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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

A look at the never-ending Calgary arena saga

Way, way back in the 1980s, a ragtag group of Calgary businessmen teamed up to purchase the struggling Atlanta Flames and move them to Canada. The team originally played in the old Stampede Corral, a building that was small by National Hockey League standards and already 30 years old when the team arrived.

As you would expect, the Flames got started on a new building almost immediately upon arriving in town. The Olympic Saddledome opened in 1983, funded entirely by three levels of government – $31.5 million from the City of Calgary, $31.5 million from the Government of Alberta and $29.7 million from the Government of Canada – and the Olympic organizing committee ($5 million). Aside from a 1995 renovation – the Flames kicked in $20 million, the City of Calgary $12 million – the building has remained largely the same since the 1980s.

So how did we get here? How long has the building saga dragged on ceaselessly? We dove into the online Calgary Herald archives for a bit of a history lesson.

A brief history of trying

The Flames have been actively working on a new home since the spring of 2006, when the team outright announced that they were working on a new building. At the time, they indicated that their goal was to have a new building within a decade. In 2009, the plan was clarified by Ken King as having a new home by the time the team’s lease expired in 2014. By 2012, King noted that there wasn’t a hurry for a new arena (and that they wouldn’t make the 2014 soft deadline).

The team really made a new barn a focus following the June 2013 floods and the ensuing frantic renovations to get ready for the hockey season. Executive John Bean was made COO, focusing on the day-to-day operations of the CSEC, while King was ostensibly freed up to focus entirely on the business of getting the building done.

In August 2015, after months of whispering, the Flames unveiled CalgaryNEXT – a proposed $890 million complex aimed for the West Village. A lengthy City of Calgary examination concluded in April 2016 that the Flames’ cost estimates didn’t include what they felt were necessary components of the development – such as environmental remediation and infrastructure tie-ins – and the actual cost would be closer to $1.8 billion. Despite initially saying that the Flames had “no plan B” to Calgary NEXT, King seemed amenable to a proposed Victoria Park alternate site unveiled by the city in April 2017. Cost estimates are currently being worked on.

Brother, can you spare two dimes?

Buildings are expensive. The Saddledome was entirely funded by governmental entities of various stripes. So it’s completely logical that the Flames began the building process by asking around for the possibility of some financial help from the government.

For the most part, the involved politicians have been remarkably consistent:

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein (April 2006): no.

“I would be a little ambivalent right now, a little reluctant, to have the province contribute or participate financially,” Klein told reporters Monday. “It’s a business.”

Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier (April 2009): no.

“We have no money,” Bronconnier says, explaining the city has traditionally provided land as its contribution for a new arena. “Anything beyond land would be very, very difficult.”

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach (September 2009): no.

“It’s very clear: we’re not putting money into arenas.”

Alberta premier Alison Redford refused to finance the Edmonton arena project multiple times throughout 2013 – the presumption is she similarly turned down Calgary. During the 2014 leadership race, Jim Prentice (and the other contenders) indicated he wouldn’t support public funding of arenas.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was initially quite reluctant (February 2015):

“There’s a lot of talking but no real proposal,” Nenshi said. “I’ve always said that I’m willing to have a conversation when there is a real proposal, but I’ve warned many, many people that the hurdles are very, very, very high.

“From public support to the fact that we don’t have any money, that makes it extremely challenging,” he added.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “no” was related by King in August 2015.

“The prime minister told me a long time ago that ‘I don’t have money for hockey arenas,’ and apparently that is the prevailing wisdom everywhere, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also said no (August 2015):

“There are a number of capital demands on our budget. We need to build schools, we need to build hospitals, we need to deal with drought relief. There are many, many capital requests and the well is, quite frankly, only so deep,” Notley told reporters as she prepared to go door-knocking with Bob Hawkesworth, the NDP candidate in the Sept. 3 Calgary-Foothills byelection.

Nenshi walked back his initial reluctance following the presentation of the CalgaryNEXT project, coining a phrase that he’s gone back to over the past two years:

“I have said for a long time – and continue to strongly believe – that public money must be for public benefit and not private profit.

“The question for council, the ownership group, and all Calgarians is whether this proposal meets that test.”

Location, location, location

Initially, the Flames were talking hypothetically about building their new digs somewhere in Stampede Park. The city seemed on board, as indicated by then-mayor Bronconnier.

