Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Arena deal is a battle for future of Victoria Park

A lot has changed in Calgary since 1983. The population has doubled from 600,000 to just over 1.2 million. The city has hosted an Olympics and the local hockey team, the Flames, has hoisted a Stanley Cup. But not a lot has changed around Victoria Park since the now-Scotiabank Saddledome opened its doors in the fall of 1983.

That fact may be one of the key sticking points in negotiations between the Flames and city council regarding a new arena for the hockey club in Victoria Park.

A brief history of nothing much happening

The Olympic Saddledome opened in 1983 in the heart of Stampede Park in southeast Calgary. At the time, the eastern side of Victoria Park was transitioning from being a residential area into being a weird in between area buffering the East Village to the north and Stampede Park to the south. Stampede Park was, and still is, primarily parking lots and a few intermittently-used exhibition halls, while the East Village wasn’t exactly a place people felt comfortable roaming through at any time of day. In the intervening decades, not a lot changed.

The Flames spent their first decade in the building as a mere tenant; the lack of development around the building was probably an annoyance, but it also wasn’t really their problem. Following a 1994 negotiation, the Flames sunk a bit of their own money into fairly extensive renovations to the Saddledome and became the operator of the building. Suddenly, the fact that they were surrounded by a whole lot of nothing became a concern.

The Stampede Board engaged in some land acquisition, culminating in their 2007 master plan and promises to finally develop Stampede Park. An entertainment district was promised, including the opening of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville on Olympic Way. But it never happened, possibly as a consequence of the 2007-09 “great recession” and the 2015 oil price collapse. If you take a look at Stampede Park alone, only the new Agrium building has really been built since the Flames arrived. Even in the surrounding area, only a handful of new major buildings have been built (and most of them are condos).

Throughout all of this, the Flames have probably been Stampede Park’s most consistent long-term tenant, and arguably the primary reason the average Calgarian would trek into the area outside of the 10 days in July where everyone wears cowboy hats.

An even briefer history of actual results

After decades of peering out their back windows and staring at urban blight, the City of Calgary actually decided to do something near the end of Dave Bronconnier’s term as mayor. In 2007 the city spun off the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) – a subsidiary corporation of the City itself, designed to help aid in land development – and set them to work on making the East Village a place actual people would want to hang out. Their consultations resulted in the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan and the City brokered a Community Revitalization Levy to help fund the infrastructure work needed to lure developers. When Naheed Nenshi was elected mayor in 2010, he joined CMLC’s board.

In the past few years, the East Village has undergone a massive turnaround as CMLC and their partner organizations have ticked off boxes from their 2007 plan. The neighbourhood is on the rise and features cool anchor projects like the National Music Centre and the soon-to-be-completed new Central Library.

In early 2016, they turned their eyes south to Victoria Park and 193 acres of unrealized potential in Stampede Park, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Stampede Board to take the reins of progressing development in the park. The Stampede has the land, while CMLC has a clear track record of recent success just north of there. That leaves the Flames as but one voice at a rather crowded table deciding the future of the area – others listed on the CMLC website include Calgary Stampede, Remington Developments, Victoria Park BIA, the Beltline, Ramsay and Inglewood community associations, the Green Line development team, and Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley.

“As well the city would facilitate the development of the additional lands, and CSEC would have an opportunity to participate in that development as well,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi last week at City Hall.

If you’re the Flames and have hung in there in Victoria Park through thick and thin, being one of many voices dictating the future of your neighbourhood probably isn’t the dream situation.

An eye to the West Village

The development of Stampede Park, when it eventually happens, will likely be a product of many, many meetings, compromises and debates. Relationships, biases and views are already probably well-established – in particular with the various municipal agencies and bodies, who have a pretty clear idea of the type of development they’d like given their success in the East Village.

