Corbella: New arena deal reveals Calgary's future mayoral candidates

Wanna know who will be vying for the mayorship of Calgary in October 2021? Just read between the lines of the arena deal.

If there were any doubts that Councillors Evan Wooley and Jeromy Farkas are planning to vie for the Mayor’s job, their push to allow for more time for public consultations on the deal for a new Event Centre to replace the Saddledome seems to cement their intentions to run for the city’s top job.

How else to explain their claim that more time is needed to “consult” with the public over Tuesday’s long-negotiated deal to build an event centre north of the Stampede grounds in the Rivers District?

Both Ward 8 Coun. Woolley and Ward 11 Coun. Farkas (whose ward includes Victoria Park where the development will take place) sent letters addressed to City Manager Glenda Cole saying that one week is insufficient time” to study the deal.

Woolley wants Cole to ask the Calgary Sport and Entertainment Corp. (CSEC) to agree to an extensions and report their answer at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Coun. Evan Woolley speaks to media about the Olympic bid outside council chambers on Oct. 2, 2018. Dean Piling/Postmedia

He cloaks the whole issue in the language of process, saying  it’s not the norm for the city to conduct engagement in the “dog days of summer” while Calgarians are on vacation and out of town.

Quick! How much consultation was there into the $500 million BMO Convention Centre expansion? Or into the phase-one expansion of Arts Commons and the construction of a new multi-sport field house?

If you said you can’t remember, then you just made my point for me.

City councillor Jeromy Farkas was photographed on June 10, 2019. Gavin Young / Postmedia

Those projects, along with the arena, were voted on and approved in principle by a vote of 11-4 in council on March 4. Now there’s an actual deal on the table. Unless you are a really slow reader, one week is plenty of time to look over a document that will see the owners of CSEC pay $275 million — or half of the cost of a new $550 million event centre.

This is an issue that has been debated in Calgary for at least 10 years. The lines on either side of the debate have been drawn — those who favour building a new event centre that will ensure that the Calgary Flames don’t leave town and that will revitalize a decrepit part of the city — already know where they stand. Consultation will just be a costly and phoney exercise designed to give padding to politicians who want to straddle the fence.

It’s long past time for the politicians we elect to show some leadership and make a decision on this community-building capital project. When you consider that Calgary spends almost as much money on a single traffic interchange, a $275 million investment to get a new arena complex is a bargain.

Artist’s conceptual rendering of the Event Centre, a year-round, permanent gathering place for all Calgarians. The Event Centre will replace the Saddledome, the current home of the Calgary Flames, which was built for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.

As Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Thursday, before Woolley’s letter was released: “Ultimately you do consultation if you think that there are changes that are possible and you want to hear about those changes.

“Or you do it if, as a politician, you genuinely have not made up your mind and you need to hear from the public — and I am not convinced that either of those criteria are in place here, so I’m not sure what dragging the decision out will do.”

Exactly.

For whatever reason — and I believe it has something to do with jealousy of sports stars and wealthy business people — building arenas seems to attract all sorts of scrutiny that say, a new convention centre doesn’t, even though an arena or stadium does much more to sell a city than a convention centre ever does.

Stampede president David Sibbald, federal infrastructure minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, provincial infrastructure minister Sandra Jansen, MP Kent Hehr and Calgary Stampede CEO Warren Connell outside the BMO Centre following an announcement of federal funding for the expansion of the facility. Bill Marsh / Calgary Stampede

It seems to be a popular pass time online to attack successful and wealthy people, attributing all sorts of nefarious motivations behind every good turn. Just as I’ve never really comprehended why people idolize famous actors or musicians, I’ve also never understood the derision people feel towards those who — usually through a lot of hard work and luck by virtue of being born with good brains, business acumen and a strong work ethic — have found ways to get rich and stay that way, even as they give lots of their money away, like these four men regularly do.

The Calgary Flames now has just four ownersAlvin Libin, 88, Allan Markin, 74, Jeffrey McCaig, 67, and Murray Edwards, 59.

These owners of (CSEC) will pitch in about $70 million each to come up with the $275 million half share of the new arena, which the city will own and receive revenues from.

Ken King, the vice-chair of CSEC said Thursday that he shies away from singing the praises of the Flames owners because they are his bosses and he doesn’t want to appear like a sycophant.

Ken King, Vice Chairman, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation speaks to reporters after The City of Calgary, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation and Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Limited have agreed to fundamental terms and conditions for the development and construction of a new Event Centre Monday, July 22, 2019. Brendan Miller / Postmedia

“However, I’m particularly proud of our ownership group, who have always been and continue to be great citizens and people who are prepared to invest in the community that they have helped to build in such significant ways” said King, who was reached on Thursday in Calgary.

Now, I don’t know Alvin Libin at all, but I do know of him. Among many other endeavours, he has funded both the University of Calgary’s Gene Therapy Unit and Cardiovascular Institute through the Alvin and Mona Libin Foundation.

But ask yourself, event centre critic, if at the age of 88 you would make a risky investment to build a new arena in a city with hollowed out corporate towers in the downtown?

A lot of people Libin’s age would put their money in the bank with a guaranteed return on investment and relax a little. Lucky for Calgary he, and the others, like to build things, including their city and their legacies.

As for Woolley and Farkas, they are trying to play a defensive game — where few goals can be scored against them — but where it’s tough to score too. It can really hurt sitting on the fence.

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia opinion columnist. lcorbella@postmedia.com

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