“The Flames are an important partner to the city — and we want to do all we can to ensure they remain as our tenant. And if their long-term plans are for a new facility, we’ll listen. But we certainly would hope that would be at the same location.”

A Herald piece in April 2009 cited whispers about two primary ideas: knocking down the Big Four Building and putting a new arena there, or otherwise putting the new building on the north side of Stampede Park.

The CalgaryNEXT proposal was a bit of a departure from the Stampede Park discussions, putting the rink in the West Village area on the western fringes of downtown. Latest discussions have plunked the arena basically where it’s been throughout the past decade’s discussions aside from the two-year NEXT diversion: Stampede Park, two blocks north of the Saddledome.

What we’ve learned

For all the bluster about the city (and specifically the mayor) blocking the project, Nenshi seems to have been the only prominent political figure to walk back his initial funding reluctance. To their credit, the Flames similarly seem to have walked back their “no plan B” bluster and emphasis on developing the West Village. These seem to be smart concessions on both sides, and arguably an important step towards making a deal.

Hopefully something happens to conclude the saga soon, because (as you can see) it’s been going on for over a decade with seemingly no immediate end in sight.

  • Bob Cobb

    Rexall opened in 1974, 9 years before the saddledump, deal with it. Maybe build the arena the right way and it will last, with a supportive roof. You would probably make another design mistake and want another new arena by 2030.

  • CussingTortoise

    I’ve said this since the beginning of Calgary Next, no public dollars for private profit. That said if there’s a reasonable revenue sharing system set up I have no problem with the public pitching in.

  • BendingCorners

    Just say no.
    The Flames can invest in a new building or not, as they please. The rest of us paid for this one and gave them nearly 100% of all revenue from it. The Saddledome is solidly built. Keep it dry and it will stand for centuries. If that isn’t good enough for them then a pox on all their houses.

  • BendingCorners

    Leaving aside the idea of public funding, and knowing the owners won’t see a decent rate of return on a new building, why not set up an arena surcharge of X dollars per seat per game and invest it in a collection of ETF? When the fund is big enough start building. X might be $14 and it might take 8 years – less if the owners actually kick in some money – but then it is built debt free.

    • KH44

      Its a good idea, but that $14 could be taken as profit by the owners, and they could force the issue the way they are doing now, so why put that plan in place? I like the plan, I think its a great idea, but it won’t happen.

    • Skylardog

      A few months ago I thought of the same thing, a surcharge. Interest rates are really low, so it could work.

      There are 82 Flames games with roughly 20,000 tickets and about 80 other events each year, with, lets say, 10,000 tickets sold each. That’s 2.44 million tickets each year, 48.8 million visits in 20 years. Using a 20 year bond, and half the project funded by the bond ($500,000,000), that works out to just over $10 per ticket sold. I would suggest that the fee be a percentage of the ticket cost, meaning that it is higher for higher priced events. Just make sure it averages $10 per ticket. Allow for waived fees for certain events that qualify, just for flexibility.

      Tack that onto every ticket as a surcharge. With a better designed building, one that could use the roof for support, we should get more events. After 20 years, even with the interest included, the building should have paid for the public bond portion. The city, province, and federal governments should be tacking on their portion above and beyond this. These buildings are public meeting places and have public benefits. But now we are talking $30 to $50 million per level, not hundreds of millions.

      There is no reason that with proper execution, this could not be a go.

  • BringtheFire

    I hadn’t realized it had been going on so long. Very informative article.

    One thing I like about Burke is that he insists on players and the organization giving back to the community.

    The Flames are more than a business. They give back. And I think the discussion should be about the different ways and-dare I say-intangible ways, the club helps the city. You can raise a lot of money for hospital equipment, worthwhile charities, etc., with a hockey team. If the Flames and different levels of governments would look at how to expand that, it would be essentially creating private revenue streams for public and quasi-public services in exchange for a moderate up front investment. But still, the public portion just can’t be as large as the Flames would like.

    Not to mention that when we start our 10 year cup dynasty next year the word “Calgary” will be spoken the world over with awe.

    Lot of intangibles come from that.

