Five years ago, as the Edmonton Oilers’ arena project teetered on and off the rails on a monthly rotation, I had an off-the-record conversation with a couple of higher-ups in the Calgary Flames organization.
The folks in Calgary were quietly charting every step — and misstep — by the Katz Group up in Edmonton, hoping that when it was their turn, Calgary’s inevitable arena/football stadium/field house project could learn from the Edmonton process and not make any of their own Seattle-sized mistakes. They hoped this would expedite things, so Calgary could get its project done much faster than the five full years of haggling — plus two more to build — that went on in Northern Alberta.
So, what did the Calgarians learn? They learned that there is no fast-tracking a process that asks for this many tax dollars.
“At a gallop, if we were to cut the ribbon on a project like this in five years we’d be very, very happy,” Flames President and CEO Ken King admitted on Tuesday.
Personally, my prediction is that this project will indeed get built — just not in the funding form that the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Group (CSEG) laid down during Tuesday's presentation. CSEG, which owns the Flames, CFL's Stampeders and National Lacrosse League's Roughnecks, made its initial offer of $200 million on Tuesday. That could end up being less than 20 percent of the final cost of a project that was unveiled Tuesday with millions of dollars in unknown and extra costs unaccounted for.
(Don’t panic — this is par for the course, folks. Those costs will be ascertained before anyone signs anything here.)
That level of private investment — in 2015, when the jury is back on the overall investment value for cities that pour civic money into stadia — will likely be seen as insufficient. CSEG wisely added a field house — an entity that has nothing to do with highly paid professional athletes and everything to do with the average Calgarian — to help entice government involvement.
They’ve found an area begging for re-development in Calgary’s West Village — exactly the way Edmonton’s downtown was/is. That also engages City Hall, and the redevelopment that’s happening in Edmonton has already declared that project a winner with Rogers Place not even open yet.
However, Calgary’s downtown is in much, much better shape than Edmonton’s, which is good for Calgary but works against City Hall’s urgency to pump civic funds into this project. The fact that there is a large parcel of contaminated land involved in Calgary’s bid adds complexity — and cost — that didn’t exist in Edmonton.
The City has long agreed that a field house is required in Calgary, but has never had the inkling to fund it. Now, the Flames are asking the City to change its mind and come up with $200 million for the field house. Clearly, McMahon Stadium is past its best before date, and the Saddledome is nearing expiry. Those are the financial realities being discussed in Calgary today.
My take? I am one who believes that the city derives much positive energy, international recognition and financial gains from having the Flames, the Stampeders, and the ancillary events that would be held in those facilities.
(The Saddledome, because of its roof engineering, cannot support the rigging and speaker systems of the big touring bands in 2015. Just this summer, Taylor Swift played back-to-back dates in Edmonton and skipped Calgary altogether, a common occurrence.)
I believe that the City should partner with CSEG, with the lifespan of its stadia having run its course. How many citizens watch Flames and Stamps games regularly, bleeding the red and gold as the Flames went two rounds in last spring’s playoffs, yet can't — or choose not to — support the team financially in any way?
Well, this is their chance to pitch in for a product they get for the price of a cable subscription. Nothing in life is free.
I’ve seen how a city feels when it has a successful sports team; how the sun shines a little brighter, and civic pride beams that much further. You can’t quantify that under a term like “economic impact,” but it is very real, and brings more people of different walks of life together than a folk fest or a two-week long Games ever could.
Esteemed Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid called this project “brilliant” before adding: “It’s also a dream wrapped in a mystery shrouded in fog.”
The fog will lift, and the project will remain brilliant. There are just a lot of zeroes that are unaccounted for at the moment, and the CSEG knows that.
This is only an opening offer. Let the negotiations begin.