Danielle Smith pushes Calgary arena talks in a new (and old) direction

There are many reasons the city nixed "West Village" location for a Flames arena. There's one main reason it's back in the mix: the prospect of provincial funds.

Costlier West Village plan back in play, but only if premier pays up

The city had found numerous advantages to putting a new arena a few blocks north of the Saddledome, but is now apparently taking a "fresh start" approach to its location. (Dialog Architecture, Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Calgary's arena plans had been mostly comatose for some time. 

And just as private negotiations resume, what did city hall just do this week? Revive talk of an earlier location it left for dead years ago.

It's a strange, zombie-like turn in the long-winding saga to find the Calgary Flames a new home, with missteps by all sides.

But there's a new player involved — one even wealthier than hockey team owners.

The city's deal with the Flames owners to replace the Saddledome with a new arena a few blocks to its north fell apart in December 2021.

It was supposed to be "fresh start" when talks resumed last fall between the city and the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC), said Coun. Sonya Sharp, chair of council's event centre committee.

That meant the financial arrangements. The building's design. Yep, even the location. 

"We're looking at building an event centre within the city, within downtown, and all possible options will be presented," Sharp said this week.

She was asked this week if possible arena sites include the CalgaryNext site west of downtown that CSEC previously pitched.

"At this time, I can't confirm that," said the councillor. That's definitely not a no.

Why "Next" was a No

CSEC envisioned CalgaryNext as an arena/stadium/field house complex on environmentally contaminated land known as West Village which is owned by the city.

City officials determined the project was "not feasible" in 2017. Council unanimously voted against proceeding, and then-mayor Naheed Nenshi declared that it was dead.

But Ken King, CSEC's president at the time, insisted CalgaryNext wasn't dead. It was sleeping.

There were many reasons city hall was done with the West Village idea back then.

The biggest one: the city argued the finances didn't add up.

The building would cost $890 million. But add in the other related costs and its price tag was estimated to be at least $1.7 billion.

Like Flames great Lanny McDonald doing radio ads for car dealerships, the old plans for an arena on contaminated lands west of Calgary's downtown suddenly have life in them again. (Calgary Flames)

Those costs included cleaning up land contaminated by creosote, a tar-like substance. That environmental remediation could take up to 10 years, a report indicated.

Other problems included a lack of underground utility infrastructure and parking, and limited road and transit links.

Council also feared that a major development in the West Village could cannibalize future growth in the East Village and kill a planned entertainment district in Victoria Park.

Since the city put a pin in West Village plans, heaps of public funding from provincial, federal and municipal governments have gone into that entertainment district.

There's the $500-million BMO Centre expansion, a rebuilt Victoria Park LRT station and the future Green Line. A new hotel was just announced, along with other Stampede-area facilities to complement an arena.

Also, the city now owns the potential arena land in Victoria Park, and the existing underground utilities can handle the development. Public transit links can handle capacity crowds.

This land near the Saddledome was chosen as the optimal spot for the city's new professional hockey arena and events centre, but talks between the city and Flames owners fell in late 2021. City hall is trying to restart them. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

For these and other reasons, city officials determined this the best arena site.

And with a development permit in place since November 2021, construction can begin on short notice. 

Despite all this, the West Village site is apparently getting another look-see. 

If "time is of the essence" on an arena project and there are fears about cost escalation, as Sharp tells reporters, why would West Village re-enter the chat?

It so happens the Smith government has also entered the chat.

A premier's sports facility

Among the topics UCP's Calgary caucus and city council discussed at a recent gathering — Premier Danielle Smith was there too — were remediating the West Village and the arena. There are private denials the two matters were connected. 

But let's recall that when Nenshi pronounced CalgaryNext dead in 2017, a radio show host named Danielle Smith expressed worry that if it didn't proceed, the West Village would remain a dead zone.

"You can't just leave that land in the state that it's in in perpetuity. If this isn't the kickstart project for that, then let's find one that is," Smith opined then.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks behind a lectern bearing the provincial logo.
Danielle Smith has taken a keen interest in the arena project and remediating West Village since becoming premier. Meanwhile, the provincial election is in May. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Soon after the broadcaster became premier last fall, she appointed former cabinet minister and Calgary MLA Ric McIver as her liaison on the arena file.

Her interest in seeing the West Village spring to life remains. She's produced a new estimate for decontamination cost: up to $300 million.

But she told reporters Thursday she's talked with companies with new remediation technologies that could lower that price tag.

May's provincial election could also be behind Smith's interest.

Her team must sense that resolving the never-ending arena drama could help secure needed Calgary seats for the UCP.

But to city hall, provincial interest in this project only means one thing.

Money. Attention is nice, but bringing cash is nicer.

The Smith government hasn't brought any funds for this project, but it does have that hefty surplus.

Maybe that election is the reason Sharp says time is of the essence — even if arena construction in the West Village couldn't start for untold years to come.

Hush hush

What's real and what isn't? It's hard to tell, because there is so much secrecy.

Discipline surrounding this information blackout is strict. Only Coun. Sharp may speak about the arena negotiations.

Smith said her government had to sign a non-disclosure agreement when the city briefed her staff on arena talks.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek was asked this week if it's in taxpayers' interest to consider arena sites previously eliminated due to financial reasons.

"It is in the best interest of taxpayers and everyone involved that people understand what confidentiality means. I cannot comment on this," she replied.

Another councillor had knuckles rapped for daring to tell reporters: "we are exploring all options." 

It's not that this was a damaging or revealing statement.

It's that there was any statement at all.

The Victoria Park arena deal initially took two years to achieve. This negotiation round has only been going for a few months. 

It's anyone's guess when we'll find out whether the West Village is a distraction or if it's Smith's game-changing play.

One thing is clear. The last plan was stalled due to rising costs. Rampant inflation has driven up costs even further. 

Building in the West Village can only send the figure even higher. But if the premier wants to pay, maybe anything is possible.


Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has worked for CBC News in a number of roles in several provinces. He's been a legislative reporter, a news reader, an assignment editor and a national reporter. When not at Calgary's city hall, it's still all politics, all the time.