  • freethe flames

    This discussion has been going on for almost as long as the ring road. Pubic funding should only occur with a revenue sharing plan; one that includes a savings plan for repairs and replacement otherwise the tax payers will be on the hook again down the road. I also worry about future flooding and really wonder if building on virtually the same flood plain area as the dome is a wise idea. All sides will need to compromise for this to get done.

  • Stu Cazz

    With regards to major sports/entertainment facilities Calgary is behind cities like Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg only because we lack a Champion for the cause. Typically the Mayor of a major city takes the leadership. Calgary has purple Nenshi who is not a sports fan and has never worked in the private sector. I am not suggesting tax dollars be handed over to Murray Edwards but I am saying Nenshi needs to lead the way and be creative. It may be some sort of cost sharing arrange, donation of land, long term financing arrangement etc but he does not show that initiative. As well Nenshi is in denial with regards to the spin-off benefits of a major entertainment centre and references baseless studies that show no benefit. He has never spoken to to the business owners and does not accept any data from tourism Calgary. He is the problem!

      • Skylardog

        Benefits. How many Calgarians have attended concerts in Edmonton over the years. Not only does each person spend on the event, but almost all eat in a restaurant, many if not all rent a hotel room. people shop, buy gas, visit other attractions while they are in town. Don’t tell me there is no benefit.

        Add to that an event like a Finals rodeo, or a curling championship, trade shows. People travel from all over for these events, and spend money while they are here. Now we are into trips to Banff and Kananaskis. We always golfed while on trips. The benefits are potentially endless. We are talking billions in benefits over 20 to 30 years.

  • beloch

    The Saddledome is actually not a bad building for hockey, even by today’s standards. It’s capacity is above NHL average and average ticket prices are among the highest in the league. It brings in the dollars. Complaints that it’s not as nice for fans as some other buildings are immaterial, because those fans are still willing to pay more than almost any others in the league. Unlike most NHL arenas, it can accommodate international size ice too, or slightly widened ice as Burke has suggested the NHL should consider.

    Where the Saddledome fails is for concerts and other shows that need to hang a lot of weight from the ceiling. Why should the Flames’ owners care about concert revenue in a building they didn’t pay for? They were gifted a sweetheart deal that gives them that revenue. That deal also made them responsible for renovations, which is why there haven’t been any since the deal was inked.

    So, let’s look at things from Kings perspective. Hockey is, to be honest, a non-issue. The ‘dome is fine for that. You’d like to be able to attract concerts and shows that currently can’t use the Saddledome. You could bring in more revenue that way but, and here’s the catch, not nearly enough to justify taking out a mortgage for several hundred million dollars. The Flames have never had to devote a portion of their budget to paying off mortgages and, unless they’ve been socking away a truly epic stockpile of cash savings, they’re probably not ready to start. That’s why the hat is out.

    King has now threatened to take the Flames out of town, just like Katz did. I have no idea where he’s going to find a free arena with a city of hockey fans willing to sell-out their arena on a regular basis at prices as high as the Saddledome’s. Neither does King obviously, or he’d already be moving. It’s an empty threat. Really, King just has to keep making noise and be patient. Sooner or later we’re going to have city, provincial, or federal leaders rich and dumb enough to fund new arenas, possibly as part of an Olympic bid. Bottom line, fans shouldn’t buy into the idea that the Saddledome desperately needs to be replaced or that the Flames are about to leave town. King is just doing his job to scam his next free arena. Sooner or later it’ll probably work and we’ll all pay for it, so he can afford to be patient.

    • Stu Cazz

      A big part of the problem is Calgarians like yourself that are assuming this new facility is for hockey only. The justification for this substantial spend is an entertainment centre that goes well beyond one sport. Major cities have thrived on revenue opportunities that include numerous events beyond hockey. Looking outside ones comfort zone and applying creativity is essential.

      • BendingCorners

        Actually no. Very few people travel long distances to attend concerts (or hockey games for that matter). Most of the money spent by fans and concert-goers is money that would otherwise be spent at other locations in the city. Since those other locations pay taxes, the net tax impact for the city is negative. The net economic activity is somewhere close to zero, either slightly above or slightly below. The studies you disparage in another comment are not baseless at all.

      • supra steve

        If you can fill a building 300+ nights per year, then yeah it’s more than a hockey arena, but if your main meal ticket remains the Flames and the Flame owned Hitmen, then how much revenue is being missed…and is that worth building a new arena at the cost of up to a billion dollars? We have the new barn in Edmonton, how many nights a year are they filled with “numerous events beyond hockey”?

