Taxpayers will have to foot the bill of expensive Calgary arena

Calgary’s own acting chief financial officers, Carla Male, even told city council that after adding in inflation and opportunity costs, taxpayers would be sitting at a net negative 47 million for the project.
Wyatt Claypool Montreal, QC

Right now it seems like Calgary may be getting a new arena based on Monday’s tentative agreements that have finally been reached between the city and Calgary Sports and Entertainment. I’m not exactly thrilled though. It’s as if the new arena and the budget cuts live in two different universes.

At least for some people, the deal exists in a much better reality. In Kristien Anderson’s article on the topic, she refers to it as a “no-brainer for sports fans” later going on to put me in stitches saying  “it is a good deal for the taxpayer” as if losing money to vanity projects was a benefit.

The issue here is that simply liking the idea of a new arena doesn’t actually make the project have any more merit. Kristien gets lost at some point in the article saying “Make it exciting. Make it modern, unique, but filled with tradition. Make it about Lanny McDonald’s moustache. Theoren Fleury scoring against the Oilers”; as if this nostalgia trip is somehow proof we have $275 million to throw at this project over a three year building period (2021-2024).

Now Kristien does cite the economic figures that the city of Calgary put out, but it’s confusing why anyone would have taken these at face value. You should always remember plans live in ideal worlds, and the $275 million taxpayer investment in the project for $400 million in “economic returns” over 35 years would be murdered by economic inflation over that period.

Calgary’s own acting chief financial officers, Carla Male, even told city council that after adding in inflation and opportunity costs, taxpayers would be sitting at a net negative 47 million for the project.

It all gets worse when you consider the fact that Calgary just had to cut $60 million in their budget to soften the blow of an average 13.1% rise in property taxes this year. There’s strong doubt that we will somehow be so over our budget woes in less than two years that we will be ready to invest a cool $91 million each year, for three years, on a new arena.

Mayor Nenshi said that “This is a good deal for Calgary” which is only true if you consider Calgary from the perspective of the government. Nenshi didn’t say that it may be a burden on taxpayers but will be worth it in the end, or something to reassure taxpayers he is living on the same planet.

No, when you consider the government budget and achievements to be the be-all and end-all then you can consider potential $275 million disasters to be simply “good”.

I have no doubt the project will get approved on Monday. There currently are more assumed “no” votes in council, but I think arena mania is a much stronger force than many assume. There could be real political consequences for voting no and saying “no” this time may only hold off the decision for another year.

The problem is that the language of costs and benefits can’t beat the language of Lanny Mcdonald’s moustache or Jarome Iginla’s face. It would behoove those campaigning against the arena to change tactics or lose the fight.

We are in a situation whereby not backing the deal you are somehow insulting Calgary as a city or trying to take the Flames away. Although this is not realistic, the emotional resonance of what a new arena would mean to many Calgarians tends to eliminate the nuances from the debate

The economic infeasibility of the arena plan should be presented based on the city’s overall budget concerns. Opponents of the project also need to be making emotional appeals. We need to focus on the families forced to the downside so that others can upsize their arena experience.

It is truly sickening that we may be shuttering more businesses and causing families to buy cheaper homes just so we get to cut a ribbon in 2024.

But honestly, for Lanny Mcdonald’s moustache – taxpayer’s money is no object.

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Wyatt Claypool
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