Standoff between Flames and Nenshi shows no signs of going away

The Calgary Flames and Mayor Naheed Nenshi are standing their ground in the ongoing debate over who will pay what for a new arena.

Mayor's re-election spurs angry tweets from Flames as arena debate continues

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the Calgary Flames are embroiled in a standoff over negotiations to build a new arena for the NHL franchise, prompting one prominent Calgarian — and fellow NHL owner — to blame both sides for failing to reach a deal. (CBC)

The friction between the Calgary Flames and city council over a new arena shows no sign of abating with the re-election of Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

A new building for the NHL club became civic election fodder when Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, pulled out of 'spectacularly unproductive' negotiations within days of Nenshi kicking off his campaign for a third term.

"As I've said for many, many weeks, the city has never left the table," Nenshi said after his victory speech Monday night. "When they're ready to come back to the table and have a discussion understanding this mandate from Calgarians, we are ready and willing to have that discussion with them."

Flames president Ken King would not comment on the outcome of the election, a team spokesman said Tuesday.

'The future is in fact community infrastructure'

Wednesday on CBC Radio, Calgary businessman Brett Wilson called for a renewed commitment to building community infrastructure, including a new arena.

"We have to focus on getting our costs under control, because we can't just keep increasing taxes, but we also have to be prepared to invest in the future — and the future is, in fact, in community infrastructure,"  said Wilson, who is a minority owner of the NHL's Nashville Predators.

Wilson wasn't impressed with how the city has handled arena negotiations with the Flames — although he's not too thrilled with how the Flames have handled them, either.

"We've had a crisis of leadership [in this city] for some time now. We've had a mayor and some councillors who said we're not going to support the arena because it's for the billionaires," he told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Instead, I would rather see [political] leadership that says, you know what? We need some infrastructure. We need a community arena, we need a new stadium, we need a field house, we need a convention centre,  and guess what? We need a contemporary art gallery.

Calgary businessman and Nashville Predators minority owner Brett Wilson says Calgary needs to invest in building community infrastructure, including a new arena, to remain relevant as a destination. ((Timoth Neesam/CBC))

"In the case of an arena, the city does benefit, so it should pay," Wilson added. "What's fair? That's for discussion behind closed doors. That's not a game to be played in public."

Wilson said he believes the current arena stalemate has been a long time coming.

"They [the Flames] have been treated so dismissively by the current mayor for the last six years," he said. "I've had private conversations with the mayor and some very frustrated alderman who have said [to me], 'what more can we do here?'"

He added that the local NHL team could have done a better job of telling its side of the arena story.

"Have the Flames played their cards right?" he asked. "I don't think so. But the cards haven't been dealt fairly and they haven't been dealt well [either]."

One mayor, one vote

An immediate renewal of arena talks seems unlikely, given the personal tone the issue took on.

Nenshi has one vote on council -- though his voice carries considerable influence as mayor. And it was his voice countering King's in the public back and forth over who should pay how much for the arena. So the mayor has become the lightning rod for fears the team will move and leave Calgary bereft of an NHL team.

A month of subtle and not-so-subtle posturing on both sides culminated Monday with Flames media and communications director Sean Kelso stating in a tweet — later deleted — that Nenshi as mayor was "worse than Donald Trump being president" alongside hash tags "arrogant" and "bracefordisaster."

The Flames are popular in Calgary, but the city has shown little appetite for contributing big money for a new arena. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Flames vice-president of marketing Gordon Norrie urged people on his Twitter account Monday to vote for Nenshi's main rival, Bill Smith.

CSEC said in a statement Tuesday that staff are entitled to their own opinions "and in fact it is their democratic right," but added "those individuals and opinions are not to be misinterpreted as representing the corporate position of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation."

Arena controversy not enough to shake up council

All 10 incumbents running for council won their seats again with four newcomers coming from wards without an incumbent.

So the arena was controversy not enough to shake up city hall, and it remains to be seen where the two sides will find common ground to re-start talks.

CSEC also owns the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders, Western Hockey League's Hitmen and National Lacrosse League's Roughnecks in addition to the NHL's Flames.

King, who speaks for Flames owners Murray Edwards, Alvin Libin, Clayton Riddell, Allan Markin and Jeff McCaig, has said "the file is closed" on a new arena.

The team stated it would make the 34-year-old Saddledome work "for as long as we believe it is feasible."

The deal that wasn't 

CSEC offered to put $275 million into a $500-million building and said the city should raise the remaining $225 million through a community revitalization levy.

A CRL allows the city to divert property taxes from new development that would theoretically spring up around a new arena into paying for it.

The city proposed a three-way split on the cost of a $555-million arena, with the city and the Flames each paying $185 million and the remaining third raised from a surcharge on tickets.

The city said the Flames would control the new arena and receive all revenue from it.

But King insisted the city's offer amounts to the team paying the entire cost, or more, because CSEC considers a ticket surcharge paid by users revenue that belongs to the team and because the city wants CSEC to pay property tax.

"If we actually did this deal, it would be worse than what we have now," King has said.

CalgaryNext project sinks under weight of environmental cleanup costs

The Victoria Park proposal to build an arena just north of the Saddledome came after the $890-million CalgaryNext project pitched by the Flames two years ago.

That concept included a hockey arena, football stadium and field house on the west side of downtown.

Flames owners offered $200 million of their money and proposed a $250-million loan be repaid through a ticket surcharge.

Council declared CalgaryNext would cost $1.8 billion when the cost of remediating creosote-soaked soil was included.

Nenshi and council showed more enthusiasm for putting an arena in Victoria Park, which is part of a larger district east of downtown undergoing a revitalization.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Lauren Krugel and Donna Spencer of the Canadian Press

Donna Spencer, CP and The Calgary Eyeopener