10 years ago, the Saddledome flooded and unleashed a decade of attempted arena deals
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike3 months ago
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Way back in June 2013, a few different factors combined in a really inopportune way in southern Alberta. A heavier than normal snowpack hung around well into May and June. And June ended up being a unique combination of warm and rainy, accelerating the late spring run-off from the mountains and overwhelming rivers in the area. Calgary braced for the worst and experienced the most severe flooding in the city’s history.
Among the most stark images of the severity of the flooding was the Scotiabank Saddledome, located on the banks of the Elbow River. The catastrophe led to increased urgency for the Calgary Flames to strike a deal for a new building.
But first, fixing the Saddledome
After the flood waters receded over the following weekend, the true extent of the Saddledome’s damage was seen. And it was pretty rough. The building flooded to the 10th row and the event level – featuring the media lounge, the locker rooms, the ice plant, and basically everything needed to run the building’s operations – was a complete loss, as everything that the flood waters touched needed to be replaced.
With under three months until the scheduled start of the NHL’s pre-season calendar, the Flames got organized and then got to work. 30 million gallons of water were pumped out of the building and Cana Construction ran crews around the clock, with a pair of 12-hour shifts, to get the building back up and running. While the Stampede concerts weren’t able to go on, the building was cleared for operations after just 69 days. It took roughly 650,000 man-hours to get the place back up and running.
The Saddledome was ready to re-open on Sept. 1 and featured its first event, a concert, on Sept. 11. There’s no definitive number available for how expensive or extensive repairs were at the ‘Dome; the only number that’s been revealed publicly is the insurance payout to the City (they own the building) of $51 million. The remainder of the expenses, as well as the deductible, were covered by the Flames.
Attempt 1: CalgaryNEXT
After the Saddledome repairs were completed, executive John Bean was elevated to the new role of Chief Operating Officer and president/CEO Ken King’s focus became striking a deal for a new facility for the Flames to operate out of.
After nearly two years of meetings and planning, and weeks of anticipation, the Flames’ arena proposal was finally unveiled on Aug. 18, 2015. Dubbed CalgaryNEXT and proposed for the West Village area – east of Crowchild Trail, north of 9th Avenue, south of Bow Trail and west of 14th Street – the facility was ambitious as heck. The idea was to combine an arena with a fieldhouse (that could house a CFL field), effectively replacing the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium in one fell swoop.
The financial piece of the puzzle was the big challenge. The original proposed price tag was $890 million, but a lot of the details of the financing were incredibly high-level and hinged on the City creating a Community Revitalization Levy for the area, similar to how the Rivers District redevelopment was funded. But between logistical issues around another CRL – the financial piece of the Rivers District CRL only works because the City included the Bow skyscaper in east downtown as part of the CRL – and a wide variation in estimates for the cost of remediating the creosote-contaminated soil in the district, City Hall never got on board.
“This project was announced, frankly, without all of the homework being done,” Nenshi told reporters Monday. “It’s not even half-baked. It’s not even in the oven yet. This is a matter of stirring the batter and putting it in the oven.”
The report came back to council from administration in April 2016, and the verdict wasn’t great:
Administration has come to the conclusion that CalgaryNEXT is not feasible in its present form or location. It is recommended that CSEC be given an opportunity to respond to this report and that The City and CSEC work together to investigate potential locations on or near Stampede Park for an innovative new arena/event centre that benefits Calgarians.
Attempt 2: Victoria Park 1.0
After a few early informal talks between the two groups, by April 2017 city council voted to have administration formally work with the Flames on developing a potential project on 7 acres of land located a couple blocks north of the Saddledome. But negotiations were challenging, at times, and with an election looming, talks hit the ditch in late July 2017.
In September 2017, in the run-up to the municipal election, incumbent mayor Naheed Nenshi posted a campaign video touting a new arena as a crucial component of a cultural and entertainment district. The Flames responded by announcing that they were pulling out of negotiations. Both sides then released competing proposed funding schemes. (And this of all happened during training camp: it was a weird month.) After a tense election, Nenshi narrowly beat challenger Bill Smith to remain mayor.
Relations remained frosty between city council and the Flames.
Attempt 3: Victoria Park 2.0
However, new Ward 6 councillor Jeff Davison spear-headed the creation of a new committee designed to move a new arena forward – the implication was the city knew they needed to replace the aging Saddledome, and would prefer to do it with the Flames as a partner (but would try to do it without them if they had to). The event centre assessment committee was set up by council in May 2018 and began meeting the following month.
After a few tentative initial talks, formal negotiations with the Flames began in March 2019 and a deal came together by late July 2019 with the Flames and the city splitting the $550 million estimated construction costs 50/50. But the price inched up during detailed design work… and then leapt up quite a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on supply chains. The deal officially fell apart at midnight on Dec. 31, 2021, when the Flames declined to approve the project’s construction budget by a contractual deadline.
Attempt 4: Victoria Park 3.0
In the first council meeting following the deal’s collapse – just 12 days later, in mid-January 2022 – city council unanimously voted to give it another shot and reform the event centre committee. The body began meeting in early April. By October, enough work had been done (and informal chats had) that council okayed formal talks restarting, with the City represented in this instance by CAA ICON.
An arena deal was announced, again, at the end of April, with the City, the Flames and the provincial government all kicking in money this time and the deal carrying a $1.223 billion price tag. (We’ve gone into detail about what the new deal includes and why elsewhere on the site.)
What a long, strange decade it’s been, featuring four arena deal attempts, three elections with the arena as a point of debate, and two very different deals actually approved by city council. And it all began with the Saddledome getting deluged by 30 million gallons of flood water in 2013.
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