        • supra steve

          I just checked Roger’s Place schedule…4 bookings listed in June, 6 in July, 2 in August. Saddledome has 3 bookings in June, 5 in July, 1 in August. Granted, Calgary does miss shows like Ed Sheeren and Lady Gaga, but it still looks like a lot of dark nights at Roger’s, just like at the Dome.

          • Waittillnextyear

            Actually just looked and there are 9 events for July. Queen , Bruno Mars 2x ,ed Sheehan 2x ,Duran Duran,Bob Dylan and a couple others. I don’t think any of them are playing in the Corral!

  • BendingCorners

    Is anybody else offended by the idea that my neighbour, who is not a hockey fan, somehow owes it to me or to the Flames’ owners to pay higher taxes to fund a new arena? It seems more than a little obnoxious to me. Whatever deal they finally come up with (and sadly they will) should be presented – with costs and repayment plans – in a referendum. We can all respect the outcome when we all get a vote.

    • Puckhead

      There a numerous services and facilities built every year that not everyone will use but we all pay for with a portion of our taxes. These things are for the public good. Having professional sports teams have numerous public benefits, be they monetary, social, physiological etc.

      For example, If you start using the argument that your neighbour doesn’t ride a bike so bike paths shouldn’t be maintained or built then nothing will ever get done in this city.

      • Stu Cazz

        Totally agree with your comments. An example of what you say is the new Calgary Public Library…98% of Calgarians will never use the facility. Yet we built it, no complaints and it was part of the budget process with direct impact on the tax base.

        • Ari Yanover

          The difference here being it doesn’t cost anything to enter the library, but I probably won’t be able to enter the arena without paying a fee. Even if many people won’t use the library, there isn’t really anything stopping them from entering. One is strictly for the public; the other is still a for-profit business.

      • BendingCorners

        Do you mean things like libraries and rec centers? City owned, city paid for, city operated. No profit expected. Available for everybody to use.
        Not the same beast at all as a private for profit facility requiring paid admission.

    • Skylardog

      LRT – why do I have to help pay for that. It doesn’t even come close to where I live.
      Art centres, zoos (which I find somewhat disgraceful by the way).
      They all get funded by people who don’t use them. But they are still important.

        • BendingCorners

          Tell me please what are the benefits? Feeling good in a rare year when the team wins? I’m a fan and love cheering for them but I pay for my ticket. I don’t expect anybody else to contribute.
          As for the city making money off the venue, the revenue stream is not that large for the city. The Flames keep 90 or 100 percent of the revenue. That was the result of their previous blackmail effort, one they will no doubt repeat no matter what they agree to in any new deal.
          In Edmonton revenues represent recovery of a loan and are a long way from generating a positive return. Not saying it can’t happen, only that it is unlikely.

          • Waittillnextyear

            If you want to continue to play in the saddledump ho ahead, while the city to the north keeps putting money into the downtown and leaves Calgary in the rear view mirror

  • Puckhead

    Winning the 2026 Olympic bid might help to speed things up. The host city is to be announced in 2019. This wouldn’t leave much time to get the funding and build the arena though.

  • L.Kolkind

    The Calgary Flames made $121 million last year and should use some of that money along with the other previous hundreds of millions they have already made off the Flames for the new rink. There is absolutely no reason they cannot afford to build a new rink without taxpayers paying for anything other than new roads. The new rink will likely have a lifespan of 30-40 years and could easily be paid off simply through ticket sales and other revenue streams. The Calgary Flames reveune has been steadily growing and they didn’t even need to pay for the Saddledome. The conitinuely increasing revune and increased ticket sales should pay for the rink. Here is a chart showing their revenue since 2005 https://www.statista.com/statistics/196794/revenue-of-the-calgary-flames-since-2006/ Keep in mind it shows revenue not profit, but the Flames should be able to afford the rink themselves.

  • Derzie

    The picture at the top says a thousand words. Great place to play and be entertained. No profit sharing, no tax dollars. It’s really quite simple. I love the quote I read somewhere that compared the wealthy to drug addicts. The wealthy are addicted to money. Would a drug addict share from his mountain of coke to others? About as likely as a money addict sharing from their pile of cash. Their role in life is to always get more, never have less.