A Letter to My Councillor About the Flames Deal

Dear Councillor Woolley,

I am a constituent living in your riding.  Thank you for bringing forward a motion to extend the time available for public consultation on the proposed deal with the Calgary Flames.  I am deeply disappointed that the Mayor and most of Council rejected your motion.       

The fundamental issue here is not whether this project is good or bad—I don’t know, I haven’t been given enough time to make a reasoned decision—it’s whether Council has the right to make this decision in the absence of a fulsome public engagement process. 

Councillor Jeff Davison says there’s been ample time for consultation with Calgarians, over 14 months.  The Facilities Update document dated July 22, 2019 indicates otherwise.  The Event Centre Exploration Committee was created and its mandate was approved on May 28, 2018.  Its workplan was approved on Feb 20, 2019.   The timeline ends on July 4, 2019.  There is no record of any public consultation at any time between May 28, 2018 and July 4, 2019.          

Councillor Evan Wooley

This is even more egregious considering the Committee’s mandate which requires it to “identify, consult and collaborate with key internal and external stakeholders.” Surely Calgarians who are being asked to foot the $275 million bill and trade off other public services in exchange for an arena would be considered “key external stakeholders.”  

The Committee is required to conduct itself in accordance with certain “principles” including “engagement with the public throughout the process whenever possible to ensure transparency.”    Councillor Davison telling me to send a form to a City website by noon Friday does not satisfy the principle of “engagement.”

Councillor Woolley, you moved a motion in March 2019 (unanimously adopted) directing city administration to work with the Committee to develop a public engagement plan.  The Committee failed to act on your motion.   

If this is as good a project as Councillor Davison says it is and it makes sense on its own merits as Mayor Nenshi says it does, then it will withstand public scrutiny in the form of a public engagement process that outlines the benefits it will bring to Calgarians.

If Council approves this proposal on Tuesday July 30, 2019, in the absence of meaningful public consultation it will violate our democratic rights as citizens to participate in material decisions that affect our wellbeing.  We will not forget this breach of trust when we cast our ballots in the next municipal election.    

I urge you to vote against this proposal.        

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21 Responses to A Letter to My Councillor About the Flames Deal

  1. Einar Davison says:

    Susan, at very least the optics are staggeringly bad. The City will spend $275 million when they are trying to cut $60 million out of the budget. Yes one is capital and the other is operational but the operational one will hurt real people and that is why it looks bad. The new arena will have the same seating as the Saddledome but I guess there will be more room for corporate boxes. Will it have as much commercial impact as stated, no one can really say so. The times are not great and with doubts that the oil patch will ever fully recover. Calgary has a distinct possibility of declining, possibly even becoming a future Detroit. Maybe city council should keep that in the back of their mind. But I’m just a “country mouse” I defer to my urban brothers and sisters after all it’s their money.

    • Einar, you’re absolutely right. The City projects a $400 million benefit but economists like said this is “extremely misleading”. I’m poring over the City documents to see what these “benefits” are. God knows the “public consultation process” has been less than enlightening. You make an excellent point about the possibility of Calgary turning into Detroit. In that case the Flames’ promise not to relocate for 35 years will be meaningless.

      • Dwayne says:

        Susan: I recall seeing the Eagles live in Edmonton in 2013. Glen Frey said that when he left Detroit, the city still had money. Calgary is in a long term economic slump. When will they get out of it?

    • ed henderson says:

      Well said Mr Davison however you do not and should not just dismiss this as a potential Calgary only problem just as the people of Michigan and all of the U.S. have likely discovered regarding Detroit.
      Yes Calgary appears to be sliding rapidly into the abyss of huge debt. If it does go, it will be a financial problem for all of Canada from east to west including rural Canada.
      So speak up loudly, beat those drums and be heard.

      • Good point Ed. In addition to the possibility that Calgary will slide into the abyss, there’s the problem of declining attendance in all professional sports. Apparently building bigger facilities with fancier amenities and raising ticket prices to provide the best luxury experience for the richest fans is not the answer. https://unbalanced.media/the-now-constant-crisis-of-empty-seats-in-sports

      • Einar Davison says:

        I’m definitely a drum beater Ed. Does everyone wonder if the “canary in the coal mine is Detroit” and are large cities becoming unsustainable? Just out of curiosity one day I took the population of Alberta and divided it by the number of cities, towns and villages and it came out to just over 12,000 people. I often wonder what is the optimum size for a community where schools, health care, industry and employment, and just economies of scale would be at optimum size.
        Great article Susan and quite true, I pretty much can watch any sporting event on TV and get a better view of the action than I ever would at the event without spending a huge sum of money. A lot of people can’t afford tickets to sporting event as they might have in the past. I remember when the Flames first came to Calgary (yes I’m old) everyone I knew went to at least one game a year, many bought season tickets. Very few do anymore, most because ticket prices are very high and the Flames ticket prices are supposed to be the cheapest in the league. This new arena could wind up being a white elephant.

      • How interesting Einar. I went back to Jane Jacobs on this and found an interesting quote. She said trying to solve a city’s problems by growing bigger isn’t the answer, furthermore “any city where the economy becomes highly specialized is a city doomed to stagnate and decline. All its eggs have been put into too few baskets.” That describes Calgary perfectly.

  2. Mike Priaro says:

    The Flames promise not to relocate for 35 years is meaningless if there is no recourse if they do.
    Implied in that promise of course, is the threat to relocate if a new arena isn’t forthcoming.

    I object, consultation or not, spending my hard earned tax dollars to subsidize billionaires’ profits and 20-somethings’ multi-million dollar annual wages .

