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Alberta Death of Calgary 2026 Olympic bid kills housing, venue upgrades in Canmore, Whistler

The 2026 Winter Olympics were never much of a hard sell in Canmore.

Many in the community located in the Alberta Rockies still remember the 1988 Calgary Games, which helped speed along Canmore’s transformation from a formerly struggling mining town into a year-round capital for mountain sports. A revival in 2026 would have seen Canmore host biathalon, cross-country skiing and a 1,250-bed athletes village. And most importantly, the athletes village would have been converted into 242 units of below-market accommodations – a significant injection into a community that has struggled to provide residents with affordable housing.

The debate about the 2026 Olympics was largely positive, and a town council motion endorsing the bid passed with a 6-1 vote. However, a failed plebiscite in Calgary – an hour’s drive to the east – that swiftly killed the bid has also taken down Canmore’s Olympic plans, leaving the mayor dejected and the town’s housing corporation without a way to fund construction at the same scale.

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Unlike Calgary, which would have had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Games and risked large cost overruns if things did not go to plan, the calculation for Canmore and also Whistler, B.C., was a lot simpler. Canmore, for example, would have spent just $3-million in cash toward a $116-million housing project. Whistler wasn’t asked to contribute public money but would have hosted ski-jumping and Nordic combined and seen these facilities upgraded.

“I really strongly believe in the future benefits, the legacy that would have come from hosting these sports in Canmore – not only the housing part but how hosting an event like the Games can add so much vitality, so much spirit to a small town," Canmore Mayor John Borrowman said in an interview.

Mr. Borrowman was in Canmore during the 1988 Games, which he said had a profound impact on the town. But he said the loss of the athletes village housing project has been the most difficult part to swallow.

Canmore has been faced with a housing crisis for years that mirrors other resort communities like Whistler, with a limited housing supply often bought up by out-of-town visitors and long-term renters competing with seasonal workers.

Average prices for detached houses are hovering around $1-million, according to data compiled by Canmore Real Estate, with condos averaging more than $500,000. The rental vacancy rate was zero last October, according to the most recent data available from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment was more than $1,100, about the same as in Calgary.

The town’s solution has been the Canmore Community Housing Corp., which has been slowly building up a portfolio of properties that are a mix of price-controlled rentals or owned properties that are sold below market and then restricted for resales. It is just finishing up a 49-unit project.

“Canmore has a very serious housing issue, a limited supply particularly of affordable housing and a very low vacancy rate on rentals. We’ve been trying to address that need for close to 20 years," he said, adding that the city’s current stock of affordable housing is about 200 units.

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“So for one project to more than double that, that’s a really serious enticement for the town.”

Canmore expected $42-million in funding from higher levels of government, with the rest of the project funding coming through loans that would be repaid once the housing was sold. Neither the federal government nor the province have said whether they would fund any of the projects that were tied to the bid, only saying they would consider any proposal put forward.

The enthusiasm in Canmore for the Olympic bid, and for the housing plan in particular, wasn’t universal.

Councillor Joanna McCallum was the only person on council to vote against a motion to formally support the Olympic proposal. She said the bid risked worsening the housing situation in Canmore by driving up costs – which she said happened after the 1988 Games – while overwhelming the town with a sudden influx of housing.

“I wanted the growth to happen more organically, and from a zoning perspective we weren’t prepared to deal with what could happen if Canmore stuck their hand in the air to do this,” said Ms. McCallum, who is also the chair of Bow Valley Regional Housing and former chair of the Canmore Community Housing Corp.

There were also concerns that hosting the 2026 Olympics could hurt the region’s wildlife by increasing the amount of traffic and people that would interact with animals that call the Bow Valley home.

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Hilary Young of the Canmore-based group Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative said she had mixed feelings about the bid. While there were risks, the Olympics would also come with promised funding to protect wildlife through highway overpasses and other improvements. Overall, however, she said she was relieved the bid is over.

“It was hard to imagine that the Olympics wouldn’t have exacerbated some of these challenges," Ms. Young said.

In Whistler, hosting the Olympics would have involved less money and would have left behind fewer tangible benefits. The ski jumps, built for the 2010 Vancouver Games, would have been refurbished, Nordic trails would have been upgraded and expanded, and Whistler Olympic Park would have received funding for things such as expanding its athlete housing.

The 2026 bid organizers had yet to formally ask Whistler or B.C. for their support, or any public resources that might be needed.

“The legacies that were left by the two Games – in ’88 and 2010 – I think that Canadian sports have kept them going and to reuse the venues is a great feather in our cap as Canadians, because we’ve kept these venues vibrant and kept them growing and developing athletes,” said Roger Soane, president and CEO of Whistler Sport Legacies.

He said that without the Olympics, the park will have a more difficult case asking for public funding when the ski jumps inevitably need to be repaired and upgraded to keep them running. WinSport, which runs Calgary Olympic Park and the ski jumps from the 1988 Games, is facing the same problem. It’s not sure it can keep its smaller jumps running if it can’t secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

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“I think the challenge will be when there is some capital renewal needed for these facilities 20 or 30 years from now," Mr. Soane said.

“At some point, the government or the community has to decide.”

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