Nenshi wants arena as a key part of a revitalized entertainment district

Naheed Nenshi is setting the record straight: he'd like to see a new arena in Victoria Park. He's seeking re-election as mayor next month and says there can't be a blank cheque on this.

But he is clear his vision of a future downtown can also happen without an arena

This shot of the Scotiabank Saddledome and downtown Calgary was captured by drone in March 2017. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

It's looking less and less likely that Calgarians will have a deal on a new downtown arena to consider before voting in next month's election.

"The city is at the table and the city will continue to be at the table," said Naheed Nenshi, who is running for re-election as mayor. "There's a lot of work left to be done."

The two sides have been talking for several months. What's being asked of the city to make a new arena in Victoria Park happen remains unknown.

While the negotiations continue, Nenshi is taking steps to reinforce in the public's mind that he is not opposed to an arena deal.

"Many, many people have been misrepresenting my position, so I thought it was important to actually get it out so people could remember what it actually was."

His mantra on the issue has been "public dollars for public benefits."

Vision about more than just a new arena

But his campaign announcement Monday is that his vision for Victoria Park and the East Village is about a lot more than just an arena.

Nenshi says the culture and entertainment district needs a revitalized Arts Common and a renovated Olympic Plaza.

He wants an expanded BMO Centre at Stampede Park, a new innovation centre for entrepreneurs and new public realm investments in several key downtown neighbourhoods.

A new arena could be part of that revitalization but isn't a deal-breaker.

"It certainly would help it a lot. It is absolutely necessary? No. You can certainly do the convention centre. You can certainly do some of the development without it. But it makes so much sense for the arena to be part of it as well," said Nenshi.

Nenshi's challengers for the mayor's chair have different ideas.

Chabot's number is zero

Coun. Andre Chabot said his bottom line number for public involvement in any arena deal is zero. But in the next breath, he said some public funding is possible — if it's paid back.

"As long as all of the principal and interest is recovered in some mechanism. So again, zero dollars to the Calgary taxpayers over the term of whatever debt we have to incur," said Chabot.

The veteran councillor says a possible arena deal and Nenshi's vision for the east side of downtown are things that detract from what he calls the real issue of the election: how to make sure the city lives within its means and not burden taxpayers with more debt than is necessary.

Smith says two sides are far apart

Calgary lawyer Bill Smith, who is also challenging Nenshi for the mayor's chair, said he's talked with the head of the Flames organization about an arena deal.

Smith says he's hearing from Ken King that the talks with city officials are not close to reaching an agreement.

"He's told me that they're still quite a ways apart, so I'm not sure what the mayor's talking about."

Smith offered no details on what he'd accept in terms of an arena deal or how much public money would be acceptable to him.

But he questions Nenshi's timing in raising the big picture plan for downtown and Victoria Park.

"We're talking about the convention centre and the new arena and this beautiful vision. I don't get it why this just all of a sudden is a vision today. Perhaps it's because we're in a campaign," said Smith.

Public must be consulted on any deal

City council has been clear that if or when an arena agreement is reached that there will have to be public consultation with Calgarians before any final deal can go ahead.

A new arena would replace the Scotiabank Saddledome as the home of the Calgary Flames.

But a shiny new events centre might not mean the end for the Saddledome, which opened in 1983.

Should Calgary decide to bid for the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the city's bid exploration committee recommended the Saddledome could be a key part of securing the event.

It found that the ever-expanding scope of the Olympics now requires two large arenas to successfully stage events such as hockey and figure skating.