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City Council ought to step up for Calgarians on the arena deal

This op-ed Perspectives piece was contributed by Logan Jaspers, a UCalgary political science student.

Though the provincial election formally began on May 1st, the April 25th announcement of a deal to construct a new arena in Calgary was the capstone atop of months of electioneering.

Indeed, much had been made of the provincial politics of the arena deal. Given how pivotal Calgary’s seats were for the May 29 outcome — something evidenced by Danielle Smith donning a Flames jersey during the April news conference and the more than $300 million provincial commitment to funding the new arena — the Alberta government’s participation in the deal seemed like a brashly cynical attempt to buy Calgarian votes.

But enough ink has been spilled already on the province’s role in this affair, and not nearly enough attention has been lent to City Council’s role. After all, the matter of a new arena is, first and foremost, a Calgary matter. Regardless of the impact the arena deal had on the provincial election, Council and taxpayers will grapple with the issue long after the Legislative Assembly’s composition was decided.

And thus far, Calgarians themselves aren’t exactly thrilled about the deal. Even the most generous poll by Léger placed support for the deal at just 52 per cent, all while ThinkHQ showed support at 43 per cent, compared to 50 per cent of Calgarians being opposed. If — and this is a big if — a majority of Calgarians support the deal, something which is clearly unclear, they do not support it overwhelmingly. A significant number, if not most Calgarians, outright oppose the current deal.

Calgarians are skeptical, why not city council?

One might be tempted to say that given this polling, no consensus exists on the deal, but that is false. There is one consensus on the deal, and that is on City Council, whose 15 members unanimously signed off on an initial agreement to the deal.

Putting aside the deal’s merits momentarily, many Calgarians are evidently skeptical of the deal, yet are utterly lacking representation on City Council on this topic. To have such a gulf between our representatives and the views of ordinary Calgarians is problematic in itself. Their job is to represent us, but unanimity on a controversial arena deal is not truly indicative of the views of a wide swath of the city’s residents and taxpayers.

The reaction to the blowback by councillors hasn’t been encouraging either. Gian-Carlo Carra, for example, expressed sympathy for the “outrage” caused by the “current [provincial] government’s election-time priority for Calgary” while condemning “a range of inaccurate information and misdirection of discontent” which “continues to polarize and further divide our community.” Kourtney Penner, meanwhile, was even less articulate in explaining her support for the deal and instead asked for Calgarians to simply trust that the right decision has been made.

Calgarian concerns are either being side-stepped by focusing on the provincial politics of the deal or being ignored altogether. Given such opaqueness, we may as well have received “thoughts and prayers” from City Council.

Yes, there are benefits to a new arena

None of this is to say that a publicly funded arena should be blindly opposed, however. There are perfectly understandable or good reasons to back an arena deal of some kind. City Council’s eagerness to sign off on the deal is understandable, insofar as that if negotiations were to utterly break down with the Flames and the team departs Calgary, no Council member wants to be stuck with the baggage of being responsible for driving the Flames away. 

But the benefits, from Council’s eyes, go beyond political expediency. At the risk of sounding cliché, downtown certainly needs revitalization, and a new arena and the accompanying infrastructure would be a real start to that end. A new arena will not just host Flames games but will attract more musical tours or conventions or other such people. An arena and its associated infrastructure will also produce jobs at a time when the city has a disproportionate unemployment rate.

Thus, backing the construction of a new arena on these terms is not unreasonable, but the pressing question is does the sum of these factors outweigh the objections. Are there more pressing uses for public money, like the construction of affordable housing or transit? Why would Calgarians see so little of the returns on what amounts to an investment? Should Calgarians be so worried over the construction of a new arena when Flames tickets are already expensive to the point of making live hockey inaccessible to a rapidly growing number of people?

Perhaps Council’s cost-benefit analysis is right, and the arena deal really is that favourable for Calgarians. But offshoring concerns about the new arena deal to an already-controversial provincial government or asking Calgarians to trust them to make the right choice after months of secretive negotiations and a blatantly unrepresentative unanimous initial vote in favour of the deal will not convince skeptics.

Instead, Council will have to spend significant time and energy articulating its case, listening to its constituents’ grievances, and potentially changing their support of the deal to reflect that.

  • Logan Jaspers is a political science student at the University of Calgary.