A significant positive attribute for the CalgaryNEXT proposal in the West Village, for the Flames, was the developmental blank slate it provides. Compared to the East Village, the West Village has been a bit of an afterthought; by diving in first, the Flames could bear the positive goodwill of getting it caught up to the rest of the downtown and have the benefit of getting in first and helping direct the type of development that would happen.

Alas, the project never really got off the ground for a laundry list of reasons. As a result, the Flames are back to square one: Stampede Park, once again a voice at an ever-crowded table.

A difference in philosophy

After attending both press conferences last week and parsing the comments from Nenshi and Flames President Ken King, it’s abundantly clear that the chasm between the two sides isn’t merely material – it’s philosophical.

“We’ve seen the Saddledome has not achieved anything in terms of development around it, in terms of helping Victoria Park,” said Nenshi. “We pretty much razed Victoria Park and put up parking lots there. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville never came, the much-promised Margaritaville. So to get this right, the arena can work as the centerpiece for new development, but it has to be done very thoughtfully and has to be done in a way that does not steal from the rest of the city.”

When asked, King shared a certain degree of skepticism in regards to the development potential for Stampede Park.

“We have a development partner, we have retained a development partner to work around here,” said King. “We have to be clearly assured, part of which is through our own doing and part of which is through the City’s doing, that this will be a vibrant area because if we just move 300 yards north and we’re surrounded by surface parking lots and lousy transportation corridors, no services and it’s a good place to come 100 nights a year, we’ve got nothing. We all have to make sure, if this was ever to happen, that it’s vital, it’s beautiful, it’s unique and, God forbid I’m going to say this, like the Ice District or things like that. That it can be compelling and can be cool.”

CMLC also has a development partner involved in the development of the Rivers District, one who probably isn’t the same as the Flames’. Similarly, the City has a very specific idea of what development in Stampede Park should be. Nenshi shared an anecdote when speaking at City Hall.

“I stayed at a brand new hotel in Edmonton recently, the Hyatt Place on the east end of downtown,” said Nenshi. “And I recently read an article that said the Hyatt Place is operating at about 50% occupancy because all the construction that was supposed to go around it has ended. And all of the construction in downtown Edmonton is only in the Ice District, which is not achieving property tax for the city because it’s part of a CRL district. So if for example we had office development, office towers going up around the arena, that wouldn’t help the city at all. That would take our 30% vacancy rate downtown and increase it. So if we are thoughtful with private sector development partners and CSEC and the Stampede on the convention center, then the arena could really work as a catalyst as future development in that neighbourhood. But it has to be done very carefully, it’s not automatic.”

Coincidentally, King mentioned the possible contribution of condos and office towers in the area surrounding the arena – precisely the type of development that Nenshi and the City likely don’t want, preferring more of a “city-scape” model. The City wants to take their time and holistically build a community in the area. The Flames have already taken their time and waited patiently; they probably would just like development of any type to get going already.

Two very different perspectives

The clash isn’t just material, it’s philosophical. The Flames have been there since the ’80s as fundamentally the only anchor tenant in the entire Rivers District – aside some perhaps some drug dealers in the old East Village. They’ve been waiting for development to come to their neighbourhood, hoping to guide it and profit from it. (That’s what CalgaryNEXT was all about.) After biding their time for over three decades, the prospect of being just one voice at a crowded table deciding the fate of Victoria Park probably isn’t very appealing.

But given the success they’ve had with the same approach in the East Village, that’s probably the only way the City wants it to be. That’s the gap that will need to be bridged in order for an arena to move forward.

  • nikkomsgb

    I appreciate the article, it’s an interesting and rarely discussed take on this whole mess.

    Victoria park certainly needs development, but to have so many large players at the table on this is a huge problem. They all seem to have a different vision, and the relationships are contentious at best….so I’m not expecting progress anytime soon.

    Nenshi makes light of this in his “Bold path forward”. He’s selling people a bill of good in this election by making this the anchor of his re-election campaign. His plan presupposes that the Flames will cough up all the money for an arena, that they, the city, will find the $500 million for the new convention center and that everyone will find consensus on what should be built around all the new toys.

