calgaryNEXT Is A Decent First Draft

CalgaryNEXT-from-west

Ernest Hemingway famously said “The first draft of everything is crap*.”

Earlier today, the folks at the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation unveiled their grand master plan for the future of their organization. It’s a future firmly vested on getting a pair of new buildings made in the West End of downtown: a new Event Centre to house the Calgary Flames, Hitmen and Roughnecks, and a new combined Stadium and Fieldhouse to house the Calgary Stampeders (and presumably the U of C Dinos football team).

As far as first drafts go, it’s a pretty good pitch. But the devil’s in the details.

THE GOOD

CalgaryNEXT-roof

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of things I like about the plan.

I was terrified that Calgary would make the same mistake that’s bedeviled Ottawa – putting their arena far, far away from downtown. Calgary’s a downtown city and the challenge has been giving people a reason to stick around downtown after work. Putting the stadium and arena right downtown gives them a reason to do so, and the longer-term goal of establishing a mixed-use community in the area is laudable.

And as much as I love the old gals, it’s time to put the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium to rest. The buildings are antiquated compared to their league counterparts, and moving to new digs is probably in the best interest of maintaining (or resuscitating) fan interest long-term.

I’ll reserve further comment for when the plans are a bit more developed and we can get a sense of how each building will be set up. As it stands, they’re losing capacity: the Event Centre will reportedly seat 18,000 for hockey (losing around 2,900 seats) and the combined Fieldhouse/Stadium reportedly seats 30,000 (versus 35,000 at McMahon). It’s not a ton, though.

THE BAD

CalgaryNEXT-siteplan

After reading up a bit and perusing everything that’s available publicly right now, I have two main concerns: cars and money.

In terms of cars, here’s my issue: Calgary loves cars. A lot of people drive to the Saddledome despite ample public transportation options being available at Stampede Park. My expectation is that, while the proximity to Sunalta LRT Station is great, Calgarians will continue to drive to events at the new arena and stadium. As it stands now, the proposal is thin on how parking options compare to those available at Stampede Park (“1500 parking stalls” was a number included in several slides, but not really contextualized). Heck, if they were more explicit about how Park and Ride options are compared to Stampede Park, it’d be a start. In addition to the parking concerns, we’ve already established that Crowchild is a mess and Bow Trail can be rough with traffic. In short: traffic will be a mess, as even if they fix up Crowchild, you’ll have inevitable snarls in every direction on event days. This is not a circumstance unique to Calgary’s proposed arena district alone, but it’s worth being concerned about. (I’m curious if anybody has modeled the traffic impacts of Flames or Stampeders games in their current homes and could do something similar for the West Village impacts.)

And finally, how are they going to pay for it? The proposal didn’t get into land remediation at all – or at least didn’t provide an explicit dollar amount or propose a funding scheme. Further work on the arena’s transportation and other infrastructure also wasn’t really delved into. Ignoring that essential pre-condition to the entire development, here’s the proposed funding scheme.

Financing-Plan-Infographic-Funding

For those wanting more detail about each of these, the calgaryNEXT site actually has a pretty detailed breakdown.

  • The Community Revitalization Levy is basically using the increased tax revenue from the new developments in the area to fund the initial development. The specifics often vary, but they’ve been used often and are a pretty common tool of municipal development finance. My guess would be that the city gets a loan and fronts the money, and then the levy would be paid off by the increased tax revenues over a specified period of time. (The calgaryNEXT website notes that this tool has been used in East Village developments.)
  • The Ticket Tax is basically adding a levy to each ticketed event at the complex and using that to pay off a loan. The idea here is that somebody, either the city or the Flames presumably, would front the money for development and then the ticket tax revenues would pay them back. This funding tool has been used to build Edmonton’s arena.
  • The City Fieldhouse slice of the pie refers to the fact that the city has supported the construction of a public fieldhouse, such as is being included in this plan. But for the flaw here, let’s quote the Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi: “The proposal includes incorporating The City’s proposed (and
    much-needed) fieldhouse into the facility. However, that project, while a
    very high priority
    for the City, remains unfunded.” I get the feeling that if the city had $200 million to invest in a fieldhouse, they probably would have committed to doing so already. (The Mayor’s statement basically reiterates the phrase “…this is unfunded” over and over again.)
  • Finally, the $200 million from Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation is the Flames ownership explicitly fronting a big chunk of money. For reference, Edmonton Oilers ownership put up $130 million for their new arena (along with a proposed $100 million, subject to “commercial viability,” for development in the adjacent entertainment district).

In short: I need more details about specifically where the money would be coming from in what stages. Who’s assuming financial risk here, and when are they doing so? And what happens with the inevitable cost overruns that always happens with big Alberta constructions projects, particularly once the economy warms up again and the labour shortage (once again) bedevils the province?

SUM IT UP

I don’t hate the proposal. If they’re going to replace the Saddledome and McMahon – and the Flames organization seems hellbent on doing so – this is probably the best option available given the circumstances. I’m a big proponent of a downtown arena.

But this plan feels like a first draft (and let’s face it, it basically is a first draft, albeit a shiny one), and I need a lot more details before I’m close to being sold on it.

(*-that’s not the exact quote, but I wanted to clean up the language a bit.)

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