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New Calgary Event Centre deal part of a $1.2 billion Rivers District upgrade

City's cash commitment to the arena and revitalization project nearly doubles.

The City of Calgary will contribute more than half a billion dollars to a new Event Centre, plus additional amenities, with the province and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) covering the remaining amount.

Those are the underlying financial terms of new agreements in principle that have been struck for a new Calgary arena announced on Tuesday afternoon. A definitive agreement and the finer details need to be ironed out and approved. This agreement in principle was apparently approved unanimously by city councillors.

Under the new arena framework, the City of Calgary will contribute 44 per cent – or $537.3 million – to a new deal, with the other 56 per cent being split by the Government of Alberta ($330 million) and CSEC ($356 million).    

Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) and the City of Calgary agreed to enter formal discussions in October 2022. Since then, there have been several meetings of a newly formed Event Centre committee, with each providing little indication of substantive progress, just that progress was being made.

"Today's announcement is a culmination of a deliberate and thoughtful process and an enormous amount of teamwork and collaboration," said Coun. Sonya Sharp, chair of Calgary's Event Centre Committee.

"The result is a project that's so much more than an Event Center. It's fulfilling a longstanding vision we've had for our downtown and our city."

The last arena deal fell apart in the 11th hour after CSEC missed a pre-construction stage gate on Dec. 31, 2021. The City of Calgary outlined its perspective of the prior three years leading up to that failed agreement.  CSEC said that the deal broke down when the sides couldn’t agree on reasonable cost increases.

CSEC CEO John Bean became emotional when he spoke of the deal and the scrutiny public officials are under when making these major decisions in a city.

"I think it's really important that we recognize how challenging it is to be a leader in the public realm in 2023 whether you're leading your ward, your city, or your province, you're always subjected to intense scrutiny.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek called it a generational investment for placemaking in Calgary.

"The difference between what we are doing today and what we had envisioned in the past, is we're not focused on a singular facility, we are focused on actually bringing an entire district to life," the mayor said.

"It also includes the type of improvements that people need when they're experiencing an event when they're going to and from it."

Definitive agreements still need to be hashed out, and that will include much greater detail. That's expected sometime in the summer.

What’s in the deal? Politics, perhaps

Along with an $800 million Event Centre (up from the roughly $600 million building before), there will be an attached parking complex, an enclosed plaza, on-site public realm, a community rink and transportation and infrastructure upgrades.

The transportation improvements, covered primarily by the province, will include a new four-lane underpass under the CP train tracks with wide sidewalks at 6 Street SE to improve mobility options in the area. 

It will also include public realm improvements along 5 Street SE and 15, 17 and 25 Avenues.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said that they've maintained all along that they wouldn't contribute to the actual building, but that they could help with the infrastructure that supports the facility. The province's contribution is $330 million.

"These investments will not only serve as the new arena but will be critical to the development of the entire area," she said.

Premier Smith didn't hesitate to use it as an opportunity to plug the upcoming Alberta election.

"There is still one more hurdle in front of us as we get to the finish line after the election," Premier Smith said.

"The province's contribution to this arena deal must be approved by the provincial cabinet and the Treasury Board before the end of summer. That's why on May 29, I'm hoping Calgarians give our UCP government a clear mandate to proceed with this arena deal."

Premier Danielle Smith meets with children with the Calgary Flames Foundation, after the announcement of a event centre deal in Calgary on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Later, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley released a statement on the announced deal. She said her party is committed to a stronger, vibrant downtown Calgary. Notley also acknowledged the community spirit built by having the Calgary Flames.

"Still, we note that the cost of the latest proposed arena deal has doubled in size in 18 months and while the original version laid out a 50-50 private-public partnership, taxpayers are now responsible for more than 70 per cent of the cost," Notley's statement read.

“The commitment has increased. We believe all voters would expect their elected representatives to do due diligence on the economics and fiscal value of a capital project this size."

She said they would be discussing the project with Albertans in the coming weeks.

Premier Smith said her government had been examining ways to help the City of Calgary continue work rejuvenating the downtown.

"We felt that this would be the absolute best way to do it because it is investing in public infrastructure. It's helping to build an entire district," she said.

Funding the project

The City already has the money set aside from the prior event centre agreement set aside for a new deal. This one will require additional cash from the city, Coun. Sharp said.

That money will come from the city's Fiscal Stability Reserve, Coun. Sharp said. Right now, the city has roughly $1.8 billion in a variety of capital reserves, according to a recently released 2022 fiscal update.

Varied response to the new arena deal

Councillors voted unanimously to approved the funding framework and agreements in principle. Here are some councillors responses to the deal:

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott posted a response to the new deal here.

Others also reacted to the new funding framework and the prospect of a new arena.

Calgary Economic Development CEO Brad Parry, who also sat on the Event Centre Committee, said the unanimous decision shows Calgary is a city that is serious about investing in the future.

"As a member of the Event Centre Committee, I am proud to be part of a community where people and companies know they can grow their businesses and careers and build an enviable life with vibrant cultural experiences," he said .

The Calgary Construction Association also chimed in with their thoughts. They were "thrilled" with the announcement.

"The construction industry is poised to play a major role in bringing this new facility to life, and we are proud to support this project," their statement read.

Some of the public response wasn't so keen on the project.