Friday, 19 July 2019

Still Pitching

I have to give the ownership group of the Calgary Flames a little credit: they're persistent. If you haven't been following the saga happening in the Alberta city, the Flames have been trying to negotiate, demand, blackmail, and extort the city of Calgary into building them a new arena. Opened in 1983, the Scotiabank Saddledome is one of the oldest buildings in the NHL currently, but has been retrofitted and updated a number of times since it opened 36 years ago. Today, however, it was announced that the Flames will sit down with Calgary city council once again as a tentative deal has been reportedly reached between the two sides.

Look, I'm going to preface this by linking back to articles written in 2015 about the use of public funds to build new arenas and stadiums and in 2017 about the Flames' current ownership situation and why they shouldn't get a sweetheart deal to exist. Both articles are still applicable today when it comes to building this proposed new arena, but it seems that deals were sweetened and palms were greased just enough for both sides to come to this agreement.

Where we should toss a few grains of salt onto that above paragraph, however, is that it seems someone is finally listening to the arguments being made about the use of public funds to fund the sport paid for by billionaires.

"I look forward to continuing conversations," Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told reporters today. "I know a lot of folks have been working very hard to see if there is something there that meets the criteria that we've talked about — the most important criteria, of course, being public money must have public benefit. And I really look forward to seeing where people are at."

Yes, you read Mayor Nenshi's words as he stated them - "the most important criteria, of course, being public money must have public benefit." This is a massive shift in the discourse for any new stadium or arena negotiation, and it's the right call by the Calgary Mayor. Perhaps this is the first step in a major shift towards having billionaires stop asking for tax breaks and handouts when cities, states, and provinces cannot afford to be sacrificing millions of dollars that could be used elsewhere to help social needs? Wouldn't that be something?

According to the report, this "new arena is projected to cost between $550 million and $600 million, according to estimates provided by CMLC. The projections are based on an 18,000-seat arena with retail space, a community rink and 40,000 square feet of underground parking," making this new entertainment district in Victoria Park a center that will bustle with people and events. While I'm not against the idea of including retail space or underground parking, I do fear that there may be congestion in the area on game nights or event nights depending on how the city of Calgary and the arena project team work out the infrastructure for moving people out of the underground parking quickly.

If there is one thing that won't please a segment of the population, the animal rights activists will likely be disappointed in that this arena deal will likely ensure the long-term viability of the Calgary Stampede considering the land in question is owned by by the Stampede. They're not going to shut down the Stampede when it seems to be on-tap to benefit from the sale of this land, but I'd like to see these activists continue to demand better treatment and care of the animals involved in the Stampede's events.

Another segment of the population that likely won't be very excited about this deal depending on the details? The people of Calgary. At the meeting on Monday, one of the topics that is scheduled for discussion is a vote on a $60-million cut to municipal budgets. If there's a pile of public money involved in this arena deal, you can bet that the people of Calgary will be heated.

"Heads are going to explode over this because you had the property tax revolt a month ago and now you're dealing with service cuts," said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told Meghan Potkins of the Calgary Herald. "I'll be interested to see the breakdown around support for this because there are all sorts of fiscal conservatives on council who want lower property taxes and they believe that services should be cut — but also want money thrown into an arena."

This is precisely why the use of public funds to build an arena shouldn't even be on the table nor should there be any sort of tax break on property taxes. The building of this arena would generate millions of dollars in property taxes which could go towards reducing property taxes for everyone else, but those monies could also be a huge boon for the services that are on the table to be cut. Either way, the city of Calgary can't play both sides of the fence here in reducing services while offering monies or tax breaks that will take money out of their coffers. If there was a revolt before this deal was reached, there could be chaos if a large swath of money goes into funding this new arena-and-shopping complex.

"It would be very cowardly for us not to engage Calgarians in a meaningful way when we're talking about potentially hundreds and millions of dollars of public money going to one private business," Councillor Evan Woolley said to Potkins. "We have seen significant challenges in terms of tax increases on all of our small business community and so how we rationalize giving hundreds of millions of dollars to one business while letting every small business in the city suffer with the tax burden that we've put on them is unacceptable."

While an agreement has been reached tentatively, it sounds as though citizens of Calgary should - and if Councillor Woolley has any sway, will - get a bigger say in how their tax dollars are being spent if they're seeing services cut while funding a billionaire's wants. Politically, this could end some people's careers if they vote with their civic pride versus the wants and needs of their constituents, and the voters in Calgary should remember this when the next mayoral and city council elections take place. At the end of the day, not everyone is a Flames fan or a hockey fan, and their services will cut just like everyone else's if these cuts happen. That's a fine line for politicians to walk when promising millions of tax dollars to a billionaire.

At the end of the day, this deal is only tentative. While it's promising to see the city and the Flames come to an agreement after months and years of battles and negotiations, it may still be further away than it appears if the people of Calgary see $60 million of services cut while millions of dollars are spent on new retail and hockey complexes.

Selling this idea to the citizens of Calgary might be the hardest sell of all.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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