Calgary Flames need progress on new arena deal this summer

President and CEO of the Calgary Flames Ken King talks about getting his team a much deserved new stadium and how if his team isn't seen as an important part of Calgary, there would be no threat to move, they would just move.

The Calgary Flames’ off-season shopping list is radically different from any other team in the National Hockey League.

The team desperately needs a starting goalie, a backup and a top-four defenceman.

Oh, and a new rink.

The first three should be acquired by Canada Day.

The last one will take a little longer.

To be clear, Calgary will eventually replace the 34-year-old Saddledome with a state-of-the-art stadium to house NHL hockey, the world’s biggest touring acts and various other dog and pony shows.

The question is whether city hall is full of people smart and progressive enough to determine it’s best to help out with such crucial infrastructure now, or wait several years until the team moves and the city is on the hook for all of it.

Obviously it’s not that simple – negotiating a public-private deal to build something that will cost roughly $450 million never is.

However, the reality is indeed that straightforward.

Brian Burke hammered that point home last week when he grew impatient with a questioner at a Canadian Club luncheon and said the Flames wouldn’t threaten to leave if a new building isn’t built – they’d simply leave.
It’s a fact, no doubt.

As Burke added, Quebec City is salivating for a chance to buy such a squad.

However, the timing and delivery of Burke’s bombast couldn’t have been worse given the progress Flames CEO Ken King and city officials have been making behind closed doors the past six months.

As several city councillors made clear while chastising the Flames hockey president for adding unnecessary drama and criticism to the high-stakes negotiations, the city is within a week or two of presenting a proposed deal to make it happen.

Problem is, this is an election year in Calgary and essentially the last city council meeting in which they could pass a motion to start the build is July 31, meaning councillors won’t have much time to gauge a response from constituents and have the brevity to vote in favour of a funding model that would include taxpayers dollars. Otherwise, the already two-year process would get shelved until well-after the Oct. 16 election when a new council would likely be hesitant to pass something so big, so quickly.

From the outset Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been less than enthusiastic about the possibility of taxpayer money helping to fund the project unless he can be shown the public benefit.

Critical of the Flames’ original vision for an $890 million CalgaryNEXT arena/field house/football stadium on the west side of downtown, he urged the Flames to consider Plan B a few hundred metres from the current Dome. So it shall be.

City administrators have worked feverishly on a study of a scaled-down, arena-only building in that very Victoria Park area the mayor will unveil very soon.

Unlike Edmonton, where the need for a transformational arena to revitalize the downtown core made the city’s funding argument an easy one, Calgary’s situation is different.

The Flames would likely be happy with a funding model that saw the Oilers kick in $166 million for the $614 million Rogers Place. The city of Edmonton paid $313 million, largely through a Community Revitalization levy, which will see a portion of downtown property taxes redirected to the project.

Flames owners offered up $200 million in cash for the grandiose CalgaryNEXT vision. The Flames proposed the rest be paid with a $250 million user fee (ticket tax), a $240 million Community Revitalization Fund levy and $200 million from the city, which was essentially what it has earmarked for a field house.

The mayor’s office disputed the price tag, saying the original project would cost more like $1.8 billion due, in part, to the site’s contaminated land.

Either way, CalgaryNEXT has been shelved.

Calgarians are tired of seeing the world’s top entertainers skip Calgary because the saddle-shaped Dome can no longer handle the weight of today’s big concert sets.

No one disputes it is time for the aging stadium to be replaced.

However, public sentiment is split on who should pay how much for a building that will be city-owned and undoubtedly run by the Flames.

It should be noted the backdrop of the debate is a troubled city in which one-third of all office space now sits empty thanks to the two-year glut in oil prices.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons why this hasn’t been easy.

Adding to the mix is the fact the city is currently spending $5 million studying the merits of hosting the Winter Olympics in 2026. Should such an undertaking get a green light the need for a new building would be heightened.
In an entrepreneurial city built by dreamers it’s hard to fathom an arena deal can’t get done.

The question is whether a failure to meet the July 31 deadline of sorts means frustrated owners would quietly start talks with the league to put the wheels in motion for a sale to Quebec City interests.

It says here they wouldn’t.

As long as there’s hope at coming to terms on a new arena the Flames aren’t going anywhere.

The five Flames owners, who are some of the wealthiest men in Canada, are philanthropists who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into local hospitals and charities.

They want what’s best for Calgary, which means keeping the team here.

However, at some point in the next year or two they’d have no other alternative but to consider options should arena negotiations prove to be fruitless.