    It’s a crock and we’ll be lucky to not be back here talking about this in three years when the next municipal elections are upon us. The only thing that saves this is Federal funding for an Olympic Bid and it being successful…then everyone can save face in this charade over who pays for what.

    • The GREAT WW

      The city of Calgary has no idea what they are doing:
      The new airport terminal is a disaster.
      The SE ring road is brutal.
      Public art is a joke.
      The new library is a homeless shelter.
      The overpass at McLeod trail and 162 is rediculous.
      What makes you think they get the arena/ Victoria park right?
      Time for a change in leadership…


    • Evidence to support your claim here isn’t in your favour. Look at what’s happening with the East Village. Suggesting this group under the direction of CMLC won’t get it done is ludicrous. This is an extension to East Village and it is vital to continuing the build up around there. If the Flames communicated with the city and the partners more clearly and honestly there’s no reason this wouldn’t get done. The Flames are probably the ones not playing fair and acting like spoiled children. If it was the city and their partners we’d still be waffling over East Village. They’d still be deciding what road to put the green line on… etc.

  • Fan the Flames

    The citizens of Calgary don’t want to have their money spent on a new arena . The owners don’t want to spend only their money on an arena and the politicians want the owners to help revitalize Victoria Park . It is not going to happen so let’s move on and enjoy some hockey in the Saddledome until this is no longer feasible.

    • Southboy

      Speak for yourself on which citizens of Calgary want what.

      Now if Nenshi said he was not giving the flames money because he was putting it into health care or schooling or something thats fine. But to say no, than dump the same amount of money into useless other projects that only 20% of the ‘citizens’ use, is the same waste, but maybe more of your taste than other ‘citizens’.

        • Southboy

          I understand that. I was merely referencing things that are far more important than everything else Nenshi has done that many believe to be great for the city, but bash money going to the flames, which in tje end give far more back to the city rather than some ring on a road, or other wastes of money that fo nothing for the citizens of Calgary

  • McRib

    Recent CTV News poll found that 62% of Calgarians support the City, 4-5% was also undecided and could only strengthen that percentage.

    Publicly funding private arenas for billionaires isn’t going to happen anymore, unless the billionaires are willing to give up some of the profit sharing, which they never are. It’s not going to happen in Calgary, not in Seattle, not anywhere the Flames would threaten to move this team.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      Yup~, From “Pro Hockey Rumors”(Calgary Flames) Page. Former MLSE president and CEO Richard Peddie chimed in on the ongoing Calgary Flames arena saga yesterday. Peddie—who once ran the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, and the AHL Toronto Marlies—tweeted that Toronto’s arena was 100% privately financed. Not only did Peddie state that the arena fully privately-funded, but MLSE paid full property taxes and infrastructure costs. The Flames are looking for a substantial public investment in any new arena, and have implicitly threatened long term consequences if they cannot reach some sort of agreement. https://twitter.com/RichardAPeddie/status/908800898801049602

      • nikkomsgb

        We would all prefer the team to pay in full…but it’s not an apples to apples comparison when you use Toronto/MLSE ve Calgary/CSEC. The most recent forbes list of highest grossing sports venues in North America has the ACC at #2. Any Calgary venue wouldn’t come close….the second biggest tenant here would be the Hitmen, which would gross nothing compared to the Raptors. So when you put the Leafs and Raptors against the Flames and Hitmen….then factor in that every singe major concert/event that comes to Canada goes to the arena….then you can start to see how the ACC is a cash cow.

        So ya great…billionaire owners should pay, but this isn’t even close to a fair argument. City’s the size of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (all minimum 2x the population of Calgary) should be paid in full by private money. Ideally that would be the case here too…but the economics of it are going to be different with our population and another major venue (Edmonton) within 3 hours to compete with.

        • Azim

          All good points. But isn’t Ottawa’s arena also fully privately-funded? Ottawa is virtually the same size as Calgary. Yes, they were stupid to build it in the middle of nowhere, but they paid for it.

