The day after the deal: How do Calgarians feel about funding a new arena?

The negotiations are over, the agreements are signed, the next steps are planned. The city's new arena is happening whether Calgarians are happy about it or not.

Some are angry, others are optimistic — but there's no shortage of opinion

After years of debate and contention, a deal was set in stone Thursday to proceed with a taxpayer-funded events centre, as seen in this rendering. (City of Calgary)

The negotiations are over, the agreements are signed, the next steps are planned. The city's new arena is happening, whether Calgarians are happy about it or not. 

The $565-million project — $290 million of which will be funded by taxpayers — has sparked months of contentious debate, and even had some calling for the cancellation of the deal in favour of funding projects like the Green Line LRT.

Now that definitive agreements have been signed, how are Calgarians feeling about their investment? That was the question posed to Friday listeners of CBC Calgary's Alberta@Noon.

'Irresponsible' use of taxpayer money

Mike Vine, a caller from Calgary, said he thought it was irresponsible to use taxpayer money for anything but basic needs.

"I think if we're meeting the needs of our citizens, which is fire, police and transportation, then fine. But if we have to be cutting those things in order to maintain a balanced budget and increasing our taxes, then I don't see this as being something that's a need," Vine said. "I think it's a luxury. I think it's irresponsible."

Coun. Jeff Davison, who led city negotiations on the deal, said the arena was part of a larger strategy to revitalize Calgary's downtown in order to compete to bring big business to the city.

"What we are trying to achieve is looking at how do you successfully build an events centre within an entertainment and cultural district," Davison said on the show. "To my knowledge, we don't have any studies out there that tell us these districts can be or can't be successful. That's really where the execution and city-building comes in to leverage onto the facility you're trying to create."

Coun. Jeff Davison has long championed the plan to build an arena in Victoria Park, saying it would revitalize the area. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Coun. Evan Woolley, who spearheaded a move to divert funds from the arena to the Green Line, affordable housing and policing, told Alberta@Noon that he didn't think the arena would serve Calgarians.

"I think council has made the decision, but I think everybody really needs to be honest with themselves about how much of a catalyst this will be and how much revenue we'll actually get back off of this," he said.

Isaac Dumaine, who lives in the Exshaw area, said he takes the CTrain frequently. He thinks the money used for the arena could have gone toward improving local transit.

"I can't afford a Flames ticket. None of my friends can. We watch it at the bar," Dumaine said. "I think there's more things downtown worth seeing than a Flames game."

Woolley said that though there's "no doubt" Calgary needs a new arena, he still has questions.

"How much are you willing to spend and what is the value in that return that you get? I think those are the tough questions that I think I've been asking and I think that Calgarians are right to ask," he said. "You're layering that against all of the other priorities that we have."

Coun. Evan Woolley has come out against the city's arena deal, arguing that funding should have been used instead for public transit and affordable housing. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

An eye on Edmonton

Of course, visualizing the future events centre based on a few renderings can be difficult. For that reason, there's value in taking a look north, to Edmonton's Ice District.

Rogers Place was approved in 2013, priced at $613 million. The Katz Group of Companies — the ownership group behind the Edmonton Oilers — contributed 27 per cent of that project.

Arif Khan, an Edmonton resident, said residents "got taken" in the arena deal.

"These are billionaires. They have the money, they have the resources," Khan said. "They take advantage of poor taxpayers."

Ian Thomson, who lives in Leduc, also called the Rogers Place arena "a bad deal," saying downtown costs have gone through the roof.

"I think it was a massive mistake," Thomson said. "It's driven the costs downtown sky-high. Somebody is saying, 'Well, look at the downtown coming alive.'

"But you can barely afford to park your car down there."  

Edmonton's downtown arena, Rogers Place, opened in September 2016. (Richard White)

Some say the arena has helped spur growth in Edmonton's downtown. The amount of "underdeveloped" land in downtown shrunk to 40 per cent in 2016 — down from 52 per cent before the arena deal was signed — according to Edmonton's Downtown Business Association.

David Low, executive director of the Victoria Park BRZ, said what wasn't being discussed was the opportunity for the new Calgary arena to serve as an "economic engine" for other areas of the district.

"It's all the support services and industries that go along with this," Low said. "Let's forget about the entertainment centre for a minute. It's everything that is going to be around it — that has not been captured in many of the analysis that has gone forward to date — that is very, very significant."

Some are excited

Though plenty of Calgarians might feel frustrated with the deal today, Davison likened the situation to the initial conversation surrounding the new Central Library, which cost approximately $245 million for the building and related features.

"Day 1 that the (new arena) opens, yes, you may (convince more Calgarians)," he said. "You go back to the anger that a lot of people had investing money into the new Central Library — 'What a waste of money this was, how could you invest when libraries are going digital, we don't need this' — but that library is on a New York Times [top places to visit list].

"Today, when people walk into that building, they say, 'Wow, we built something spectacular.'"

Calgary's new Central Library was nearly 14 years in the making. It provides around 240,000 square feet of space in the East Village. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Calgary resident Anthony Langlois said he was in favour of the deal, saying too much was made about the price tag and too little about how it would help to build a better city.

"We build a lot of different things that you do or do not use," he said. "You're building a whole cultural landscape. The fact is, this is going to be a city-owned asset that enhances the city's cultural landscape."

Calgary resident Jesse Vanneste also supports the arena deal.

"I understand where people are coming from, but I think the arena is a huge economic benefit to the city," Vanneste said. "I think people could come to our city from outside of town, all the surrounding communities, and I do think it brings an economic benefit to our city."

The next debate?

Though the page has been turned on Calgary's new events centre, some think a whole new conversation could soon be started.

Moshe Lander, a professor at Concordia University, said he expected what had played out around the Flames arena would soon be replicated for Calgary's McMahon Stadium.

"You know, the CFL commissioner comes through town and says, 'You know, I don't know if we're going to have any more Grey Cups here until McMahon is replaced,'" Lander said. "The thing is, the Stamps are (also) owned by Calgary Sports and Entertainment. So guess what, they now know the playbook on how to beat the city into putting public funds into a rebuilt stadium.

"So I think what we're going to see now is a slow-motion replay of what's been playing out over the last three years with the Saddledome."

Davison called McMahon a "much different ballpark," adding that the city was a long way away from figuring out next steps at that site.

"We only have 40 acres there. The province owns the other 68 acres … the university is involved in that conversation," he said. "But at the same time, you say, collectively, there's 100 acres there. 

"Could you potentially look at building a field house and a covered stadium and develop a district there that could then offset that build and recoup our cost through the generation of new property tax? I don't know. Those are the conversations we're having now."

With files from Alberta@Noon and Jordan Omstead


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