    • Mike I agree. The Flames’ promise not to relocate is meaningless. You can’t force people to work for you (that’s called slavery and it’s illegal) so if the Flames owners can’t pay the players enough to stay with the team, they’re gone.
      Ditto your second point as well.

  3. J.E. Molnar says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but it would appear there are grounds to seek an injunction in the courts to delay Council approval given the serious lack of public consultation being undertaken by this Council. Is this not an option by a “citizens’ group” or taxpayer organization?

    • J.E. unfortunately I don’t think much can be done about Council’s highhanded disregard for the role of public participation in the democratic process. I don’t believe there’s a process spelled out in any act or regulation that would help here. And even in cases where there is a process, for example subdivision applications and the like, Council lets the participants run through the process, thanks them for their submissions and rules any which way they please. The only real remedy is to vote them out in the next election.

  4. Jack Horn says:

    This whole deal should be scraped…they are using my tax money to build this and when its done the majority of these tax payers won’t be able to afford buying the tickets…I would estimate that 60% of the public could not afford the prices they charge…..forget about the new arena…when oil prices increase then rethink this deal…

    • Dwayne says:

      Jack Horn Oil prices will not return to the triple digit prices they were, prior to 2014. It will not happen. Not with what Saudi Arabia and America are doing.

      • Dwayne I agree with you on the oil price issue. When Nenshi was interviewed about the coming $60 million in cuts to public services he said the situation the City finds itself in could have been avoided. If this is the case why didn’t he and the rest of council take steps to avoid it?

    • Jack I agree it should be scrapped. I reviewed some of the background documents which present a very weak economic argument in favour of going ahead. As economist Trevor Tombe pointed out, the claim that it produces $400 million in public benefit is “extremely misleading”. The real cost is a $47 million loss.

  5. David says:

    As someone who doesn’t live in Calgary or pay taxes there, feel free to take my comments with a grain of salt. First of all It seems to me that this deal may be a reasonable deal and at first glance it seems fairly similar to went ahead in Edmonton after years of excruciating haggling (and at times not haggling) there. Sound familiar?

    However, just because the process painful (it always is) doesn’t mean there should be haste to make it to the finish line. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Therefore, any deal, especially one with big numbers, deserves a good and thorough examination. If it stands up to it, great. If not, then there probably is a good reason why. Although it is probably nearing the end of its useful life, I don’t think he Saddledome will fall down tomorrow, so there is no real need to unduly rush this process.

    I do think a deal that stands up to thorough scrutiny will more likely be supported by more people than one that is forced through without it. Also, the rush to push things through only reinforces in some peoples minds that someone is trying to pull a fast one on them, so it is really not helpful. Take your time, do it right.

    • David, your take as an outsider is valuable. From what I’ve seen the Calgary deal is not as good as the Edmonton deal and rushing it through won’t make it any better. It took Council 10 months to review and approve the financial strategy, but they expect Calgarians to jump on board in less than a week. One thing that really troubles me is Councillor Farkas saying we’ll end up draining our emergency fund down to 5% if we go ahead. We needed that fund to deal with the 2013 flood which ironically flooded the Saddledome and caused millions and millions in damage.

  6. Dwayne says:

    Susan: Thanks for another great blog. I recall Bill Smith (not the former mayor of Edmonton with the same name), being defeated in the Calgary municipal election, to Naheed Nenshi, because he was not open to how the new hockey arena would be paid for. It was likely going to be paid for by taxpayers. He was a former Conservative political candidate in the provincial government, if I am not mistaken. I recall the flooding of 2013 has damaged the Saddledome, but there has to be more important priorities. What about homelessness, the low income earners and the seniors? I think they deserve more help, although I doubt our newly elected (by dubious means) UCP government will help them. I love hockey as much as the next Canadian, but perhaps the millionaire hockey payers and the really wealthy owners of the teams should pay for the arena, if they want it so bad. Another alternative, is to put a surcharge on hockey tickets, and use the money to fund the arena that way. For hockey, it is like Rogers arena in Edmonton. Who is paying for this? I’m sure us taxpayers are footing the costs, to some extent. What benefits are there to see a continually losing hockey team? 2006, (close but no cigar for a Stanley Cup win for the Edmonton Oilers), and 1990, when the Edmonton Oilers did win the Stanley Cup last, was long ago. For Calgary, and the Flames, (who used to be the Atlanta Flames), the 1980s Stanley Cup win for them, is in the distant past. For any Canadian NHL team, it was Montreal who won the Stanley Cup in 1993. No Canadian hockey team won the Stanley Cup since then. My late uncle Joe, told me once that hockey is a business. He was right. The only time I was in the Saddledome, was in 2014. I saw the (late) Tom Petty, with Steve Winwood (of The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith fame), as the opening act. I could feel that there was damage to the venue. I still think there are more pressing matters. Any other time I was in Calgary for concerts, such as Jann Arden, or Paul Brandt, I was in other venues, that were pretty decent sounding. In Edmonton, there is still issues with how to deal with Northlands. Also, I think this is similar to the Olympics, when they were hosted in Canadian cities, including Calgary. There was a massive, long lasting debt with these. Would I rather help the homeless, the low income earners, and the seniors? Or would I rather fund a hockey arena? I’d go with the former, as opposed to the latter.

    • I agree with you Dwayne. There are so many other ways to use $275 million for the public benefit.
      I was shocked by Licia Corbella’s column in which she suggested people who want more information about the deal are jealous of sports stars and rich people. It’s got nothing to do with jealousy and everything to do with wasting public funds on the private sector. There’s a word for that. It’s called “corporate welfare”.

  7. Janet Keeping says:

    Great letter, Susan.

    • Thanks Janet. The level of arrogance in refusing to engage with the public is astounding. This is how charismatic populists get elected. All they have to say is “I’m listening” and presto, they’re in.

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