Mayor Naheed Nenshi emerged from a city council meeting Tuesday, spotted a small gathering of reporters and wondered why there was so much interest in the Calgary Hospital Legacy Fund. Or was everyone there to discuss amendments to the responsible pet ownership bylaw?
The mayor, a notorious kidder, was just messing with us.
He knew that inquiring minds were there to follow up on the mini-tempest that unfolded the day before, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spent a big part of his 20-minute speech before the Calgary Chamber of Commerce expressing impatience with the progress of the Calgary Flames' proposed arena project, known as CalgaryNEXT.
Within hours, Nenshi – never one to back away from a fight – took the gloves off.
In his opening salvo, he fired off this: "Perhaps in other cities that he has come to, the city councils have just written cheques based on back-of-the-napkin proposals, without any consultation from the public, or without any analysis. That's not how we operate here."
Later, Nenshi added with tongue in cheek: "I know Calgarians require very wealthy people from New York to come and tell us what we need to do in our community – because they understand vibrancy better than we do."
Even in jest, those are fighting words – although in an interview Tuesday, Nenshi suggested picking a fight with Bettman was the last thing on his mind.
"Here is the most important part of all this – and what I was getting at a little snarkily yesterday," said Nenshi. "In other cities, these sorts of deals are presented to the public as a fait accompli, with a gift-wrapped ribbon on them. That is not how we have chosen to operate. That's not how council, in public, unanimously decided to move forward. The idea here is, we're going to let the public in.
"There's going to be no question about where the funding is coming from. There's not going to be any mystery about that. And we'll really look hard to get public input on all this."
Bettman can often be dismissive and condescending with anyone who doesn't agree with his world view, and Nenshi can be snippy with his sarcasm. It made for a volatile and entertaining 24 hours, which included a lengthy back-and-forth Twitter debate featuring Nenshi, members of the public and a couple of local reporters Monday night.
The waters had calmed a little by Tuesday morning when Bettman and Calgary Flames CEO Ken King met with city officials to discuss the project. Nenshi didn't meet with Bettman personally because he had council matters to attend to, but said he had specifically asked senior administration officials to brief the NHL commissioner on "the very thoughtful framework council passed unanimously and the enormous amount of work and money the city has spent to analyze the one-page letter we received from the Calgary Flames."
King characterized the meeting as "cordial, professional and useful" and called it "a good opportunity for Gary to meet the city administration people and have them help him understand where the process is at. There were no real opinions exchanged. It was just a frank and fulsome exchange of information."
Last summer, the Flames unveiled an ambitious $890-million plan to redevelop the west side of the city's downtown that would include a new arena for the Flames and a new football stadium for the CFL's Stampeders.
A feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of April. It will include an environmental report on the site, which is currently unusable because of creosote contamination. Nenshi didn't rule out the possibility of holding a plebiscite on the issue, but cautioned that plebiscites are expensive and non-binding under Alberta law.
"I generally believe we were elected to do a job," Nenshi answered. "On the other hand, when there are things that really are inflaming people's passions, then we really need to make sure we're engaging them in a thoughtful way. Over the course of the next months, we'll get a good sense of what the public's desire is."
As for the backlash against Bettman's comments, Nenshi said they echoed the responses his office has been getting since August when the proposal was first made public.
"The vast, vast, vast majority of calls we've received on this since August have been opposed to the funding model," Nenshi said. "Most people say a new arena and fieldhouse would be nice for Calgary, but the discussion we have to have is precisely how much public funding does that require. In the last 24 hours, there's been a lot of discussion on it; and my view is people have a lot of questions.
"The first step is determining whether the site the Flames picked – not the city, but the Flames – even works at all. We have to know what the level of the environmental contamination is. We have to figure out how much it would cost to fix that. If we're using a community revitalization tool, we have to figure out if there's even money in the [community revitalization levy] to clean up the pollution, let alone to have a surplus in order to invest in anything."
Bettman came to town to drum up support for the project. In the end, his presence may have done more harm than good. But Nenshi was okay with all that, noting: "It's a good public debate and I love good public debate. That's going to be the difference going forward. We'll listen to the public on this. We're not just going to present them with something."