Long-awaited Flames arena deal could give Calgary much-needed boost

Ryan Leslie explains how the Flames are getting closer to having a new arena built in Calgary.

It’s a shot in the arm the city needs.

Perhaps it’s part of a turning point in an economic downturn Calgarians have lived with since Jiri Hudler was a Flame.

A four-year battle to land the city a new arena/event centre appears to be less than a week away from concluding with a common-sense resolution.

Details of the tentative agreement were unveiled at a press conference at city hall Monday, at which the bottom line will show the Calgary Flames ownership group will go Dutch with the city on a $550 million building to be located a few hundred metres from the 37-year-old Saddledome.

The $275 million to be funded by Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp is more than double what Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz contributed to Rogers Place, which has transformed the city’s downtown core.

The plan is for a similar injection of life to the Stampede grounds where the rink, to be ready by 2024, will kick start the building of a culture and entertainment district that will include an outdoor festival space a la Toronto’s Jurassic Park.

It could wind up being the heartbeat of the city.

A sign of life in a city with more than one-third of all office spaces vacant.

Maybe this city is open for business after all.

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Oh sure, there’s still time for political grandstanding.

However, in the end, it’s likely sanity will prevail and this city will be able to guarantee NHL hockey stays in town for the next 35 years, as per the agreement.

So what took so long?

The first attempt to kick start building talks fell flat when the Flames ambitious plans to shoehorn a rink, field house and football stadium into the west end was stymied by city officials who dubbed it too costly.

Fair enough, but say goodbye to any chance we’ll see a replacement for McMahon Stadium anytime soon.

The city wanted the building in the Rivers District of Victoria Park, next to the Dome, and so it will be as part of the compromise that will give rise to a whole new dimension downtown.

It wasn’t that easy though.

Twenty-two months ago the Flames announced they were walking away from “spectacularly unproductive” arena talks in which the city offered to pay $185 million – roughly one-third of the cost.

Calgary Sports and Entertainment president Ken King then vowed a cone of silence on the arena situation that lasted until Monday when he spoke to reporters for five minutes.

King said the solution came only after many months of better understanding what everyone needed to get out of a deal.

The city needed to demonstrate there was public benefit to a partnership that would see the city pay for half of a building it would own, but would allow the Flames to operate and pay for upkeep.

A 2 per cent ticket tax for every Flames, Hitmen and Roughnecks game, as well as world-class concerts, will go to the city – an expected windfall of $155 million over the life of the 35-year deal.

The city will also get a piece of the revenue from the building’s naming rights, expected to be $2.5 million over 10 years.

The agreement also has the Flames increasing their funding of amateur sports to $75 million over the course of the deal.

And then there’s the estimated $138 million in property taxes the new district around the rink will raise for local coffers over 35 years. All told, the city benefit has been calculated by Calgary as being $400 million during that time period, which is a lovely perk while also turning underutilized land into a thriving hub. (The future home of the Flames is currently a parking lot.)

All this, of course, on top of the millions the Flames raise for local charities every year through their foundation.

“Significant pools of funds coming back to the city – that’s what’s different,” said King when asked how the framework of the deal changed this time around.

“There’s never any sense of us wanting to be anywhere else and you can’t make that statement more boldly than having your owners write a cheque for $275 million. Putting in place a structure that can work is everything.”

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Through this agonizing process, getting rink talks out of the headlines was as important curbing Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s involvement in the process, which Coun. Jeff Davison did when forming an events centre assessment committee aimed at bridging the gap between the city and the Flames.

Behind closed doors, Davison and King worked with a handful of other stakeholders, including the Calgary Municipal Land Corp and the Calgary Stampede, which owns the land, to come up with Monday’s solution.

The mayor is on board now, saying Monday that this is a good deal for Calgarians.

As much of a morale boost as a new event centre and district will be for its citizens, it’s also a huge boon for the Flames brand as players are more apt to want to play for the club, and the team will be able to generate revenue from far more streams than the ‘Dome allowed.

The city agreed to pay 90 per cent of the demolition of the Saddledome, which will be a sad day for many, given its importance to the city and its iconic roof.

Alas, nothing would have been sadder than to see the Flames play another couple years there before ripping the heart out of the city with a sale.

That was the logical option for a club that needed a sensible, willing partner to keep the business viable in Calgary.

At long last, it appears to have found one.

As King said when unveiling his club’s original arena vision in 2015, “Nothing easy is worth doing, and nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

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