Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Stop Abusing Public Funds

Here we go again, folks. It seems the 32 year-old Pengrowth Saddledome is no longer suitable for the Calgary Flames when it comes to a home rink, and now the owners of the franchise and the Commissioner of the NHL are banging the drum loudly once again for the city of Calgary to dig deep and find some money to give the Flames a new home. This is the same Saddledome that two years ago was up for debate in terms of being replaced, and the city of Calgary balked at the idea of using public funds to build an arena. And that will lead to the questions of what has changed since 2015, and why should Calgary pay for an arena that will primarily be used by a team that is owned by billionaires?

I penned a long article two years ago that used an exemplary piece of reporting by John Oliver from HBO's Last Week Tonight that explains why funding stadia with public money is a bad idea. I still firmly believe that using public taxpayer money to fund the building of arena in which the majority of the public may never set foot is a terrible idea. In fact, maybe the worst idea when it comes to the use of taxpayer money in the history of modern civilization.

After a meeting with officials from the city of Calgary, the Flames have now dropped the idea of a new arena, stating that "the group is no longer in talks with the city". The meeting included Gary Bettman, who decided to speak out following the meeting in saying, "This arena can't compete, for example, with Edmonton any longer, because they don't have the resources or the building. I think there were 34 dates of concerts that the new Edmonton arena got that didn't come down here."


It's not that Calgary doesn't want a new arena. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has gone on record in saying he'd like to see a new arena as part of a revitalized entertainment district near the current Saddledome, and a recent survey of Calgarians show support for a new arena. The catch? That survey found that most Calgary residents don't want pay more in taxes to build the arena. I'd say that's fair, but not all Calgarians feel that the city needs a new arena. According to the survey results, "32 per cent said it doesn't and 18 per cent weren't sure" when asked if Calgary needs a new arena. If half your citizens have doubt that Calgary needs a new arena, that's a lot of people not saying yes to the idea.

Back in March, there were rumblings of the Flames needing a new arena when Gary Bettman spoke up again on behalf of the Flames. Bettman was in town lobbying for a new arena that seemed to fall on the ears of Mayor Nenshi's constituents.

"The calls to our office, the emails, the comments have been, I would say, 99.999997 per cent saying please Mr. Bettman stay out of it and no, there should be no public money for this," Nenshi told the CBC's Drew Anderson. This was a mere six months ago where Mayor Nenshi heard people saying that there should be no public money used, and now we're back to today where we're seeing the Flames and Bettman begging the city to use public money to fund an arena.

You can't hold a city hostage when the owners of the business named "Calgary Flames" are billionaires. Flames Vice-President Brian Burke, when speaking to a crowd at the Canadian Club of Calgary in June, spoke of why the Flames should have a publicly-funded arena. Burke was asked by an audience member and longtime season ticket holder why he thinks the Flames should get public monies for a new arena, suggesting that there was nowhere for the team to go if they didn't get the money they sought. Burke's response gave little merit to why the city of Calgary should fork over any money, responding with, "I think most intelligent people get this. Sorry... my learned friend."

Actually, most learned people and almost every economic-impact study done on new stadia show that there is little to no benefit received by the city or the area surrounding the new stadium, so I'm not sure from where Burke is pulling his "most intelligent people" statement. Instead, Burke doubled-down with, "In the U.S., it has long been acceptable to use public money to construct arenas and stadiums. It's long been acceptable to give a pro team a favourable lease based on the benefits pro teams bring to the marketplace."

How does using public money and giving favourable leases benefit the city of Calgary at all? In the end, if the city decides to use public funds or grant a favourable lease, there has to be something given back. Just existing as the Calgary Flames hockey club isn't good enough. It wouldn't be good enough for a Wal-Mart store or an Ikea store, and I'd say they have far more appeal to a wider-ranging audience than the Calgary Flames do. If they pay property taxes and build their own buildings using private money, why is the business of the Calgary Flames any different?

Look, I understand the allure of the new arena. It's a sparkly, new building with all sorts of amenities and concessions that are unique to that venue. Most new arenas dazzle before you even step foot inside the venue, but that does raise one cent for the city nor does it put patrons into the businesses surrounding the arena. For too long, professional sports franchises have trampled on civic pride to get what they want before threatening relocation if they don't get what they want. Personally, I'm glad that the city of Calgary has taken a stand against these threats, and I'll credit Mayor Nenshi for recognizing these tactics used and calling them out in the June CBC article.
"This is me kind of shrugging," he said when asked for a reaction. "This is page 26 of the script. It's always page 26 of the script in every city, and my job now is, I'm supposed to go to page 27 and 28 in the script when I point out that Rogers has given them billions of dollars and they're not going to let them remove a team from a western Canadian market, that in order for them to go to Quebec, they'll have to sell the team to Pierre Karl Peladeau, and he's not going to give them a deal the way they're going to get in Calgary, blah, blah, blah. I'm not interested in doing that."

Nenshi said the city has been "very, very clear on our non-negotiables."

"The first one is the one I always say, public money requires public benefit, so you've got to negotiate," he said.

"Five out of the seven teams in Canada have privately owned rinks, only Edmonton and Calgary are publicly owned, and the Edmonton deal may have been right for Edmonton, where they desperately needed revitalization and construction in their downtown core, that is not the case in Calgary … so we have to find a new model."

There's only so much money to go around, and a sports franchise would fall below important things like infrastructure and police, fire, and paramedic services. Those are essential services that require public funding to help everyone. A new arena for the Calgary Flames is not an essential service in any way, shape, or form, and I'll gladly stand with Mayor Nenshi in finding a new model that meets the needs of all the parties, especially the taxpayers in Calgary.

When billionaire owners are unwilling to spend money on the house they bought for their team, maybe they shouldn't be home-owners.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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