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Calgary votes to proceed with bid for 2026 Winter Olympics, but only with federal, provincial support

A young girl learns to skate on the ice at the 1988 Calgary Olympic Plaza.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Calgary is pressing ahead with a potential bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, but the city says it still needs federal and provincial money before it can proceed and is promising to bring the public onside.

But city councillors were also told that actually hosting the Games, if the bid is successful, would cost more than the previous estimate of $4.6 billion.

Council narrowly voted this week to form a bid corporation, which would oversee the city’s pitch. The pivotal vote, held late on Tuesday after a marathon council meeting, follows more than two years of planning and at-times divisive debate about whether the staggering costs associated with the Games would be worth it.

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The bid process itself is estimated to cost $30-million, split roughly three ways between the city and the provincial and federal governments.

Councillors said they would not increase the city’s share of the bid costs until Alberta and Ottawa made good on their commitments. Alberta is expected to contribute $10-million and Ottawa $10.5-million, with Calgary chipping in $9.5-million. A city administration report was made public last week saying the two upper levels of government have agreed to send their funds, but the city later said it was posted in error.

A spokeswoman for the Premier declined to comment on when the province will make a decision or whether that could come in Thursday’s budget. Spokeswoman Cheryl Oates wrote in an email, “Our conversations with the city continue and we hope to be in a position to announce a decision on the BidCo soon.”

As for the cost of hosting the Games, council was told it would be higher than $4.6-billion, and that a revised estimate won’t be ready for months.

Kyle Ripley, director of the city’s bid team, said that estimate would be off when inflation, contingency and endowment funds were accounted for.

“We are anticipating that number to be higher,″ he said. How much higher won’t be known until June.

In the meantime, the city plans to seek public support through a “robust engagement plan,” which some councillors have argued should include a plebiscite.

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Councillor Sean Chu has twice promoted a plebiscite with his latest call based on a single question, “Do you want the Olympics, yes or no?” Both times he has been defeated by arguments that a plebiscite is too costly – roughly $2 million – and that it takes too much time – six months - to organize and implement.

“Do I want to spend more money on this?” Mr. Chu asked. “I’m always open to suggestions, but I’ve seen nothing concrete.”

Calgary city council voted 10-3 on Wednesday morning to postpone the discussion about a potential plebiscite until next month. The delay will allow city staff to come up with the right consultation plan, particularly with the estimate for hosting the Games set to increase.

Potential bids face an official March 31 deadline to enter the International Olympic Committee’s candidature process, but the city was told it didn’t need to worry about that deadline because the IOC was keenly aware of Calgary’s bid and potential.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi acknowledged “the timing is very tight because you need … four to six months to really set up a plebiscite properly, which means honestly, the earliest we could do it would be around early October.

“We really need to talk to people and get an idea of what they’re thinking,” he added. “I think there are other ways to get engagement.”

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Sion, Switzerland, Erzurum, Turkey and Innsbruck, Austria, are also considering bids.

The IOC will select the host city of the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in September, 2019.

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