The clock is ticking on Calgary’s arena plans

Gary Bettman spoke with Roger Millions about building a new arena in Calgary, and why it’s important for the city and the Flames.

CALGARY — Gary Bettman loaded his carrot on to a stick, and walked up to the podium at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce meeting Monday.

He would have loved to be announcing a National Hockey League Draft in Calgary, Bettman said, with all the ancillary revenues and civic chest-beating that comes with it.

Or an All-Star Game; maybe some World Cup action or an outdoor game, with all the hotel rooms, restaurant meals and general commerce that follow those events to a town.

“It would be nice to fantasize,” the bearded NHL commissioner told 500 suits (and a few business skirts) at the Calgary Hyatt on Monday. “But let’s get back to reality.”

Ah, reality. Here’s where it begins to get fuzzy for the Calgary hockey fan/tax payer, as CalgaryNext — the Flames’ $890 million concept for a new arena, football stadium and public field house complex on the banks of the Bow River — lies sleeping in its crib nearly a year after the concept was born.

Reality: There is one NHL team left among the 30 that, since Bettman became commissioner in 1993, have not moved into a new building or have one on the rise. That is the Calgary Flames.

Reality (Bettman’s version): There will be no replacement for the aging Saddledome if the expectation is for the Flames to foot the entire bill.

“It’s not an investment that’s cost justified,” he promised.

Reality (Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s version): The numbers don’t add up on the CalgaryNext plan. In fact, Bettman has come to town to meet with City administrators Tuesday but Nenshi did not make room on his schedule to attend the meeting.

Bettman claims not to be offended. We’ll take him at his word.

On several occasions during Monday’s speech, Bettman referenced former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, lauding him for his forward thinking and project-building initiatives that led to a deal in Edmonton.

“I always hear about the Battle of Alberta,” Bettman said to Calgary’s business elite. “By July 1, 2017, when Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of its confederation, the Battle of Alberta hockey will still be legendary. But the Battle of Alberta arenas won’t even be close.

“On Canada Day 2017, the Oilers will have already enjoyed their first full season at a transformational new arena, Rogers Place, part of an Ice District that will transform downtown Edmonton and will become the largest mixed use development in Canada.”

You get the picture. Alas, inside the frame of that picture, the canvas couldn’t be more different between this province’s two major cities.

In Edmonton, they were only building a $480 million project. It is being constructed in a downtown that was absolutely dying for a shot in the arm, and dearly needed development.

In Calgary, the land being revitalized is soaked in creosote from a years-ago factory, and the price tag and timeline required to clean up the land is unknown.

Some say, “Well, we’ve got to clean up the land eventually, don’t we?” Others say, “Not if it costs $300-400 million, we don’t. At least not in this economy.”

In Edmonton, Rexall Place is a decade older and visibly aging. In Calgary, the Scotiabank Saddledome will be visibly aging in about a decade, but right now it’s not nearly as antiquated as they make it sound.

The problem — or reality — is that the Saddledome will indeed need replacing at some point, and this project will likely take seven years or more to get through.

“I don’t think time is running out (on CalgaryNext). I think the clock is ticking,” said Flames president Ken King. “(Bettman) is saying to us: ‘Hey, you guys have got to get moving on this.’ Because we’re at least five years away from completion, in a perfect world.”

It’s too cliché for a professional hockey writer to take sides on one of these. Of course I like new arenas and believe in their value. I make my living inside them.

But like Bettman, I’ve also witnessed the revitalized area of downtown D.C. around the Verizon Center in Washington, and I’ve walked the streets around L.A. Live that no sane person would have walked before the Staples Centre went up.

I’ve also seen the accepted economic wisdom that states public funding of sports facilities is bad business for the city. I respect the economists, though I’ve often wondered how they calculate the value of a Tuesday night Flames game on TV when it’s 24 below outside, or the civic pride and spirit I have felt in this city back in 2004, and again last spring when the surprising Flames united Calgary during their playoff run.

Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz made a wonderful deal for him, with minimal cash down required. But I was raised in that town, and I’ve seen with my own eyes what that new building is doing for Edmonton’s moribund downtown and people’s civic pride there. The impact is both immeasurable and invaluable, by my estimation.

Without pulling at the ol’ Battle of Alberta heartstrings, this much is also a stark reality: When Taylor Swift, or many other major acts, come to Alberta, they’ll play two shows at Rexall Place and none at the Saddledome, as its saddle-shaped roof can’t handle the weight of the gear that acts travel with these days.

I’ve seen The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2 and David Bowie at Commonwealth Stadium. None have played McMahon Stadium, to my knowledge.

So, maybe this CalgaryNext thing is a tad rich. Or perhaps the site they’ve chosen is too pricey. But something has to happen here in Calgary eventually, and as the mayor, Mr. Nenshi, you have been elected to help chart the path.

Oil’s selling at $31 a barrel. Downtown Calgary is visibly empty outside my hotel room window.

Maybe show up at the meeting. How busy can you be?

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