Calgary residents ask city to reconsider arena funding amid budget cuts, are rebuffed by mayor as “distracting”

The city of Calgary is facing a $23.45 million budget shortfall that could result in cuts to police, fire, and transit services, and also spending $200 million or more on a new arena for the Flames. What to do, what to do?

Some councillors, including Evan Woolley and Jeromy Farkas, have said that as the city looks for cuts in this year’s difficult budget “everything should be on the table” — including the arena deal

Farkas argued that as there’s still no signed agreement between the city and the Calgary Flames owners, he’d like to see the arena deal revisited.

That’s an idea! And even one that a local economist had suggested earlier this month. But a voice is speaking up in defense of the subsidy deal that was agreed to this past summer after just one week of debate, and if you’ve been in a coma for the last year, the name will likely surprise you:

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he thinks talk of reconsidering the deal is “distracting.”

“On the arena, we had a very comprehensive public debate, and ultimately, council decided to move forward,” he said. “That is a decision council has made, and frankly nothing has changed in the economy between July and now that would make me say, ‘We’ve got to rethink our capital projects.’”

That’s right: Naheed Nenshi, erstwhile member of the Gang of Four and the man Flames execs tried to force out as mayor because of his opposition to arena funding and declared “worse than Trump” when they failed, is now the leading defender of giving tax money to the Flames. Our transition to Bizarro World is complete.

If you haven’t been in a coma for the past year, of course, Nenshi’s statement will come as less of a shock, as he was a vocal supporter of the arena deal when it passed, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear even at the time. And they’re even less clear now that it’s been made apparent that most Calgary residents were opposed to the deal (or at least most of those who sent in comments to the council), and there are people literally marching on City Hall to oppose the possibility of a 250% price hike for low-income transit passes as part of the budget cuts. If Nenshi felt like he didn’t have the support to oppose the deal in July, he certainly has political cover to do so now; presumably either he’s agreed to some quid pro quo that is stopping him from calling for the deal to be renegotiated, or is more afraid of alienating developers than nice white-haired people marching on City Hall, or genuinely thinks that this deal is somehow much better than the previous one he rejected despite it not being anything close to the “public benefit for public money” that he had said was his bottom line for any deal.

Meanwhile, Farkas also raised the question of why, if there’s still no formal arena agreement in place, “this was so pressing that it had to go through in the middle of July with barely a week of consultation.” This really is an excellent — and rare — opportunity for a city to rethink a project that was rushed through without enough public debate; it doesn’t seem likely to happen, and maybe wouldn’t even with Nenshi’s support, but it’s still remarkable how quickly the political winds shifted on this one. Hey, Jay Scherer, do you have time to write another book?


4 comments on “Calgary residents ask city to reconsider arena funding amid budget cuts, are rebuffed by mayor as “distracting”

  1. I happen to be a huge hockey fan ( NY Islanders), and one big issue with hockey fans in Canada, is the fear of losing the game they love. You see it with the signs saying “This is our game.”, the anger over no Stanley Cups in decades, the changing demographics ( where soccer is more popular than hockey (especially in areas.like Toronto)), the fact more kids play hockey in the USA then Canada, and the fact the NHL will not expand to Canada and ditch bad franchises the Arizona Coyotes. They feel that without a new building, they could lose the Flames and never get them back. And guess what they vote, and that matters.

    • Except that public opinion in Calgary is actually evenly split on the arena, and those who are opposed are more strongly opposed:

      https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/poll-shows-calgarians-evenly-split-on-new-arena-deal

      So that’s not it.

  2. In Bizarro World, Naheed’s children are Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric, Tiffany and Baron :o