Calgary’s ‘No’ vote a squandered opportunity for a city in need

As Arash Madani reports, more than 300, 000 citizens of Calgary voted, with the results showing that folks in the city were most definitely against the Olympics 2026 project.

CALGARY – I fell in love with this town 24 years ago because of its youthful energy, entrepreneurial spirit, sense of community and can-do attitude. Those days are gone.

Built on the backs of dreamers who understood risk was a necessary part of achieving greatness, Calgary wrestled with trying to pull itself out of a horrific economic hole in the ’80s while also taking a chance on hosting the 1988 Olympics.

It paid off in spades. It put us on the map. Made us world class. It helped bolster a recovering economy and most importantly, it put a well-deserved bounce in the step of everyone in town.

Calgarians had every reason to be proud of what they had achieved.

I moved here from the east because of the massive economic spinoffs that followed, prompting the city to almost double in size since then. So, what was achieved on Tuesday when the angry masses voted 56 per cent in a plebiscite to stymie the 2026 Winter Olympic bid?

For starters, it ensured more than $4.4 billion in investments in our struggling economy disappeared with one stroke of a ballot box pencil.

For all the misinformed naysayers who suggest they’d rather see the $1.43 billion that was being offered up by the Feds go to social programs or roads, the reality is it is Sport Canada’s money, earmarked specifically for hosting major sporting events.

Poof. Gone.

As is the $700 million offered by the province, and all the jobs that would have been created between now and 2026.

All that squandered money is, without question, the hardest part to swallow, as the “No” side hasn’t offered alternative solutions to injecting cash into Calgary.

So now what?

Pipelines aren’t being built, taxes will continue to jump due to all the empty office space downtown – this city is in one hell of a bind. Forget about the 17-day party, the Olympics could have been a catalyst for change.

With the demise of newspapers and the sad reliance on 144-character “news” there was so much misinformation on both sides. There was no trust. The true leaders of this community – the builders, the philanthropists, the entrepreneurs – saw this as an opportunity that could pay off financially and emotionally.

Saying no to something is an easy way to react when you’re angry, confused and feel your voice isn’t being heard and you don’t put the time in to understand that piecing together opportunities like this is never easy.

The process was botched endlessly, but the end product had merit.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi, city council, the provincial government and the feds all failed this city miserably by giving Calgarians just 13 days to form a clear understanding of what could be gained. They broke their promise of giving people at least a month.

A longer runway to separate fact from fiction and take the fury out of the process might have led to a different outcome.

City Hall made it seem complicated and lacking in transparency, when the reality was it was all in black and white and online for those who cared to investigate.

All three levels of government came to the table far too late with a funding plan that was easily dismissed by virtue of its tardiness and lack of cohesion. They repeatedly hampered the bid’s credibility.

Somehow, the Calgary 2026 bid corporation, full of smart, capable, accomplished business folk, was painted as villainous, too. Sad. So much vitriol was directed their way, as if they were trying to pull one over on their fellow citizens.

I can understand an anti-IOC vote given the organization’s horrifically tainted history. That’s fair.

This vote was as anti-establishment as anything else. In that vein, it’s the continuation of a dangerous trend we’re seeing in politics around the world. Yet the anger continues. People want change.

Ironically, that’s what the possibility of an Olympics offered. Nonetheless, the frustration and fury evident in this process won’t bridge a divide in this city I’ve never seen before.

It even overshadows the negative emotions the arena debate prompted, with the slight majority of locals being vehemently opposed to a deal with the Flames before they even saw the parameters of a possible financing structure.

Sure, there was risk involved in hosting the world’s biggest sporting event, but few were aware the federal government was going to cover potential overages to the security bill. But the Feds couldn’t even make that clear.

As far as cost overruns on builds, there were only two new sporting venues tabbed – how much more could they have cost?

The “no” vote not only killed the best chance Calgary had at turning its economic fortunes around, but it killed the field house we’ve been chasing since the late ’70s.

Here’s betting we still build the field house, at a cost of $300 million. In other words, for $90 million more we could have had the Olympics … and the guaranteed $4 billion injection.

This missed opportunity will ultimately lead to the Olympic Oval and several facilities at Winsport being mothballed too, including the bobsleigh/luge run. Experts suggest they have roughly three to five years left before they’ll expire without financial help from local taxpayers or a local corporate world in no shape to step up anytime soon.

Yes, taxes are going up with or without the bid. None of this is to mention all the affordable housing proposed in the Olympic bid.

You can bet that won’t be rekindled.

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This “no” vote marks the beginning of the erosion of the Olympic legacy that bolstered the Canadian winter Olympic teams to the top of the medal standings the last few Games.

Our medal count will diminish moving forward as facilities continue to deteriorate and disappear, along with the Olympic spirit and dreams athletes once gleaned from Canadian-held Games.

Some young voters simply couldn’t understand the impact hosting the Games can have on the lives of everyone in a city, as volunteers, spectators, business owners or simply proud Canadians.

It’s transformative, motivating, inspiring and impossible to put a dollar figure on. What happened late Tuesday night was a terrible loss for this city – something it has been racking up of late.

This city’s outlook could have changed, things could have been better.

As Frank King, the architect of the 1988 Games, was well aware, this bid needed to be taken out of the hands of the government and fostered by smart, progressive business-leaders – the real people who shape and spearhead our community.

They were the ones who dared to dream by working on the “yes” bid, remaining positive and trying to effect meaningful change.

Those who voted “no” need to ask themselves what they really accomplished Tuesday.

They killed so much more than they’ll ever know.

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