Calgary was—was—one of the success stories in the stadium scam. The city’s leadership had stood strong against a 2017 push to replace the Saddledome with a new arena for the Flames, and, ultimately the city residents made the decision. Amid an unprecedented attempt by the NHL and Gary Bettman to force out Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was opposed to the arena deal, voters resoundingly reelected Nenshi and rejected the idea of giving hundreds of millions of dollars to one of Canada’s richest billionaires.
The public’s input is apparently less valued these days. On Monday night, the city unveiled the plans for a deal that will keep the Flames in Calgary for at least another 35 years, with the city paying $275 million of the $550 million arena cost. Ratification will be voted on by the city council next week. If taxpayers are against this, they have just seven days to make themselves heard. And lawmakers don’t seem particularly interested in listening to their consituents.
Late Monday night, Coun. Evan Woolley brought forward a motion to delay a final vote on the arena deal in order to extend the time available for public consultations.
[Councilmember Jeff] Davison urged his council colleagues to reject the delay, suggesting it could imperil the agreement reached between the parties.
“You should know that if this passes this deal is done tonight and you will forever be known as the council that likely lost the Calgary Flames,” said Davison.
The motion to delay the arena vote to spend more time listening to the public failed by a 4-9 count. The council will vote on the deal next week, and given that it is publicly supported by a majority of the council and by the mayor, it’s pretty much a done deal. Calgarians? Your voice doesn’t really matter here.
What about the deal itself? The city will be responsible for $275 million of the cost of the arena, which actually represents a higher total than the Flames were asking for two years ago. But there are a couple of new wrinkles that make the deal a little more appealing. The Flames will be responsible for the costs of operating and maintaining the new building over the 35-year agreement. And the city will collect a two percent “facility fee” on every ticket sold. The city released some rosy projections about how much this will save, but the taxpayer expense still amounts to nine figures of public money toward a new arena for ownership that can afford to build its own.
Mayor Nenshi is trying to sell the deal as a win for the city, instead of as less of a loss.
“Let’s cut to the chase. This is a good deal for Calgary,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday evening. “For some years now, I have been saying that any investment of public money in this project must come with public benefit. This deal does that.”
In the scheme of things, it’s possible to find a positive lesson in this saga: Calgary held out, said no, and eventually got a better deal. But the Flames still got a hefty taxpayer handout. That’s the ultimate lesson for teams here, and it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.