        • freethe flames

          However the owners of CSE believe they are in the same narrative as the big cities. Times are changing and the public has a greater understanding of the reality and many are tired of any big business trying to hold tax payers hostage as they see their own earnings and buying power dwindle and the savings of the ultra rich growing. Did the corporations that built the big office towers down town get government subsidies? Do they pay taxes? Do they not help grow the economy? The cities offer of giving them the land, paying a wack of money for the building and the infrastructure in return for the Flames to pay “property taxes” sounds and keep a few dates open for the city sounds more than fair. It is not as KK says a loan repayment but property taxes like all other businesses pay as well as all home owners to suggest anything else is simply a lie.

  • BitGeek

    One of the reasons the Flames want to have a say in the development that happens around any new arena project is because they don’t want projects that compete with Flames revenue.

    For example: If a restaurant goes up near the new arena, then the Flames want to own it or own the building that it’s in. Why have people going to see the games stop in at a restaurant that competes with offering from within the arena? The Flames would loose revenue.

    The Flames owners don’t want competing businesses surrounding the arena that would take away revenue from their own interests. They want to own those businesses or they want to make money from them in some way (perhaps by owning their buildings and charging them rent).

    If they city plunks a Library in the neighborhood, or an arts center, then that is real estate the Flames can no longer make money from. It’s no surprise to me that they want veto power in any development around the new arena.

    • piscera.infada

      The Flames owners don’t want competing businesses surrounding the arena that would take away revenue from their own interests. They want to own those businesses or they want to make money from them in some way (perhaps by owning their buildings and charging them rent).

      Isn’t that kind of the reality of the situation regardless though? Kind of a “welcome to capitalism” moment? Functionally, even if the Flames own all the development around the arena, they still likely lose-out to some competing interests (food, drink…).

      If we apply this logic, it also kind of flies in the face of the whole “economic benefit to the rest of the city” argument–which is a poor argument anyway (but I digress).

      • BitGeek

        The Flames ownership will tell fans and taxpayers whatever they want to hear – ie: “there will be an economic benefit to the rest of the city”, but their primary motivation is to make as much money as they can. If they want a say in the redevelopment of the area around the new arena, and if they’ve already retained their own developer, it’s because they see a way to make more money. Even empty parking lots surrounding the arena is good for ownership because there is no competition for the fans money in those parking lots. As long as the Flames control the development then they will make money.

        • Southboy

          Politicians tell fans and taxpayers whatever they like to hear as well. Only difference is whether you like to hear it thru the ‘right’ ear or the ‘left’ ear.

  • FuNky ANGER

    Personally, I would love to see the arena built at the end of a road that is lined with 3 story brick buildings on either side that houses all types of entertainment businesses like bars and other such facilities. It would be a corridor of entertainment and would be awesome to go to during a playoff push (or anytime of the year really) where the streets are closed and everything is dedicated to supporting our team. Just like how it looked in Nashville during their run. I can see it now, walking down that corridor to get into the arena would be AWESOME. Maybe its just me but I really hope that’s what they try to build. It almost sounded like it when they were considering Margaritaville coming to that area. Plus I feel having something like 17th ave but so much closer would really revitalize that area.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    Building football stadiums and hockey areans require huge sums of money to build. Owners of professional sports franchises won’t pay the the total cost because the return on their investment just isn’t there. Cities have to contribute towards the funding for it to make sense. The city is getting a return on their investment by way of all the spinoff taxes generated by the facility, hotel, restaurant, concerts etc. It has to looked at the same way as a public library, convention centre, concert theatre, they benefit citizens as a whole, that’s what makes a city an enjoyable place to live.

