Calgary at a Crossroads

If Calgary is at a crossroads, you'll find it around Ninth Avenue and 16th Street S.W.

Decisions need to be made here — a path chosen — one that could define our city for decades to come. Do we build a massive new home for the Flames and Stamps on this spot? If so, who pays for it?

In my year-end interview with the mayor, he was decidedly cool to the idea, saying the issue is whether this is "spending public money on public benefit."

So where is the public in this debate?

The problem

The argument from people in favour of the new sports complex is that both McMahon Stadium and the Saddledome are long past their best-before dates.

Nothing wrong with the ice — the arena just doesn't generate the revenue expected in today's NHL.

And major concert acts are giving Calgary a pass because they can't fit their tech under the Saddledome's sagging roof.

Calgary Saddledome in winter

The Calgary Saddledome, with its uniquely shaped roof, poses a problem for some concert acts. (CBC)

And so, looking to build big, some of our city's prime riverside real estate is on the block.

The West Village is currently a jumble of car dealerships and the Greyhound bus terminal surrounded by roadways including Bow Trail, and there are two competing visions for developing the land.

The city has come up with one:

But the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSE) — owners of the Flames, Stampeders, Hitmen and Roughnecks — has its own plan.

It wants to build a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment complex. It's called CalgaryNext:

And it's expensive.

Very expensive.

The pitch

The project's total estimated cost is about $890 million, with contributions also coming from Calgarians:  

  • CSE puts up $200 million.
  • Taxpayers put up $690 million.

Ouch.

And this doesn't include money the city would need to shell out for changes to transit and roadways. That could be tens of millions more.

Then there is the land itself. The CSE is asking the city to hand it over for free, and for someone else to clean it up.

There used to be a creosote plant on the site, and the cost of remediation is estimated by some at up to $300 million. The cost would likely fall to the provincial and federal governments

So all together, let's call it a cool billion dollars of public money.

Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke set the stage for the proposal a year before it was revealed by publicly calling the Saddledome "embarrassing."

Brian Burke

Brian Burke, Calgary Flames president of hockey operations, is not exactly enamoured with the team's current home arena. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

"There's absolutely no reason we should watch a new building going up in Edmonton and we've got to play in a 1988 building here," Burke added.

Did that sting a bit? Get under your skin?

It was likely meant to — leveraging the power of civic pride. But the mayor isn't biting.

The push back

Nenshi has described the plan as less than half-baked.

"The whole point is there's no proposal," the mayor said. "It's just an idea."

Nenshi on CalgaryNext0:39

"There have been tomes of research papers, academic and otherwise that show that the direct economic impact of sports stadiums in cities, particularly in city cores never comes to fruition. Never," Nenshi added.

"We have to be very, very clear that we're spending public money on public benefit."

But what exactly is "public benefit," and who gets to decide?

HKN Flames New Arena 20150818

Ken King, president and CEO of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, unveils plans for a new enclosed sports complex in Calgary. (Canadian Press)

A feasibility study on this proposal will come before city council this spring, and our politicians will debate the idea on behalf of the public.

But there is another option.

This billion-dollar decision could be put to the people.

The public

The matter could be decided by a plebiscite.

There's even precedent, as Calgarians voted on whether to build a new city hall in 1980. That's how we got one of our city's signature buildings.

The mayor isn't in favour of that idea, saying in his interview that he'd like to see council make the decision. He points to the complexity of the proposal, and how difficult it would be to arrive at a simple yes or no question.

It's a fair point.

This idea represents a massive change to our city, with a lot of moving parts. Council is supposed to have the expertise to scrutinize this stuff and arrive at conclusions, and that's why we elect these folks.

Connaught lines

Calgarians came out in droves to vote in October's federal election. Maybe they should be invited to do the same to decide the fate of the CalgaryNext proposal, Rob Brown suggests. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But city hall could also decide to use that expertise to negotiate a much better deal with CSE, and then bring it to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down public vote.

CSE is composed of some of our city's most seasoned businessmen. It's unlikely they expect their initial proposal to be their final one.

On such a contentious and expensive issue, in the midst of an economic downturn, a plebiscite could conceivably further legitimize whatever decision gets made.

Yes, it would likely cause a loud and emotional campaign on both sides, but it would allow the public to speak directly to whether it thinks paying for a new stadium is truly a "public benefit."


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn, a look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.