A confident, mature city doesn't need to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into professional-sports facilities just because billionaire owners have the audacity to ask.
Calgary, historically, hasn't lacked for confidence. Now there's a good opportunity for the city to prove its maturity by rejecting the latest proposal for an arena-stadium complex that would require a ludicrous amount of taxpayer support.
The owners of the Calgary Flames and Calgary Stampeders – who include three of Canada's richest individuals – want to upgrade their aging venues and have brought forward plans for an $890-million development on an underused downtown site beside the Bow River.
The owners are willing to spend just $200-million of their own money on the project. They're asking the city to ante up $200-million directly. A ticket tax (possibly financed by the city) would generate $250-million. Another $240-million would come from a so-called community development levy, which essentially means taxpayers would front the money and then somehow hope to get repaid through the increased economic activity in the regenerated arena-stadium district.
Of course there will be myriad other public costs associated with the development – not the least of which is the price tag for decontaminating the city-owned land coveted by the ownership group, which was once the site of a toxic creosote wood-treatment plant. One city councillor estimates an all-in cost of $1.6-billion.
Daryl Katz, the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers, after much effort managed to secure significant taxpayer funds for a new arena, which must have emboldened the Flames-Stampeders group. He hinted he'd move his team if he was turned down – are the Calgary owners prepared to do the same?
So far they're playing nice and touting the spinoff benefits of their project – focusing on neighbourhood revival and the creation of facilities that will be available for public use and enjoyment when the Flames and Stampeders aren't playing. Neither argument is persuasive. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has long said that public money must lead to public benefits, not private profits. That's exactly what's at stake here. The city shouldn't play along.