and rowdy."

But, as with any outdoor event, weather can be a major factor. 

"It was very wet (in 1995). I was living in Toronto at the time and came home to my grandparents for the weekend," Heels recalls, adding the skies opened up mid-show. "I specifically remember we were mud-sliding on our stomachs by the stage. There were kids putting dye in their hair in line, and then halfway through everyone was covered in purple and pink or whatever."

In addition to seeing shows at Molson Park as a fan, Heels also worked at Edgefest '99, a two-night affair.

"We were setting up the beer stuff, which was in the baseball diamond on the back of the stage," says Heels, now 40. "All of a sudden, we just hear this band going."

It was Big Wreck, who were performing as if they were in front of thousands of people. Heels walked into the pit where there was only the sound crew and some roadies.

"Here I was seeing Big Wreck for the first time in an empty Molson Park during soundcheck," says Heels, almost in disbelief at the thought.

SORRY FOLKS, PARK'S CLOSED

The final concert to be held at Molson Park was the Warped Tour on Aug. 11, 2007, featuring Bad Religion, Flogging Molly and a bevy of others. 

That was the end of the line for Molson Park as a concert venue; the speakers were turned off and it was transformed into a massive commercial district, now known as Park Place.

Heels says it was a shame to see the venue close - for a variety of reasons.

"It was positive and something in the newspaper that's actually nice about Barrie for once," he says. "I don't remember ever hearing a terrible festival story. I'm sure there are, with mass groups of people there will be bad things, but I don't ever remember at least in that time period when I was going, anything bad happening at Molson Park."

In late-2006, the landowner, North American Acquisition, won their appeal at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to have the property rezoned from industrial to commercial to make way for what was envisioned as a high-end business park. The rezoning had been previously denied by the city, which wanted it to be used for industry and high-paying jobs. 

"The park’s days were probably numbered after Molson closed the brewery locally," says Deputy Mayor Barry Ward, who was first elected to city council in 2000, the same year the brewery closed. "Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone at the city was aware the land was for sale until it was sold.

"I’m not sure if the city would have purchased the land, but, in hindsight, it was a lost opportunity," Ward says. "The city then tried to protect the land for industrial use, but lost a fight at the Ontario Municipal Board. Basically, the OMB chair said previous councils had zoned much of the surrounding area commercial, so it was too late to change course with Molson Park."

SOME REMINDERS STILL REMAIN

Some remnants of the old Molson Park concert grounds still remain, though very few: the chain-link fence near Churchill Drive and a small hut that was once used to co-ordinate on-site parking.

Most of the land, stretching from Mapleview Drive north to Big Bay Point Road, has since been developed in one way or another. The southern parcel is a labyrinth of roads and roundabouts connecting dozens of businesses inside Park Place, where the street names harken back to the past, including Concert Way and Live Eight Way.

There's still a 22-acre natural area in the middle of the property, with a network of paths which are well used. There's a pedestrian bridge over the creek and a handful of benches along the trail. In some places, the old asphalt pathways can still be seen, but are becoming increasingly obscured by foliage and weeds growing up through the cracks.

Some of the old gates and fencing, unmaintained and more of a suggestion to keep out of certain areas, are still there. Beyond the fence, toward the north end of the site and behind the mounds of dirt, are a pair of outbuildings. There's also a graveyard of stacked and weathered picnic tables, some of the few vestiges of its former days as a rock 'n' roll oasis. 

Seemingly out of place, light standards are still standing in the old parking area, amidst the jagged and overgrown landscape.

The old brewery, which made national headlines when a massive marijuana grow-up was discovered in an area of the building in 2004, is long gone. The suds factory was located just a stone's throw from where work continues on the Harvie Road bridge over Highway 400. 

Some people might even remember the drive-thru beer store that operated in the southwest corner of the property, or Molson House, an old farmhouse which could be rented out for parties and events. 

"It was a huge property. It was to Barrie what Avril (Lavigne) was to Canada as far as rock music," says Heels, who now promotes his own rock shows in Barrie. "They took it away and no one had a plan for how to replace it and the revenue."

COULD WE EVER SEE AN ENCORE?

With development ramping up in the south end, following the annexation of more than 5,700 acres of land from neighbouring Innisfil in 2010, it begged the question: Could the city ever see another Molson Park-type facility to put Barrie back on the concert map?

Although a south-end sports park, similar to the Barrie Community Sports Complex in Midhurst, has been discussed, as reported by BarrieToday in July, it seems another concert venue is just a pipe dream. 

"The city will set aside a large chunk of land for recreation facilities, including playing fields, but I think there's no chance of seeing a Molson Park-type concert venue," says Ward, who added land values make it "unfeasible" within the city limits. 

"Most of the former Innisfil lands in the south end are privately owned or environmentally protected," the deputy mayor adds. "The land would be too expensive for the city to acquire for something such as a concert venue. Neighbouring property owners probably wouldn’t be too happy with the prospect of noisy concerts being held." 

Molson Park also needed the support of a large corporation such as Molson, which ran the venue as part of its public-relations effort, Ward notes. 

The deputy mayor, who has spent almost two decades on city council, says he understands the importance of Molson Park and what it meant to people, both locally and abroad. 

"I think Molson Park did put the city on the map, especially for people who were young at the time," Ward says. "I’ve seen numerous entries on social media about people having great memories of attending events at the park. There are entire blog posts devoted to memories of concerts.

"It was an incredible opportunity for people in this area to see top world talent for many years," says Ward, who rattled off even more names to the list, such as Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and the Beastie Boys. "Even Weird Al and Spinal Tap, they all played Molson Park, usually at the peak of their popularity."

However, one of the first Molson Park memories that came to mind for the deputy mayor was Katrina and the Waves, "who came at the height of their brief fame and toward the end of Molson Park’s life as a concert venue.

"It was just a very fun concert," he says. "I also have vivid memories of Hank Williams Jr. (he was loud!) and Dwight Yoakam at one of the country concerts. I also liked the Tragically Hip who, I believe, headlined one of the Canada Day concerts (in 1992). I do remember Gord Downie burning his boots on stage. Unfortunately, I was out of town for the Live 8 concert (in 2005) and always seemed to be away for Mariposa when it was there."

TIMES HAVE CHANGED

With Burl's Creek Event Grounds now hosting concerts north of the city in Oro-Medonte Township, it has somewhat replaced what Molson Park once had. 

"Burl’s Creek is similar, but doesn’t have the array of acts Molson Park did, at least not yet," Ward says.

So as it stands, although memories of Molson Park remain vivid in people's minds, another Molson Park-type facility within Barrie is a fantasy at best. 

"There is no appetite on the part of the City of Barrie," Ward says. "Burl’s Creek is today’s Molson Park. There is no chance we would have two of them in this part of Ontario."

Many of the shows that would be have held in Barrie in the past now end up at either Burl's Creek or Casino Rama. 

But Heels says Burl's Creek doesn't possess the same things that made Molson Park attractive, including its location within the city limits and, most notably, its natural topography. 

"And I also think the Molson Park shows were ours. We loved it and I think it was like a badge of honour," he says. "Because we were the hicks back then. When I lived in Toronto, it was like Barrie was the farmers. But as soon as you mentioned Molson Park, they remembered it with story after story. Anyone who was there will have a story."

Ward says there are lessons to be learned from something like Molson Park: "Enjoy it while you can!"




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Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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