Once again, the City of Calgary has brought the topic of a new arena into the public realm for discussion before city council makes a decision on July 30. While these discussions certainly aren’t new — a replacement for the Saddledome has been on the drawing board for the past decade — it’s a little concerning considering the current state of the City’s finances, as well as the short amount of time Calgarians had to add their input.
While the Saddledome is one of the city’s most well-known landmarks and is a prominent feature of the skyline, it can’t be denied that it is a costly building to maintain. It’s also not in touch with the current needs of big stage shows because of the limitations of its 30-year-old domed roof. But, all-in-all, the Saddledome is still a vibrant venue that won’t be slowing down in the near future — so why all the rush to approve a new arena deal?
Unlike CalgaryNEXT, which was in the spotlight for almost two years and gave the public ample opportunity to voice their concerns or support for the project, Calgarians haven’t even had the better part of July to discuss the new Victoria Park arena. With the recent $60 million budget cut from essential services as well as the potential delay to deliberate changes to the Green Line in council, is this really the right time to introduce a $550 million arena deal where taxpayers fund half of the cost?
When it was officially announced in 2017 that the CalgaryNEXT project wouldn’t be moving forward, Michael Brown — president of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation — told CBC that this decision would put the Calgary Flames “behind the clock” in their business plans. Which leads me to wonder, as both a Calgarian and as an urban studies graduate, is this arena really in the best interest of the public?
Many council members — and even Mayor Naheed Nenshi — have stated on several occasions that they wouldn’t release a deal to the public until it was negotiated to be the best for Calgarians. Yet, since many of the discussions regarding this new arena have been behind closed doors, a number of details of this arena deal aren’t clear. For example, with something as basic as building ownership it’s hard to tell at this point whether the City will retain ownership of the new building — especially since everything that’s been released to the public has been tentative at this point. Therefore, it’s hard for citizens to sift through the facts at this point to fully understand what is going on.
When there’s so many City services that provide direct social, economic and civic benefit to all citizens and that don’t have a barrier to entry, it’s hard to justify slashing $60 million from these services and investing them into a new arena. For example, 115 city employees have been cut from the transit and fire departments as well as the police service, resulting in longer wait times for emergency services that provide life-saving help and less frequent public transit available to individuals from all income levels across Calgary.
This may be the best arena deal we’ve ever seen for Calgary, but is it the best deal for Calgarians?
—Mariah Wilson, Gauntlet Editorial Board
Wherever there are professional sporting franchises, there are debates about public funding for arenas. Calgary has had this debate once already, and we’re having it again. The City of Calgary is debating a 50/50 deal with the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) for the building of a new event centre and arena in east Victoria Park.
A commonly-cited pro-public funding argument is the potential for economic benefit to a city. Well, sorry to say, but generally-accepted economic research suggests that there is no benefit. Initially, I would also have cited this argument, owing to my background as a bartender and watching my earnings increase on game nights.
University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe set me straight.
“There have been periods of time when entire sports franchises shut down — like the players strike,” said Tombe. “Researchers that look at these events certainly find an effect in and around the arena but that’s made up for by increased spending elsewhere. Households allocating some of their disposable income to eating out or going out to the bar on game day will eat out elsewhere or spend that money on other types of activities out of their discretionary pot of money. So, what the arena does is shift economic activity across locations much more so than increasing the total amount of economic activity.”
So, my argument for increased economic activity doesn’t hold water. Tombe did say, however, that there could be an argument for having that shifting economic activity centered in the Rivers District, an area set to become an entertainment and arts and culture hub for the city.
Despite there being no increased economic benefit, I’m still pro-arena and pro-public funding to build it. There are other factors at play here, ones that are intangible and non-economic.
I enjoy living in a big city. After moving here eight years ago, I’m proud to call Calgary my home. I love that we have an NHL franchise, a CFL team, a lacrosse team, an opera, an orchestra and the Calgary Stampede, among many other amenities. Meeting tourists and being able to share with them the multitude of things to see and do in Calgary gives me a great sense of civic pride — and I think it’s important to foster this sense of pride in people. Civic pride brings communities together and makes a vibrant, dynamic city, one that people want to live in — and invest in.
If we’d like Calgary to have an international reputation as a world-class city, we’d better be willing to invest in it. We’ve already said no to the Olympics — if we continue to pass up opportunities to showcase our city, we show the world that Calgary is anything but open for business.
Being home to a professional sports team like the Calgary Flames is important to me, and important for the community. There’s nothing like rooting for the home team amongst thousands of fans downtown on the Red Mile and seeing people come together to cheer them on. The arena deal on the table guarantees that CSEC won’t relocate the Flames for 35 years. Imagine the loss of the Calgary Flames — something that potentially could happen should we not build a quality facility to house them. How demoralizing for the city would that be? A sports team provides important benefits to a community — not the least of which involves an impact on charitable organizations.
How often do we auction off Flames tickets for a cause? How many times have players participated in charity events? Not only that, but CSEC has also agreed to contribute $1.5 million annually for the 35-year term to community sports in Calgary — not an insignificant amount of money.
Personally, I don’t take the fact that the Flames’ ownership group CAN afford to pay for the entire Event Centre into account when considering whether or not they SHOULD pay for it. And quite frankly, I don’t think CSEC should pay entirely for it. Its important that the City owns the venue. The proposal involves more than just an arena to house the Flames — it’s part of a larger plan for the area. The Event Centre will be used by the Calgary Stampede as well as being a venue for concerts, exhibitions and sporting events and will, according to the City, “act as an anchor for a vibrant festival street that can host a variety of festivals and community events.”
Proposing a new arena deal in the face of city budget cuts was a terrible idea. The optics of introducing cuts to essential services at the same time as announcing an almost-$300 million dollar investment into an event center could not be a worse look.
The timing undermines support for the arena — introducing cuts at the same time causes those who would be staunchly in support of the project to reconsider that support. It becomes very hard to justify being in favour of a massive expenditure when more than 100 people are losing their jobs. The City of Calgary did not approach this well or with any consideration or empathy and people are justified in their anger.
That being said, if this were put to a public vote, I would vote yes without hesitation. The City has certainly botched the timing and the process, and I hope their poor decision-making doesn’t cost us an opportunity to get an amazing new facility and revitalize the Rivers District. I am well aware that the arena will not be a job-creating, money-printing machine, but to me, the intangible benefits are more than worth the cost.
—Kristy Koehler, Gauntlet Editor-in-Chief