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‘No doubt it’s a political decision’: Alberta election impact of Calgary Event Centre deal

The big question is: How does this play in other Alberta cities and towns?

When Danielle Smith was the leader of the upstart Wildrose Party more than a decade ago, she stood firmly against the use of public cash to help fund an Edmonton arena.

That sentiment evolved somewhere along the way. Back in October 2022, now-Premier Smith insisted that Calgary needed a world-class event centre.  MLA Ric McIver was appointed as an emissary of the province to help provide whatever support was necessary to shepherd a deal forward.

Smith did this knowing that a provincial election was on the horizon. She likely already knew that Calgary would be the 2023 battleground. The folks behind the curtain also likely saw a potential wedge issue for conservatives and progressives.

Then she said this on Tuesday, during the announcement of a $1.22 billion Event Centre and Rivers District plan: “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 Smith was asked Wednesday about the apparent flip-flop.

“This money is not going into an arena. Nothing’s changed,” she said.

Premier Smith said Wednesday – and also on Tuesday – that the money was going to supportive infrastructure. It was money that would already be needed for Calgary to build out the ambitious Rivers District Master Plan.

“I’m hoping this doesn’t become an election issue,” Smith said Wednesday.

So, is it political or not?

“There’s no doubt that it’s a political decision,” said Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University.

Reached an agreement with the UCP, not the government

Bratt said that Premier Smith was much more “blatant” about the politicizing than anyone else at Tuesday’s media event. Others talked blandly about a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Alberta.

“That’s not what Smith said. Smith said ‘no, you’ve reached an agreement with the UCP. We have to be re-elected for this deal to move on,” he said.

Later, Smith told reporters that she hopes whichever government gets elected that they stick with the deal. Official opposition leader Rachel Notley has said they need to look at the deal further and then doubled down on Wednesday saying that Albertans weren’t getting the full story and there was some sort of secret deal.

“While broad numbers on the Calgary arena deal were released yesterday, we learned today that there is a confidential financial agreement between the parties that identifies additional financial contributions by taxpayers, contributions beyond the $870 million dollars outlined yesterday,” she said.

“These are details the public deserves to know, along with who is responsible for the share of cost overruns and who is financing the CSEC’s 35-year payment schedule.

“We are told that the agreement will be kept secret for the next six to eight weeks, basically through Election Day, until a definitive agreement is signed.”

LWC has asked for a response from the City of Calgary to these claims and we have not yet received a response.

Calgary’s Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner, who voted in favour of the agreement in principle, said it was unfortunate the announcement got politicized right from the get-go.  Penner told LWC that it shouldn’t be political because there’s a clear return on investment for users.

“That’s exactly the kind of investment that we would want and should be expecting from a province. Every municipality should be,” Penner said.

“Those are the kinds of partnerships we should be striving for and it just sucks that it’s being politicized for an election at this moment, as opposed to being honest and true to values.”

Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said Smith’s move could be both an attempt to look out for the interests of friends but also sway voters in Calgary.

“I think it could possibly be both,” she said.

“It’s hard not to see it in political terms being announced in the very last days before the election call.”

The political impact of Calgary’s arena deal

Young said that without any recent polling on the importance of a new Calgary arena to voters, it’s difficult to say if it will have an impact on their vote come May 29.  

She believes the vast majority of Calgary voters casting a ballot on election day have already made up their mind. Polling has had the Alberta NDP and the UCP neck-and-neck for months now and it would take something major to dislodge committed or leaning voters.

Young referred to a group of voters that have been referred to as orphans, or reluctant UCP voters. Many of these voters are more likely to be female than male, she said.

“There are lots of women who are enthusiastic hockey fans, but excitement about hockey probably skews a bit male,” she said.

“So that suggests that maybe those voters who are on the fence might be less likely to be excited by this.”

Further, when you suss out top priorities in the election, affordability ranks highest.

“A fancy hockey arena with a lot of public money in it may not speak to those concerns all that directly,” Young said.  

“Even though the mayor has said that property taxes will not rise as a result of this, half a billion dollars is a lot of money and people may well be scratching their heads and wondering what the implications are for property taxes, which would be on the minds of the suburban home owning voter who’s trying to make ends meet.”

Bratt’s awaiting further reaction. He said many Calgarians were upset at the original deal and the city’s contribution. Now they’re contributing more, along with provincial cash.

“Smith’s own comments just politicize it so heavily,” he said.

“So, ordinary fiscal conservatives are putting their ideology away and putting their partisan hat on. I think that’s what she’s banking on, is that those reluctant conservatives will bail her out because of the arena deal.”

In the end, when you consider the reluctant UCP voters it may have swayed one way or another, it’s likely a wash, Bratt said.

The impact of a Calgary deal on the election outside of Calgary

A schematic on where the new Calgary arena project will go. CITY OF CALGARY

Bratt noticed that Premier Smith said kids from all over the province would be able to play in the proposed community rink.

“Let’s call it what it is. It’s a practice facility,” Bratt said.  

He said when the Flames, Wranglers and Hitmen are done using it, then there will be some free ice time. But he doesn’t think that teams from Red Deer, Medicine Hat or other points in Alberta are going to skate into Calgary for practices.

He’s curious how the deal lands in those cities.

Young said the provincial impact depends on how other Albertans view the provincial cash: Was it for an arena?

“I think the way it was announced, it’s hard to see it as anything else,” she said.

In Edmonton, the resentment might linger because they didn’t get arena cash. It could seem like favouritism for Calgary, Young said.

Premier Smith did say that there’s likely a phase 2 portion of the Edmonton arena project that will need capital cash. That’s where the province may be able to help out, she said.

Overall, Young wasn’t sure if there would be lingering resentment across the province – or, enough to move the needle for voters. Though it might vary by region, she said. Citizens in Okotoks or Airdrie might be more amenable to the deal over Grande Prairie or Lethbridge. That’s mainly because there’s an increased chance nearby folks get to experience it.

There’s one lingering danger, however. Young said this announcement will likely have a lot more staying power than say… $300 million just for downtown Calgary revitalization. It’s going to stay in the news.

That has an impact not only in Calgary but across the province.

“There’s going to be a lot of, I think, discussion within Calgary about this because not only of the provincial money but also because of the significant stake that the city has to put in,” she said.

“That’s going to keep it in the news in the way that other spending might not have, I suspect.”