Among the lessons we learn with the new Calgary Flames arena deal is this: a surefire way to settle any impasse is with giant bags of cash worth $330 million, stamped with a Government of Alberta crest.

The UCP, Danielle Smith and the rest of Albertans are about to learn another big lesson: whether or not it’s politically beneficial, in 2023, to provide a massive public subsidy for the benefit of a major private sports organization.

Because we know the answer to that question has been squarely a negative the last two times it was asked, in Calgary civic elections in 2017 and 2021.

In 2017, a principal position of Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s re-election bid was his skepticism to an arena deal the Flames owners had put forth. Those sideways glances were popular enough to secure him a third term.

In the subsequent election to chart Calgary’s post-Nenshi future, mayoral hopeful Jeff Davison was the ranking booster for the “event centre” project, while fellow councillors Jyoti Gondek and Jeromy Farkas were more critical. The arena’s champion was the choice of only 13 per cent of Calgarians, finishing in third place even in Davison’s own ward.

But there was Smith, a Flames sweater beneath her overcoat at a joint news conference, positioning herself as the willing financier and saviour of the on-again, off-again arena venture. She wasn’t shy about using her government position to declare, boldly and publicly, that re-electing her party was necessary to lock in this deal.

This was no off-the-cuff, politically opportunistic remark. She underlined it in flame-red marker in a news release hours after the announcement Tuesday: “To be clear, a vote for the UCP is also a vote for moving full steam ahead with this arena project.”

This is Smith’s major gamble — that the provincial politics on this are different than municipal, and that the Calgary mood on arena-building has shifted since 2017 and 2021. (Or 2012, when Smith was chasing votes as Wildrose leader, and promised no provincial dollars for the Edmonton Oilers’ costly arena.)

The old Saddle

The history of voters’ distaste for publicly subsidizing pro sports venues will surely weigh against Smith. But is there something to be said of the public’s evolving desire just to get something done, finally, and bid adieu to the Saddledome?

Almost seven years have passed since Edmonton got its largely city-funded Oilers venue, the sleek Rogers Place with that plaza the city’s hockey fans have thronged to during playoff games.

And that city now gets more concerts by major acts, whose fancy light-and-video setups are too much for the Saddledome’s concave roof to support.

Perhaps the “what about us?!” sentiment has grown, now that the Flames venue has become the National Hockey League’s oldest.

The Scotiabank Saddledome, with Calgary skyline in the background
Built in 1983, the Scotiabank Saddledome is now the National Hockey League’s oldest arena. (Genevieve Normand/CBC Radio-Canada)

Ultimately, more Calgarians might now think it’s worth digging deeper into the taxpayer purse to get Son of Saddledome constructed.

And sheesh, there’s a lot more purse needed for this project than there was in 2019, when the project tab was $550 million. Now, it’s $800 million for the pro sports venue itself, rising to $1.2 billion when all supporting costs are added in.

Smith is also betting that it’s more palatable for a provincial government to finance that surrounding infrastructure, rather than the pro sports venue itself.

“This is not money going to an arena. Nothing has changed,” Smith told reporters Wednesday. “This is money going to infrastructure support.”

She wore a Flames jersey, not an Infrastructure Support jersey, but never mind that. It’s substantial what Smith came to the table with in this regard.

A puckload of spending

Provincial financing will cover the demolition of the Saddledome, which in the past deal was the city’s burden. It will fund a Green Line LRT stop, and likely those wider sidewalks the Flames’ camp balked at paying for when the deal fell through last time. Half the price for a new Flames practice rink that can double as a community arena — junior event centre? — too.

There’s also an unsung star of the provincial largesse: a new underpass at Sixth Street S.E. to link the East Village with the arena district, beneath CPR train tracks. The price tag is unreported in this new deal, but likely above $100 million, said one source familiar with the project.

Two facets of this are noteworthy. First, the provincial government is never in the habit of funding city-owned roadways, which are typically built and financed exclusively by the city, sometimes with the private developer/beneficiary kicking in a portion. Smith’s pre-election cash for the arena’s sake sets a precedent. (Deerfoot Trail remains a provincial road, so they’re paying to upgrade that.)

Second, there’s the fact that this underpass cost and many details of this deal remain murky or undisclosed, with only a memorandum of understanding inked thus far between the city, province, Flames and land-owning Calgary Stampede.

A conception rendering of the district around a new Calgary arena.
The new arena for the Calgary Flames will be completely reimagined under the newly announced $1.2-billion deal, which its champions hope will trigger several new tower developments in the blocks around it. The province will build a new Sixth St. S.E. underpass as part of its $330-million contribution. (City of Calgary)

The public won’t know for months the details about who pays for cost overruns, or the project timeline. That signed memorandum of understanding will remain a private document beyond May 29, when Albertans vote for or against Smith’s party and this deal.

Smith seems to have put NDP Leader Rachel Notley in a tight spot, given the premier’s “re-elect us or your beloved Flames lose out” play. Come across as overly critical, and the NDP leader risks coming across as anti-Calgary.

Notley has found, for now, a political escape hatch by arguing that she can’t straight-out agree with a deal whose terms she does not know. She’s going so far as to allege hidden taxpayer costs, which may be seen to some as skirting the line between skepticism and naysaying — but once again, facts are elusive.

And many interpretations of Smith’s arena deal will be in the eye of the beholder.

The UCP leader touts this as her version of downtown revitalization. That stretches a term that business leaders and city hall use to refer to the problem of Calgary’s vacant skyscrapers in the business core — not the vision of adding more towers and vibrancy in Victoria Park, several large blocks southeast of those struggling highrises.

Northern discomfort

And while Smith is counting on gratitude from Calgary, what will the voters in ridings in Oilers country think about the type of arena/infrastructure deal their Battle of Alberta adversaries got?

The NDP are targeting about a half-dozen seat pickups in Edmonton and its surrounding communities to expand their stronghold in the capital region, as part of their route to a majority.

New Democrats could harness the cries of unfairness, but these days it’s hard to yell something in northern Alberta and hope nobody wearing the C of Red takes notice.

This all becomes a giant political gamble, with $330 million in chips.

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