Calgary council votes to revive Olympic bid from near-death

Calgary city council votes 7-8 — after more than seven hours of heated discussions — to keep the city's 2026 Olympic bid alive and allow Calgarians to decide whether the bid should move forward, with a plebiscite planned for Nov. 13.

Chair of city's bid assessment committee says he won't support it without funding agreement

Mary Moran, left, CEO of the Calgary 2026 Bid Corporation, receives a hug after Calgary city council voted to allow the bid to proceed Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Calgary city council voted to keep the city's 2026 Olympic bid alive after more than seven hours of heated discussions Wednesday, but it could simply be on life support until the next challenge on Nov. 13 when Calgarians will vote on a non-binding plebiscite to determine the bid's future.

The vote came after acrimonious debate that has played out over the past several days about the future of the bid, with several councillors that had previously supported it flipping their position.

The councillors voted 8-7 in favour of the motion to halt the process.

But it wasn't enough to meet the super-majority requirement of 10 votes.

"It's been really messy," said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, one of the seven who voted against the motion.

Olympic assessment committee chair Coun. Evan Woolley, who was once one of the bid's strongest proponents but put forward the motion to quash it Tuesday, said there are an "incredible amount of challenges" going forward.

He said he plans to stand by the result of the plebiscite if Calgarians vote against the bid. But if they vote in favour of it and no funding agreement is in place, he won't support it.

"I personally will not support a deal that's not in the best interests of Calgarians. We do not have the deal in front of us today," he told CBC News following the vote.

"Calgarians need to have trust and confidence in our ability to host the games and this did not install that in me or in Calgarians."

In talks leading up to the decision, the Calgary 2026 OIympic bid corporation came out swinging at city council, accusing councillors of wanting to take away the democratic rights of Calgarians. 

"Today when city council votes, you stand to undermine a process, a three-year process, an expensive taxpayer-funded process, a democratic process that all Calgarians deserve," said Calgary 2026 board chair Scott Hutcheson.

"You agreed to this process, you gave your word."

Mary Moran, chief executive of Calgary 2026, also appeared frustrated. 

"We also told Calgarians that it would be their decision, because that's what you told us to tell them," she said.

That didn't set well with Coun. Jyoti Gondek, who accused Hutcheson of "very publicly" creating a divide, painting a picture of an incompetent council on one side and a skilled Calgary 2026 on the other.

"You've asked us at many turns not to be emotional, but your presentation today was underpinned by emotion," she said. 

Mary Moran speaks to reporters after Calgary City council voted to allow the 2026 Olympic bid to proceed. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Following the vote, Moran said she was pleased with the outcome, even though it showed a council divided. She said now the onus is on Calgarians to decide what they feel is best for their city.

"I think this is onward and upward and it's a great opportunity for Calgarians," she said. 

"I would suggest Calgarians have all the facts. I think the information is there, we'll do our very best to get it out in a concise manner."

$773K spent on plebiscite so far

One issue flagged by multiple councillors on both sides of the vote was that much of the money spent so far on the plebiscite could not be recouped.

City clerk Laura Kennedy confirmed that as of last week, $773,000 has been spent on the plebiscite so far, with ballots printed and non-refundable deposits put down on the polling station facilities. The advance vote takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Supporters of the Olympic bid packed the foyer in front of council chambers Wednesday morning, chanting "Let us vote! Let us vote!" just prior to the start of the meeting.

Supporters of the Calgary Olympic bid gathered in front of city hall on Wednesday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

As the debate dragged into afternoon, however, most of those supporters had left.

During the lead-up to the vote, much attention was focused on picking apart the financial details of the funding proposal.

But nearly as much attention was focused on the divisive discussions that have played out over the bid both between Calgarians and the negotiating parties, including most recently, bad blood between the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Coun. Ward Sutherland made an impassioned speech imploring Calgarians to talk to each other civilly and make up their own minds about the bid. He criticized Coun. Jeromy Farkas for comments made to the press about infighting on council.

"Stay out of the ugly conversations, get off Twitter," he said, to the applause of his fellow councillors.

Recommending that the plug be pulled on the Games bid wasn't the only Olympic-sized drama on Tuesday. Calgary 2026 released a new funding proposal at the eleventh-hour signed by the province and the federal government, but with no commitment from the city.

The new proposal, which was sparse on details, showed a reduced bid budget. Rather than $3 billion originally required by public funds, the organization said it had trimmed costs and now required $2.875 billion.

Moran said that was made possible by cutting contingencies, including a lowered estimate of how much security would cost and a reduction in housing needed for workers.

Calgary 2026 highlighted one budget line that called for the city to purchase a contingency insurance policy, valued at $200 million, for $20 million of city funds. The organization said that will leverage $200 million matched by the federal government.

When questioned, however, it became clear there was no insurance policy identified as yet and if none could be found, Calgary 2026 just said it would find more cuts in their budget. 

Enough for an informed decision?

During the council debate Wednesday, city manager Jeff Fielding said administration is not at a point where it can say whether the latest deal complies with principles council established for the negotiations.

"We're saying we still need to do some homework to make sure we're within the mandate that was given to us by council," he said. 

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart, centre, hands over her vote on a motion to kill the 2026 Winter Olympic bid and cancel a Nov. 13 plebiscite on whether or not the bid should proceed, in Calgary on Wednesday. Colley-Urquhart voted in favour of allowing the bid to proceed. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Fielding said the question before council was whether it felt there was enough information for Calgarians to make an informed decision in the plebiscite. 

After a break for lunch, Coun. Druh Farrell said council promised Calgarians they would have the information about how much the bid would cost the city 30 days prior to a plebiscite and said that promise has been broken.

A hole in Calgary's tax base

Gondek made a point while questioning the emotional introduction from Calgary 2026 that council has other big decisions to make, particularly when it comes to finances.

At the top of that list is a $98-million hole in its tax base brought about by the economic downturn and the lingering vacancy rates in downtown Calgary.

Council also heard that if it decided not to host the Games, it would have to come up with another way to invest in upgrades to the existing facilities from when it hosted the '88 Winter Olympics. Fielding, the city manager, estimated that cost at $500 million.  

The vote keeps three bids in the running for the 2026 Winter Games: Calgary, Stockholm and a joint Italian bid from Milan and Cortina D'Ampezzo.

The cities will submit bids in January 2019, and the winner will be chosen by the International Olympic Committee in June.

The IOC has committed $1.2 billion to the host city.


LIVE EVENT: CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall

If you live in Calgary, find out what you need to know before you cast your vote in the Nov. 13 plebiscite by coming to the CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall. It'll take place at Calgary's new Central Library (800 3rd St. S.E.) on Wednesday, Nov. 7, starting at 6 p.m.

Featuring a knowledgeable panel and hosted by the Calgary Eyeopener's David Gray, we will hear from both sides and take questions from the audience. Panellists will include Calgary 2026 CEO Mary Moran, economist Trevor Tombe and other guests, still to be named. 

This event is free but you must must reserve your spot. Tickets are available here

Can't make it in person? Join our Facebook Live at facebook.com/cbccalgary, where you can ask questions and post comments. You can also listen in on CBC Radio One (99.1 FM or 1010 AM in Calgary), at cbc.ca/calgary or your CBC Radio App from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. MT.


About the Author

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca, or securely via the Signal messaging app at 403.542.1458.