Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is not your average mayor when it comes to sports subsidy deals: He’s insisted on evaluating the Flames owners’ arena plan on whether it’s good for the public, not just good for the team, openly called out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as being a paid shakedown artist, and promised a public debate about any arena decision. Now the Calgary city manager’s staff has completed a hard-eyed analysis of the plan for a combined Flames arena and Stampeders stadium, and determined that it would cost $1.8 billion, double the total that the teams had estimated, with the public cost coming in at between $1.2 billion and $1.4 billion.
That’s a hell of a lot of money, even in devalued loonies. According to the city report, the extra $900 million would go toward “land, municipal infrastructure, environmental remediation, and financing.” Most of that isn’t even the long-worried-about creosote contamination cleanup (which comes to around $65-110 million), but other items: New transportation infrastructure is down for another $166 million, for example, and finance charges would be an additional $371-390 million. (It’s not immediately clear if these are present value or nominal figures — if the latter, then it’s not really fair to count them as an added public cost, since it’s just the cost of paying later instead of now, like the additional money you pay on your home mortgage over time compared to what your mortgage is actually worth.)
The city council is scheduled to discuss the report on Monday, but it’s likely to be a short discussion — the CBC says the $1.2-billion-plus price tag “effectively scuttles the proposal as it stands.” And the report itself recommends as much, indicating that “the CalgaryNEXT concept is not feasible in its present form or location and alternative development concepts, locations, and financial models should be investigated.” In particular, it suggests looking at building a new arena near the site of the current Saddledome (which the Flames owners previously rejected as not ambitious enough) and putting a new football stadium and field house at the current site of the Stampeders’ stadium at the University of Calgary.
There’s still some concern here that by focusing on alternative sites, this could end up becoming a battle of where to build the new arena and stadium, not whether to fund one with public money — though given that the report repeatedly indicates that the city government’s first priority is that “public money must be used for public benefit,” and Nenshi has said the same, probably not too much concern. Mostly, instead of taking the team owners’ demands and price figures as a given, Calgary sat down and trying to figure out if it made sense financially from the city’s perspective — and the answer came back “hell, no.” Now they’re kicking it back to the team to come up with a plan that makes sense. It’s all eminently logical and responsible, and only remarkable because so few city administrations do anything like this.
So far, Flames CEO Ken King is insisting on keeping CalgaryNEXT alive: “I realize we may sound simplistically optimistic, but we still think there’s some room here,” he said yesterday, which is definitely either the first or third Kübler-Ross stage. There’s still many months or years of haggling to go here, almost certainly, but Calgary has set an excellent example for other cities on how to go about tackling the first round.