    • BurningSensation

      This is wrong in every way
      – Billionaires have the $ to invest in arenas and they can be profitable (see the list of privately built arenas provided in an earlier article)

      – There are exactly zero independent studies that show cities get a financial return from building arenas and giving the profits away

      – This has all been a blatant $ grab by the Flames owners, using the (empty) threat of moving to bigfoot City council

      – Nenshi and council have essentially already given 100s of $M in concessions by offering land, infrastructure (roads, LRT, etc), and the use of very low interest loans by using the city”s borrowing power.

      Ultimately, the Flames have already played their hand, the threat to move is empty, and everyone knows it, and city council can can wait them out knowing voters don’t want new taxes to pay billionaires.

  • Scary Gary

    “The Flames have already taken their time and waited patiently; they probably would just like development of any type to get going already”. I don’t think this speculation is true Ryan, see the King quote you’d included above.

  • Flaming1

    The arena deal will go through at the expense of tax payers and we all know it will happen. The team will play hardball and the city will “bend over” so to speak.

    • dontcryWOLF88

      King is banking on that (trying to scare Calgarians with a team move and incite jealousy of Edmonton). Loads of cities around North America have folded under this type pressure. It is seeming right now that Calgarians arnt going for it like elsewhere. Which is pretty cool, in my opinion.

  • Flames fan since 83

    The first arenas lasted almost 50 – 60 years:
    The most famous of the early ice rinks that hosted professional hockey teams belonged to the “Original 6”: the first Madison Square Garden in New York (1926–1968), the Boston Garden (1928–1995), the Montreal Forum (1926–1996), Maple Leaf Gardens (1931–1999), Chicago Stadium (1929–1994) and the Olympia in Detroit (1927–1979)

    Rexall which was just replaced lasted 42 years. Detroit arena which is being replaced is 38 years old.
    At present, there are 30 ice rinks spread across North America that NHL teams call home. The oldest such building is the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (1972), followed by Rexall Place in Edmonton (1974) and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit (1979).

    Saddledome is 34 years old. Calgary is currently top ten in revenue in the league.
    My point is we have time. Lets keep working away at this, but I don’t get the big RUSH!

    • BitGeek

      Many of these arenas would last much longer if the owners would do some regular maintenance and upkeep. Any dollar spent on aging infrastructure is a dollar out of the owners pockets. Apparently a study was done on Rexall Place in Edmonton and they figure it will still be useful as an arena for another 50 years.

      The owners want to tear down existing infrastructure to erect a new arena that allows them to build more luxury boxes (which is revenue they don’t have to share with the league) and they want larger concourse areas where they can stuff in more food vendors and beer sellers. It’s all about how they can make more money… not necessarily that they can’t ice a competitive hockey team on the current ice surface.

      • Flames fan since 83

        Crowchild twin Arenas built in 1981. (36 years old). Still going strong, and no talk about replacing.
        My house, built in 1960’s (55 years old and built of wood). Still livable and not ready to rebuild.

        You can say these are apples and oranges, and I can say they are both fruit.

        • BitGeek

          I think we’re both on the same side of the argument. I agree these arenas have plenty of life left in them. Owners just need to properly upkeep and maintain them.

          • Flames fan since 83

            BitGeek, I’m center, but lean toward the City position. I am a season ticket holder since the Dome opened. I went to Penticton. I’m passionate about our Flames.
            I’m just trying to be even keeled, and using facts and fairness to guide my feelings.

    • You’re completely right, but I would wager that the flood damage to the Saddledome took a few years off its life.

      Another aspect to consider is how cities have changed in the past 50 years. From zoning to road infrastructure to city planning, having a new building is as much about location as anything else.

      Which sorta points to why the City of Calgary has more of a point here, when it comes to a location that is more beneficial for the entire city.

  • buts

    There’s no question that the flames do a tremendous amount for the city. The foundation fix’s up rinks, donates to charity, the organization supplies jobs and a lot of revenue in related tax’s, tourism, etc. I hope they hammer out a deal but with KK and our mayor behind the table it could take a very long time. How NN can talk about this issue now just stinks as he just wants as many votes as possible because prior to this all he has done is shut down any idea of a partnership, how KK can look the camera in the eye and say a user fee or ticket tax is flames revenue is complete bs. Bottom line is these 2 clowns should not be representing either side. I bet Lanny and Bronconnier could have had it built by now and possibly a fieldhouse/stadium as well. If KK and NN had a baby it would probably sound like a politically correct TRUMP.

