What Naheed Nenshi’s re-election means for Calgary Flames arena talks

Naheed Nenshi celebrates his victory as Calgary's mayor following municipal elections in Calgary, Alta., early Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Despite being in the midst of a four-day break between games the Calgary Flames suffered a significant setback Monday night.

And the repercussions of it might ultimately lead to a major loss for the city. Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who has been part of a very public war of words with the Flames over the new arena stalemate, was re-elected for a third term late Monday.

Considered by the Flames to be the largest impediment between a potential deal for a new public/private arena to replace the aging Saddledome, Nenshi received 51.4 per cent of the vote in a hotly-contested race to continue governing Calgary for the next four years.

Challenger Bill Smith, who was ahead in several polls leading up to the vote based on a campaign essentially aimed at not being Nenshi, received 43.7 per cent of the vote.

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The chances of the Flames five-man ownership group, spearheaded by fierce negotiator Murray Edwards, would choose to keep the team in Calgary longer than four years without an arena deal in place are slim. If an arena deal is to be made few have a clue how things can progress in any fashion now that the two heads of the warring factions – Nenshi and Flames president/CEO Ken King – are still in place.

The Flames chose to try making the arena deal an election issue last month when King declared on behalf of the owners the team was no longer pursuing a new facility. They took exception to the mayor’s election platform, which included a vision for an arena and entertainment district next to the Saddledome, suggesting the mayor was grandstanding while doing nothing to move along negotiations.

King has since steadfastly insisted negotiations are over, prompting Nenshi to suggest the Flames will eventually come back to the bargaining table. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman followed that up by pointing the finger directly at Nenshi, saying the mayor essentially shrugged off the importance of keeping an NHL team in town.

Late Monday a Flames staffer posted a disparaging tweet about Nenshi’s re-election, which was quickly erased after it gained traction.

“I can’t believe it YYC (Calgary),” the staffer tweeted. “Having @nenshi as mayor is worse than @realdonaldtrump as president. #arrogant #bracefordisaster #outoftouch”

Bettman’s comments were generally considered unwelcome interference in a city where a struggling economy has made it hard for the Flames to gain sympathy and widespread support as they battle for tax dollars for an arena tabbed at $550 million.

Nenshi, who prides himself on standing up to bullies, sees the Flames as exactly that, happy to take digs at the NHL club and its demands throughout the public feud that followed the Flames decision to abandon stalled talks. He firmly believes public money shouldn’t go towards a facility run by a private company like the Flames without there being significant benefit to Calgarians.

He’s got many people on his side, as the election results indicate.

King refused to back any of the candidates in the election but clearly would have been hoping Smith, the former Alberta Progressive Conservative Party president, could unseat Nenshi in what wildly inconsistent polls suggested would be a hotly-contested race.

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Massive voter turnout that resulted in frustratingly long lines, a shortage of ballots and a city election website that crashed throughout the evening spoke to just how contentious the election had become.

Smith, a former football player and firefighter-turned lawyer, certainly put a higher premium on the importance of sport in a community, while also touting himself as pro-business. Criticism of Smith revolved around him giving Calgarians very little in terms of substance, running largely as the anti-Nenshi option.

Surely the Flames envisioned they would have had a better chance negotiating an arena deal with Smith than Nenshi. Now we’ll never know.

Smith certainly gave Nenshi and his supporters a scare, which many hope will result in a somewhat humbled mayor who won the previous election in 2013 with 70 per cent support.

Where this leaves the chances of seeing negotiations resurrected is anyone’s guess as Nenshi overcame a significant attack by the Flames to keep his job. He won’t forget that.

While many Calgarians who are frustrated by the arena drama may say it’s little more than a negotiating tactic to suggest the Flames could ultimately sell the team to owners in Quebec City, Seattle or Houston, the reality is simple: without a new rink an NHL franchise in Calgary is not sustainable.

As part of his victory speech just after midnight locally, Nenshi said he was humbled by the race and said it was crucial for Calgarians to come together moving forward. We’ll see if he means it by doing his part to end the stalemate with the Flames to try piecing together a deal for crucial infrastructure needed to keep the Flames in town. He’s said all along the city is willing to keep negotiating.

If not, the man whose popularity took a huge hit in Monday’s election could be destined to leave a legacy of being the man largely responsible for the Flames leaving. Make no mistake, both sides are to blame for the failed arena talks.

The Flames most recent proposal included a $275 million contribution to a $500 million city-owned arena and $225 million from a City Revitalization Levy that pays off an initial development loan through taxes on surrounding business.

Nenshi countered by saying the team is committing only $100 million of its own money with the rest of the $275 million coming from a $150 million ticket surcharge and $25 million from an unspecified source.

The city’s offer for a Flames–owned arena was for $185 million – one-third of the cost of the arena – with the expectation of making back that money through either taxes or profit-sharing.

The Flames insist the city’s proposal would essentially mean the club would pay for the entire arena with revenue generated by the club.

Nenshi insists the CRL cited by the Flames would only cover $150 million of the $225 million and is already earmarked for the East Village and neighbouring areas.

He said/Nenshi said.

Indeed, things likely didn’t get better on Monday for the Flames hopes of building a new rink with the city. They may very well have gotten worse.