Bettman’s hard sell on Calgary arena insulting to Albertans

No sports ringmaster who comes courting with threats and bluster should be able to convince us to build useless "infrastructure"

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RED DEER, Alta. Jan. 13, 2015/ – Sports moguls and politicians make strange bedfellows. When they get together they often seem to ignore economic realities, and that makes a liaison between them potentially dangerous. Think a lustful teenage couple with no concept of birth control.

So it’s always a relief for hard-pressed taxpayers when a politician isn’t willing to dance cheek to cheek with sports.

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman arrived in Calgary recently to try to stir up support for the proposed CalgaryNEXT project, an $890-million extravagance that would house the NHL’s Calgary Flames and Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, as well as offer a variety of community facilities.

The project was introduced last year by Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. (owners of the Flames, the Stampeders and other sports properties). Based on initial numbers, about $700 million of the total cost would come out of taxpayers’ pockets. And who knows how much more it would cost to upgrade local services, plus clean up a decades-old creosote mess from a former wood preserving plant.

In a perfect world, it would be a wonderful project. Set near major transportation arteries, on under-used land near the city centre, it could be a great gathering place.

But Alberta in 2016 is nowhere close to a perfect world. Bettman seems completely clueless about the depth of Alberta’s economic despair.

“Over time, we’ve seen the dollar rise and fall, we’ve seen the price of oil rise and fall, just to name two factors,” Bettman blithely said this week. “You don’t do this based on what’s happening in 2016. There has to be a vision for the future.”

He then added:

“If this project is going to happen, the mayor needs to embrace it, the city needs to embrace it. . . . If he’s not prepared to embrace it, then the people will have to deal with it,” Bettman told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

But Bettman is apparently unaware that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is no light-weight.

“Perhaps in other cities he has come to, the city councils have just written cheques based on back-of-napkin proposals without any consultation to the public or without any analysis,” Nenshi said, unintimidated. “That’s not how we operate here.”

Although it does seem to be how Edmonton operates.

After years of negotiations that bordered on bullying, a new complex is under construction in downtown Edmonton. Rogers Place will cost in the neighbourhood of $500 million by the time it is done this fall, much of that coming from public sources.

While that project has given a significant – and much-needed – boost to Edmonton’s gritty downtown (other projects are popping up around it, bringing overdue revitalization), it was initiated before oil prices fell off a cliff, and Edmonton’s existing rink did not measure up in any way to Calgary’s Saddledome. Nor did Edmonton’s downtown measure up to Calgary’s.

Nevertheless, Bettman tried to push as many buttons as possible in Calgary. Edmonton’s new rink, he said, will mean that Calgary is falling behind (nothing bothers Calgarians more than being compared unfavourably to Edmontonians, and vice versa). Calgary will be denied any opportunity to host the league’s all-star game, the World Cup of Hockey or the annual amateur draft, he threatened.

In fact, the future of the city may rest on this project, Bettman said. “It is not an overstatement to say the future stability, viability and continuity of the Calgary Flames, and perhaps the city of Calgary, rests on the achievement of CalgaryNEXT,” Bettman said. Overstatement is too tame a term, in fact, for that nonsense.

Bettman also wants Albertans to think of stadium projects as infrastructure.

Frankly, they are not. Pumping tax money into stadiums for professional sports is not creating a public resource. True infrastructure – roads, schools, hospitals – are for the common good. They serve and better society as a whole. And we have a long list of overdue priorities in this province, with no mammoth sports entertainment complex on that list.

Stadiums and arenas built for privately-owned sports franchises don’t exist for the common good. They exist primarily as means to an end – profit – for those franchises.

And no sports ringmaster who comes courting with threats and bluster should be able to convince us otherwise.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a journalist based in Red Deer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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