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Opinion Aug 1, 2019 9:40 AM EST

Calgary passes flawed arena deal to the dismay of taxpayers

It may look nice and provide a better arena experience than the Scotiabank Saddledome, but we should all remember the sacrifices regular Calgarians had to make to fund the project and how many councillors don’t seem to care.

Calgary passes flawed arena deal to the dismay of taxpayers
Wyatt Claypool Montreal, QC

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

Calgary city council voted to approve the new arena deal with the Flames 11-4 on Tuesday afternoon. The approval was done after a week of consultations which showed an even split among Calgarians on the project. According to Think HQ, the yes and no side both had 47% support.

This deal requires Calgary taxpayers to flip half the bill for the new arena to the tune of $275 million over a building period from 2021-2024. The decision comes right after Calgary had to cut the city budget by $60 million in order to ease the pressure on home and business owners struggling to pay property taxes.

As reported last week, there was little doubt that the deal would go through. It was politically understandable that it would be difficult to hold back an issue that had a lot of emotional force behind it. However, economically speaking the deal is a disaster as it simply puts taxpayers under the same budget burden that caused so many businesses to close in the recent past.

It was easy to tell the council wanted very little to do with this deal as the time limit for public consultation was just around a week.

Councillor Jeremy Farkas had said that “City Council gives more time to comment on putting a stove in a basement than they will this $550 million project and its associated risks and benefits.” Farkas’ comments points to political pressure driving the project rather than any good-faith arguments or reasoning.

Farkas later stated that “If the deal is as great as we are being told, it will be just as great after taking a closer look. And surely any deal committing hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds requires open and transparent review.”

Proponents of the arena had been referencing the city’s figures on the economic returns a new arena would bring, but at this point, the city’s own CFO and other economists have already shown why those numbers are unrealistic or misleading.

On top of the idealism assuming the project will make loads of cash Calgary city council also seems to be under the impression that a flood will simply not happen, despite the area having significant chances of flooding and the city is on the hook for the entirety of the insurance.

Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa have all built new arenas without requiring much taxpayer spending, so why is Calgary now feeling that it’s necessary to indulge in corporate welfare? Despite what the Flames may say about leaving the city, Calgarians shouldn’t be bullied into unaffordable spending because of threats that are likely hollow.

This should all be kept in mind. The problem with bad infrastructure projects is that we typically still get something we like by the end, so city councillors never have to learn their lesson.

I fully admit when we finish the new arena, probably late and over budget, I will still think it’s a great facility and appreciate it for Flames games or other events, but I won’t be letting that re-write history and make me forget the massive failures of the project too.

This reaction is what happened with the Peace Bridge. It was supposed to cost $17.8 million to build and ended up costing $25 million at its unveiling. Despite this, I can’t find many people who have any ill-feelings towards the thing, and I think it is what may happen with the new arena.

Time tends to make people forget the complex issues and budget concerns of many construction projects, as the finished product often only gets associated with its positives. Simple because the Peace Bridge is cool to walk across makes the absurd over-spending become a non-issue to the general public.

If we are to hold city council more responsible for its actions, Calgary taxpayers need to both be able to acknowledge the positives of the facility, as well as the negatives that it brought along with it. It would be quite sad if the increased taxes for the new arena were to close down more small business just to be forgotten due to the glamour of the product we got in return.

I agree with how Farkas in saying that the timing of the project just isn’t right. Even if I don’t think it should be necessary for Calgary taxpayers to cover half the bill, if we waited a couple more years maybe we would be in a far more comfortable position to deal with the extra costs. This is not a no to the new arena it is simply asking for better timing.

Calgarians understand this as nobody feeling the pain of the higher property taxes is running out to buy a more expensive home, so why is the city buying a more expensive arena?

Seems like just another example of poor economic leadership to Calgarians who are all trying to tighten up their own spending.

I won’t be forgetting about this rich living by the city council when the new arena is finished in 2024. It may look nice and provide a better arena experience than the Scotiabank Saddledome, but we should all remember the sacrifices regular Calgarians had to make to fund the project and how many councillors don’t seem to care.

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