    • freethe flames

      How much of the money of the Flames Foundation comes from the Flames ownership? It comes from their fans and they take the credit for it; just like Walmart when they ask for donations at the check out for wildfire relief; we pay and they get credit. Much the money they raise would likely go to charities anyways; it’s just more fun to do it with the Flames.

    • Let me put it this way. If the Flames weren’t here. Someone else would do the same good. Why? because it’s the good thing to do. Whether it’s a local financial company like First Calgary, Provincial one like ATB Financial, or Coop, or even Loblaws (national) etc or name your company (I just happen to only know grocery stores and banks apparently). That good would be done regardless. The Flames certainly are fair by giving back to the community no one disputes that. That’s how it should be and as all good companies should do.
      Just don’t think they don’t get benefits or kick backs from that good. Their reputation as a good citizens who give back puts butts in the seats. As with all companies doing charity work it maintains brand awareness, appearances in the community, and offers opportunity for connecting with new potential partners. That would be done by someone else whoever fills that void the flames may or may not leave behind. So this leads to the question, do we really need the Flames for charitable contributions? The answer to me is no. Do we need the flames for entertainment value: the answer for me is yes. However, I have a finite amount of entertainment dollars to spend so would I be heartbroken if the 10 games a year I get to see at the dome were gone? No. I’d probably go spend it on movies or going golfing instead. I certainly will if the owners continue to insist they shouldn’t have to pay for their business adventure that generates 100% revenue for their own net worth to increase while users pay out of pocket, and tax payers support their pipe dreams. Im all for giving land incentives and financing incentives even breaks on taxes but they should have to pay back what the city puts in like any business seeking a partnership or investment. Even angel investors get some ROI. So don’t tell me the Flames shouldn’t have to give back substantially if they want taxpayers to foot the bill. We’re not talking in millions of dollars we’re talking in hundreds of millions dollars 3.5 million in charitable contributions over thirty years does not equate to 275 million in city tax payers fronting them.. So yeah.

  • WilliPlett25

    Where the Flames would sit in the Seattle sports market: 1) Seahawks 2) Mariners 3) Supersonics TBA 4) Flames. Flames in Calgary: 1) Flames 2) Flames 3) Flames 4) Stamps.

    • Fan the Flames

      When Seattle gets their Basketball team that owner will secure other teams like the NHL , Arena football to keep the building humming 300 nights a year if he offers enough for the Flames the current owners might sell and you will be counting on Bettman to keep them in Calgary this might be the scenario five or six years from know when the Arena deal is still unresolved.

      • I am confident The coyotes, the canes, the panthers any one of these teams will get moved before the flames do. Seattle many be an option but like our neighbours north its merely scare tactics to entice public funding.

  • I love 23

    I bought a condo in Vic Park four years ago partially based on the sales pitch that the area would be built up like the East Village with restaurants and entertainment. To date, absolutely nothing has changed and outside of Stampede, games, and the odd concert, it’s a dead zone. As an owner, it would be nice if the city would finally get off its duff and at least make it look like it gives a damn about the area, regardless of what they spend my taxes on.

  • Fanforlife

    ThaKs for the thought provoking blog. BitGeek is absolutely right. This sports monopoly is about control and branding. They do not seem to respect the mess of community and democracy. This whole stunt is really about getting their guys in at City Hall. It is clear to me they have bought and paid for Bill Smith and they want Nenshi out. I hope the electorate ekes up and votes for community and public interests over closed clubs and private interests. Nenshi is a better leader without a doubt. Voters need to check out their choices for councillor because there are vested interest hacks running who are not good for the future transparency and accountability of our local government.