The Alberta economy is wobbling, the price of oil is tanking and so too are the Edmonton Oilers, who have one bit of good fortune to rally around: their new $480-million downtown arena is being built and should be ready by 2016.
That is also encouraging for the Calgary Flames, who are in the throes of an unexpectedly good NHL season and have been quietly preparing their own bid for a new arena. To this point, those plans have been treated like state secrets; no one in the organization has made any detailed public comment. But there is no doubt the Flames are moving ahead on their arena project, pleased by the fact their on-ice performance has been a lot better than expected.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Calgary. In hockey parlance, that means the team was likely to lose more often than it won while letting some of the younger players gain experience. Instead, the Flames are engaging their fans with a hard-skating style and rookie forward Johnny Gaudreau, who has become a fan favourite while trademarking his nickname, Johnny Hockey.
It hasn't been enough to light up the city's Red Mile district, the 17th Avenue restaurant row where Calgary fans celebrated the team's 2004 playoff surge. But it has given the Flames a competitive team while ownership and management work out the arena details.
"Absolutely, this is critical to the ongoing sustainability and vitality of this team in this city," Flames president and CEO Ken King said of the new arena plan.
"It's a high priority. We've been very careful not going to the public until we have everything lined up."
Leaving the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Flames' home for 32 years, has been aided by watching Edmonton's arena progress. The Flames have even had representatives in the provincial capital learning how best to handle an arena project.
This much information continues to circulate: The team has pinpointed three potential locations for the arena, including one on the western edge of the downtown core close to an LRT line. Architectural designs have been done to show what the new arena could look like. The designs include the possibility of a field house being built next to the arena. That field house would be open to the public and amateur sports teams. [The Flames own a majority share in the Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders. There have also been discussions on what to do with an aging McMahon Stadium. Nothing has been settled.]
But with Alberta bearing the brunt of plunging oil prices – and thousands of people losing their jobs – is this a good time to spend hundreds of millions on an arena?
Glen Hodgson is a senior vice-president and chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada. He said it is necessary to "separate between short term and long term" for a development of this magnitude.
"In the short term, there are clearly obstacles," Mr. Hodgson said. "When it comes to the Alberta economy, I've used the 'r' word [recession]. As for the long term, Alberta still has a bright future. Eighty dollars a barrel of oil is not a bad assumption."
Mr. Hodgson added the Flames will need a credible financial plan and that a field house would be a way of giving something back to the public, especially if the NHL team is going to ask for public money.
"It comes down to the community and how it feels [about helping finance a new sports facility]," explained Mr. Hodgson. "Was there any real anger in Saskatchewan when they approved a new football stadium [for the CFL Roughriders]? I didn't hear it. You have to get the conditions right to ask for public money."
A significant component of those conditions has to do with how well the Flames play. With a management model that includes Brian Burke as president of hockey operations and Brad Treliving as general manager, the Flames are rebuilding in a way that has eluded the Oilers.
"We are thrilled with how things have gone," Mr. King said. "But we're trying very hard not to get ahead of ourselves."