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The CalgaryNEXT proposal would include a new arena and event centre, background, and a multisport fieldhouse stadium. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is all in, while Mayor Naheed Nenshi is asking questions.
The CalgaryNEXT proposal would include a new arena and event centre, background, and a multisport fieldhouse stadium. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is all in, while Mayor Naheed Nenshi is asking questions.

public spending

Calgary Mayor Nenshi holds the line on arena project Add to ...

Most Canadians would think, after this week, that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman have nothing in common.

Not at all.

The highlight of Mr. Bettman’s sports year, obviously, is the handing over of the Stanley Cup to the NHL champions each spring.

For Mr. Nenshi, his moment comes in the fall, when the Crowchild Classic is held between his alma mater, the University of Calgary, and Mount Royal University, where he now sometimes lectures. Although the mayor grew up cheering for the Calgary Flames of Lanny McDonald, his great passion is college football, and so he serves as a sort of “commissioner” for the Classic, dressing up in a half-Dinos-half-Cougars jersey and making a presentation to the winners.

The commissioner of the NHL hands over a silver trophy that originally cost the equivalent of $48.67. The commissioner of the Classic hands over something that, in today’s dollars, costs a great deal more – a manhole cover.

Even in the midst of sports celebrations, the mayor of Calgary is always thinking city first.

And so it was this week that, with the NHL commissioner in town, the mayor stuck to his council duties and found himself accused of snubbing Mr. Bettman.

The NHL commissioner had come to offer league support for the grandiose CalgaryNEXT project that would see a new hockey rink and football field built along the Bow River at an estimated cost of $890-million, $250-million of which would be raised through ticket taxes, $240-million through a community revitalization levy and another $200-million from the city for a public field house. Lest anyone think the owners are simply like a northern Bill Veeck – the Chicago White Sox owner who once said, “Look, we play The Star-Spangled Banner before every game … you want us to pay income tax, too” – the remaining $200-million would be coming from those who would profit most from the project.

Mr. Nenshi had been asked earlier to meet with the commissioner, but when he had asked if there was any new development to the proposal first announced last August, he was told there was none.

“I didn’t see any reason for me to waste his time,” says the mayor.

Instead, he kept to council chambers where public hearings were being held on another development project. “It would not have been respectful for me to walk out on these citizens,” the mayor decided. So he didn’t – only to later walk out into a press gathering wanting to know why he had ignored Mr. Bettman.

“I was a bit taken off guard,” he says.

He had seen no point to the meeting. After the sports group made their “splashy” announcement last summer, all council had received was a page-and-a-half letter informing them of the proposal. Council had no engineering documents, no architectural renderings, no budget to analyze. He told the media is was a bit of a “back-of-a-napkin” plan.

This, not surprisingly, got the backs up among those who expected – as has generally been the case around North America – the city to fall eagerly in line.

“If your attitude is this all has to be private, then it never gets done because it’s not an investment that’s cost-justified,” said the NHL commissioner.

“It’s a partnership,” Flames president Ken King told local media. “No city, no partner. No partner, no project.”

Mr. Nenshi’s refusal to roll over like an intimidated puppy gained wide applause across the country, despite some dissension in his own city. Even The Hockey News was impressed – “for the leader of a major North American metropolis to tell any professional sports league to shut its pie hole takes an enormous amount of guts.”

Currently, four cities in Canada are involved with new hockey rinks that do, or potentially will, involve public funds. In Quebec City, the Videotron Centre is up and running, the $400-million bill shared by province and city, and lacking only an NHL team. In Edmonton, a new $480-million arena is being constructed to replace the old Rexall Centre. The city will provide $279-million, and millions more will come from the province and federal government. The owner of the Oilers, billionaire Daryl Katz, will pony up $161-million.

No wonder The Economist once tagged Joe and Joan Public as professional sport’s “largest and oldest” sponsor.

In Ottawa, the National Capital Commission opened up the controversial LeBreton Flats abandoned land opposite the Canadian War Museum to suggestions, calling for “a bold, new anchor institution that will welcome the public, serve as an economic driver, feature innovative use of the land, and bring design excellence, animation and a unique public experience to the nation’s capital.”

It set a fall deadline for four eager groups to get their pitches in. Only two arrived – one from the Ottawa Senators, the other from DCDLS Group including Deycore, a developer out of nearby Gatineau – and both submissions feature an NHL hockey rink.

Where the Ottawa and Calgary proposals are strikingly similar is in clean-up costs. Both chosen sites are highly toxic, both near vital rivers. In both cases, the ballpark figure for environmental assessment and fix is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As Mr. Nenshi asks, “Who is going to pay for that?”

Calgary will take its time, he says, even if it means delay. Council has a process in place so that by April it will have studies and information from which it can make an informed decision as to whether this idea makes sense or not.

“Look,” he says, “we’re not dummies. There are reams and reams and reams of studies and literature that show that this kind of investment doesn’t have any direct economic benefit.

“That doesn’t mean don’t build them. We build stuff without economic benefit all the time. The central library doesn’t have a direct economic benefit, but it has a social benefit. However, we should be able to analyze that social benefit and be able to talk about it versus other investments the city can make.

“Too often these sorts of deals are presented to communities with a ribbon on them. They’ve been cooked up – here’s the deal. And we from the very beginning have said if we’re going to do this we’re going to do it with broad public consultation. We’re going to do it with 100-per-cent transparency.”

There is, indeed, an emotional currency to teams that is of great value to many citizens. Civic pride “matters,” Mr. Nenshi says. No one would argue that the return of the Jets to a fine downtown arena has been anything but good for Winnipeg. In Ottawa, the original Senators rink has spawned vast retail development. Downtown Edmonton, in ruinous shape, will be profoundly changed by the Oilers plan.

Not so in Calgary, the mayor says: “To argue that you need this to spur tax revenue downtown is not really an argument that works in Calgary.”

There is also the matter of rink-life. Why, he wonders, are the Saddledome and the Canadian Tire Centre arenas that need replacing?

“When I build a library or a bridge or an interchange,” Mr. Nenshi says, “if I went to the public and I said, ‘I’m building something with your money that has a 25-30-year life cycle,’ they would ride me out of town. If I went to the public and said I will build a community hockey rink that is only going to last two generations of kids and then we’ll have to build a new one, I’d be kicked out of town.

“So how did we move to a world where a 30-year-old building is considered obsolete?”

Calgary could well go ahead with this project, he says, and could even start getting their money out of it by the end of the planned tax breaks.

“But of course at that time,” he says, “Gary Bettman, Jr. will say, ‘This rink is 30 years old – you’ll have to build a new one.’”

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