Calgarians will decide the future of our bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic Games when they vote in a plebiscite on Nov. 13. We urge citizens to give this bold undertaking an enthusiastic thumbs-up because the business case is strong.
There is fierce debate over the risks and benefits that might come from hosting the Games eight years from now. Much of that is rooted in the frightening tales of cost overruns in recent Olympic Games around the world.
There is little debate, however, over what the 1988 Winter Games did for Calgary and all of Alberta. It quite simply put the city on the world map and boosted the economy in countless ways.
Calgary may not need the fame as much as it did in the 1980s. But there’s no question it could use the massive economic stimulus that hosting the Games would bring. And a lot of that stimulus will be funded by senior levels of government.
As Mayor Naheed Nenshi mused, “If we can get that money from other places and also get the benefits of an Olympic Games, that starts to sound really interesting to me.”
Our city is just now recovering from the collapse of oil prices in 2014. Our economy has bounced up from the bottom and is ready to catch fire once again.
A project on the scale of the Olympics would amount to putting a match to dry kindling. The potential benefits to large and small businesses, hotels, restaurants, service providers and entrepreneurs in Calgary and across Alberta reach into 10 figures – billions of dollars.
The Olympic bid corporation estimates $7.4 billion worth of economic benefits coming into Calgary and Alberta from the Games. There could be another $2.2 billion of private investment that wouldn’t occur without the Games. It’s exactly the shot in the arm that industrious Albertans need.
The construction sector alone will experience a boom. The plan laid out to Calgary council calls for the construction of accommodations for athletes and others that will be turned into housing after the Games, at a cost of $583 million. We would build a fieldhouse to host figure skating and short track speed skating, and a new mid-size arena capable of seating 5,000 to 6,000 spectators. Existing facilities, including the Saddledome, will be refurbished. The vast majority of this work will be done by companies that do business in Alberta and that employ Albertans.
These facilities will live on and serve us for decades after the Games.
There are still a lot of unknowns at play in this debate. Of the total $5.23 billion estimated cost of the Games, $3 billion would come from the three levels of government – i.e., taxpayers. (The remainder will be paid for privately via ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and a contribution from the International Olympic Committee in cash and services.)
We don’t know exactly how much of the responsibility for the $3 billion in taxpayer contributions to the 2026 Games would fall to Calgary residents. The city is in talks with the provincial and federal governments on how the costs will be shared – and the expectation is that the local bill will be $500 million. We’ve been promised we’ll know those numbers before the Nov. 13 vote. They’re particularly relevant because we must also consider the potential negative impact of increased local debt.
Skeptics have dismissed the Olympic bid corporation’s estimate of $5.23 billion as too low – even naive. After all, the 2010 Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., they say, cost $7.7 billion.
We don’t think the Calgary estimate is unrealistic. In fact, the Vancouver Games actually spent $4.08 billion in operating and capital costs, according to an Olympic Games Impact Study published by the University of British Columbia in 2013. The $3.7 billion in additional capital spending was for “Olympic-induced infrastructure projects” – including the rail line from the airport to downtown Vancouver.
In other words, they are expenses that could be avoided. And if there’s one thing that 1988 proved, Calgarians know how the spend wisely.
There’s no question that hosting the Games involves an element of risk. But much of that risk can be mitigated with thoughtful and sensible management. As other potential host cities continue to drop out of the bidding, it also appears we’re in the driver’s seat to push for favourable terms from the International Olympic Committee. Quite simply, they need us as much as we need them.
There are other arguments supporting a pursuit of the games: social cohesion, community building and pride, the creation of living quarters that could be repurposed for low-income housing. We leave those arguments for others to make, because our focus is on the health of our businesses.
We’ve reached an inflection point in the history of this city and province, as we struggle to adjust to new economic realities. Hosting the 2026 Games would drive us toward the change that will see our businesses and entrepreneurs thrive again.
What’s your view? Leave your comments below.