What we know (and think we know) about the Calgary Flames’ arena situation

Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
1 year ago
Friends, Calgary city council’s event centre committee met on Monday morning for the first time since November. The reason? To discuss – in camera and away from prying public eyes – progress made in the ongoing discussions between the city and the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation for a new home for the Calgary Flames.
Here’s a snapshot of where things are at as of the first week of February 2023: what we know, and what we think we know, about how things are progressing.

What we know

Talks are “moving along quite well”: The City and CSEC restarted formal talks in the fall – they had more informal chats prior to that – and the City is being represented by CAA Icon, an American firm whose entire business is facilitating stadium and arena deals, and often also being project manager for construction.
Meetings will now happen monthly: After the November meeting, committee chair Sonya Sharp indicated that meetings from there on out would be “at call of the chair,” meaning they would set dates whenever they had enough to discuss to warrant a formal meeting. Well, meetings are monthly now. This suggests that they feel they’ll have enough new items to discuss to meet that often, which is a good sign.
Prior councils, dating back to 2013, were strongly in favour of a Victoria Park arena: The City has been nudging, formally and informally, towards a new arena in Victoria Park since the Flames seriously got into discussions early in Naheed Nenshi’s term.
  • From a transportation standpoint, there will be three C-Train lines running fairly close to the area, which lowers the need for parking, along with fairly close proximity to Deerfoot Trail (and direct proximity to Macleod Trail).
  • From a financial and policy standpoint, the City’s gigantic problem is getting people to live, work and play downtown. Until the crash in oil prices – before the pandemic – their property tax system was based on having downtown full of rich oil companies, and now that isn’t the case and they have a big problem. Council’s strategy to combat that is multi-pronged – the downtown strategy is complex – but a big part of it is “put cool shit downtown.” They’ve already started on that with the new central library, the National Music Centre, and the BMO Centre expansion.
  • There’s an existing Community Revitalization Levy in the Rivers District. While it can’t go towards direct transportation costs – well, not unless the province signs off on it – it can facilitate indirect costs, like roads, sewers, and other underlying infrastructure. It’s part of what’s made the East Village redevelopment such a big success, and it’s what’s covering a lot of the costs of the Stampede Park redevelopment that’s currently underway.
Because of these factors, the previous council was in favour of contributing $287.5 million in direct construction costs, along with $22.4 million in costs related to demolition of the Saddledome (and land options of unspecified value). The design work for a Victoria Park arena was fully completed (and paid for), utility prep work was underway (and largely complete), and the development permit process for a Victoria Park arena was completed, with the permit ready for release once a few conditions had been satisfied by the project manager.

What we think we know

The province says they support the project (but what form that support takes is unclear): We discussed this back when the premier made her support of the proposed project known back in October. The provincial government has yet to pledge cash money, which is what this project really needs, and aside from perhaps tweaking CRL rules to relax limitations on what CRL funds can be spent on, it’s unclear what precisely they could be providing outside of good vibes.
They’re not ruling out building the arena elsewhere downtown (but options would be very limited and I wouldn’t get your hopes up): Let’s just say that CAA Icon finds a wealthy benefactor that will throw untold zillions of dollars into a new Flames arena, but doesn’t want it in Stampede Park for whatever reason. It would be silly for the City or CSEC to say no to that offer without hearing it out. Not to put words in Councillor Sharp’s mouth, but when she shares that they’re not ruling any options out in terms of location, that’s probably what the underlying meaning of that phraseology is. She’s used the term “fresh start,” and that involves not necessarily carrying over the prior decisions from the prior negotiations, but likely merely crossing off possible options that don’t fit the current circumstances when appropriate.
But if you’re the City and CSEC, and you want to get shovels in the ground and the doors open on a new arena as soon as possible, Victoria Park is by far the preferable option. The only other downtown option is the West Village, the proposed site of the ill-fated CalgaryNEXT proposal, and the West Village is one of the most logistically and financially-limiting options to build anything in the city.
  • It’s narrow, bounded by the Bow River, Bow Trail, Crowchild Trial, and both the CPR and C-Train right-of-way.
  • It’s contaminated with creosote and the development would require untold mitigation and remediation costs.
  • It’s a transportation nightmare, with just one nearby train station and inevitable Bow and Crowchild Trail logjams going into and out of the area – and it’s too narrow to really expand Bow or Crowchild Trails more than they already have been.
And there’s no active CRL for the West Village. The current CRL for the Rivers District includes The Bow building on the east edge of downtown proper, which really helps the financial case for that development levy. There’s no similar cash cow to lump into the West Village, which would make it really tough to (a) get a CRL set up for that area or (b) make it economically viable, which again creates complications for the West Village as a business case for building much of anything.

Here’s the gist of it

The City has the money previously ear-marked for a new arena available in their budget. CSEC also has money set aside for such things. But odds are neither really has the appetite to sink in more money than they had previously committed to things. In the City’s case, any financial investment has to get approved by a full City Council vote, and the last deal passed largely on the basis for how much it helped the City address their avowed priorities of addressing their downtown problems by putting cool shit downtown.
Talks are progressing. Meetings are now going to be happening on a monthly basis. These are good signs. But the tea leaves, and past council direction, really seem to be pointing towards a building going in Victoria Park. If the hope is to get things done as soon as possible, Victoria Park seems (by far) like the most viable and logical option for an arena to end up.

Check out these posts...