CALGARY (660 NEWS) — After a rough 2018, featuring broken negotiations and bad blood between the parties, discussions over a new arena finally got back on track in 2019.
And by the end of the year, a deal was officially struck to replace the aging Saddledome.
In January, talks got back underway and the arena — or event centre as the city will call it — was put back on a priority list of capital projects, along with major redevelopments to the BMO Centre and Arts Commons.
Details slowly leaked out over the next couple of months, including the price tag for the facility being pegged at over half a billion dollars.
However, some concerns were also raised as it became clear Calgarians would not have much say about the deal as it was worked out behind closed doors between the City of Calgary and the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation.
“Governing by plebiscite can make a place ungovernable,” said Ward 1 Councillor Ward Sutherland, in response to questions if the deal should include a public vote like the doomed 2026 Olympic bid. “We do elect them to make decisions and this is a decision they are making.”
These talks continued through the spring, with periodic but slim updates coming from councillors at City Hall.
Then as summer hit, it became clear that an actual agreement was brewing.
The event centre will cost $550 million, with the city splitting the cost in half with the group representing the owners of the Calgary Flames and the Calgary Stampede. The building will be owned by the city, with CSEC taking in revenues from ticket sales and also being responsible for operations, maintenance and repair costs.
It includes a 35-year lease which should eliminate any fears of the Flames leaving the city any time soon.
In calling it an event centre, the city hopes it will factor into a wider revitalization of the Victoria Park district, attracting new retail and outdoor events like concerts to make it a year-round gathering space.
“It’s about creating a place where generations of Calgarians will build memories, will achieve their dreams and above all build community,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation Vice Chair Ken King was pleased to see a tentative deal be reached, but added the work wasn’t over yet.
“I think we just ran the longest race ever to get to the starting line, that is where I actually think we are,” said King.
While that deal was announced on Jul. 22, a final vote in City Council was to come only one week later — sparking worries that this deal was being rushed.
It led to some polarization around Council, including promises to vote against it.
Some citizens and councillors were also worried with the use of public funds to build the facility in a time of tight budget constraints.
“I love the Flames but not this deal,” stated Ward 11 Councillor Jeromy Farkas. “This is the Olympics all over again.”
“Between the closed-door meetings, the rushed timelines, and broken promises to consult, this is a lack of leadership by council to listen to citizens. I just don’t think the timing is right, especially considering the economics of our city and the tax shift crisis.”
Nevertheless, days after those comments were made the deal was passed by a vote of 11-4 after lengthy debate at City Hall.
After the approval was given, Ward 6 Councillor and Event Centre Assessment Committee Chair Jeff Davison hailed it as a transformative moment.
“I think this is an incredible day, a history making day for the citizens of Calgary,” Davison said.
Councillors Evan Woolley, Druh Farrell, George Chahal and Jeromy Farkas voted against the agreement, with most of them citing concerns over a lack of public engagement.
In voicing his opposition, Woolley said he doesn’t know why the deal was being rushed through, who added it “sounds like a bullying tactic.”
Nenshi said it would provide public benefit, therefore justifying the public dollars.
“I’d rather live here than anywhere in the world precisely because we dream big and we get things done,” he said.
Another common refrain from opponents to the deal was that the city was subsidizing millionaires and billionaires by providing $275 million of public funds for a building that will ultimately be operated by a private company.
Calgary Flames CEO Ken King said that was not the case.
“We don’t want billionaires and millionaires to be subsidized either,” he said. “What we like is four men with a vision for the city, who are prepared in this day and age to put up $275 million to participate in a really important segment of our city. That’s what we’re proud of.”
The deal also ensured that the Saddledome’s time in Calgary’s skyline is limited — as the old arena will be torn down once construction on the new event centre is completed sometime around 2024.
However, the agreement being approved by a majority of councillors was not quite the end of the story, as budget discussions later in the year sparked renewed debate over if this is a wise spend of taxpayer dollars.
Ward 8 Councillors Evan Woolley said the money should be redirected to other sources, such as the Green Line LRT and affordable housing.
“We have invested already half a billion dollars in (the Green Line), this project is too big to fail, and at this time I think that this isn’t an appropriate use of these resources,” Woolley told reporters.
But Woolley’s attempt was blasted as foolish by Councillor Sutherland.
“There’s a lot of spinning going on here,” said Sutherland. “It doesn’t affect the budget at all; it’s done through cash that we get paid back. The provincial budget does not affect this at all. Reconsidering it is actually irresponsible, and there’s potential consequences.”
Woolley’s attempt to reconsider failed, by the exact same vote of 11-4 as in July, with the same councillors voting for and against.
Then just a week after the budget discussions wrapped, it was finally official and an agreement was signed by all parties.
“Hopefully this will help unfold the next chapter of positive momentum in our city,” said Davison after he announced the finalized agreement during a meeting of the Event Centre Assessment Committee.
At the end of the day, the final cost to the city is $290 million when extra costs are factored in, such as the demolition of the Saddledome.
“This is historic for Calgarians, this isn’t just a one-time thing,” said Sutherland. “This is a legacy.”
Looking ahead to the new year, actual public consultations will be on the way in 2020, as the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation starts design work before a procurement process.
“The hard part starts now,” said CMLC President Michael Brown.
“We’ve done collectively some amazing work over the past year and a half to make sure we truly understood the project and to ensure we can be successful in delivering the project. But the next step of actually getting the teams together and dealing with the opportunity or the beast in front of us, this is really the hard part.”
More complete renderings of the project can also be expected early in 2020, and shovels could be in the ground in 2021.