CALGARY – Several weeks away from learning who their new coach will be, Calgary Flames fans are mere days away from learning the fate of a proposed new arena for the club.
The future of the $1.2-billion event centre and entertainment district unveiled by the team, city and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith last month hangs in the balance of Monday’s provincial election.
A win by Smith’s United Conservative Party is a victory for fans of the expansive project, which she has promised to sign off on, ending more than a decade of failed attempts to replace the 40-year-old Saddledome.
It was Smith’s proposed injection of $330 million of provincial funds for infrastructure surrounding the arena that got the long-awaited deal across the finish line.
“Truly public infrastructure for a truly public purpose, roads, bridges, LRT, doing site reclamation, building community spaces and (an adjacent) community arena, those are legitimate things that provincial governments should be doing,” Smith told the Eric Francis Show on Tuesday.
“I’ve been premier for eight months and I’ve been asked almost every day what am I going to do to help improve the vibrancy of Calgary’s downtown core, and this, to me, is the absolute best thing to do.
“It’s a priority of the city of Calgary, we knew they came close to coming to a deal, and we felt if there was anything we could do to add that last bit of investment to get it across the line, we felt we had to do it.”
Smith would still need approval from the provincial cabinet this summer for her proposed contribution to a project that will take three to four years to complete.
But she has to win the election first.
If Rachel Notley and her New Democratic Party win Monday, the future of the project is up in the air.
“As Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley has said, the arena is an exciting opportunity for Calgary and for downtown revitalization,” Alberta NDP party spokesperson Malissa Dunphy told Sportsnet.
“The cost has doubled in the last 18 months, and the ask of taxpayers has tripled.
“There is a lot of information that we haven’t been given about the arena deal, so we need to see what is being presented to ensure we can get this right.”
Calgary’s city council voted unanimously to spend $537 million on the transformative development to be housed in blocks north of the Saddledome and the Stampede grounds it sits on.
Flames ownership would chip in $356 million for a city-owned building it will operate.
The team’s antiquated home is one of the many competitive disadvantages the Flames are battling in a cold, small-market Canadian city.
The hope of a new rink, which would include a practice/community arena, was something Craig Conroy touched on at his introductory press conference Tuesday.
“It’s a game-changer for the city,” said the team’s new GM.
“It always comes up when I talk to players and agents.
“I get defensive about it at times, and to know it’s coming, it’s going to be special and it’s going to help me do my job.”
Flames defenceman MacKenzie Weegar mentioned the team’s need for a new arena at his season-ending media availability, prompting teammates to praise him less than two weeks later when the deal was announced.
“I was overseas when Weegar mentioned the arena,” Conroy said, “and the texts I got right after (the announcement), they were pretty excited, and I do think that will carry over when we talk to college free agents and free agents and just to get people here.
“When you have the best arena in the league, it makes a huge difference.”
Bound to be an election issue from the day it was unveiled, subsequent polls suggested 50 per cent of Calgarians are in support of the Rivers District proposal, while 45 per cent are against it. Five per cent were undecided.
Those were underwhelming numbers for a party hoping the proposal would bolster the UCP’s stronghold on Calgary, where it’s believed the NDP would need to win a strong majority of the city’s 26 ridings if it is to win the election.
Provincially, 50 per cent of Albertans are opposed to the arena proposal, said a poll at the beginning of the month from ThinkHQ.
Support for a similarly transformative arena district in Tempe, Ariz., fell short earlier this month when residents voted down the project in a referendum that has thrust the Arizona Coyotes’ future in the desert into a tenuous position.
The Flames are hoping they too won’t have to head back to the drawing board once again, which could be a grim reality if the UCP doesn’t stay in power.
The 10-acre project is twice the price of a previous arena deal the city had brokered with the Flames for a scaled-down, seven-acre version the Flames walked away from in December 2021 that would have included little more than an event centre.
The previous pact between Calgary and the Flames for an arena had a $550-million price tag, which would have been split evenly between the team and the city. That deal fell apart two years later as the two sides couldn’t agree on how to split the more than $80 million in cost escalations.
“Look to Rogers Place in Edmonton for anyone who wants to go and see what the vision is for what is going to happen here – it’s not just going to be an arena, it’s going to be an entire district,” said Smith, reminding people of all the touring acts that skip Calgary due to the Dome’s inability to house modern stage requirements.
“It’s going to have private residences and hotels, it’s going to have retail spots and restaurants, and open areas so there are gathering places.
“I think it’s brilliant they repurposed and rethought the proposal, because it’s just so much better this time around.
“Rather than just focus on it being a single building or a single team, the team becomes the anchor tenant to create the building, which then creates the support for the entire community district, which will then create an incredible addition to the rivers district.”
Much like in Edmonton, the merits of Calgary’s proposal revolve largely around much-needed revitalization in the city’s core.
“Our downtown has been hollowed out,” said Smith.
“When the downtown becomes robust and vibrant again, it increases the property values downtown.
“When you increase the property taxes downtown, it means everybody’s taxes go down.
“Part of the reason people’s taxes have gone up is because the value of those downtown office spaces have eroded because we’ve had businesses that have left, and we’ve now got a public safety crisis down there.
“That will benefit the entire city. In the end, when you look at the billions of dollars of investment that is going to occur as a result of this one major investment being made by all the partners, I think 10 years from now we’ll be having a very different conversation.”