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January 4 2022

Let's apply Calgary's can-do attitude to resurrecting the new arena deal

Calgary Event Centre rendering

The following article on the Calgary Event Centre deal is attributable to Deborah Yedlin, President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. It was originally published as a column submission to the Calgary Herald:

Once upon a time, there was a city named Calgary, situated on the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers. The Indigenous Peoples who first settled the area called it Mohkinstsis.

From its founding, Calgary grew up to be known for its scrappy nature, the annual 10-day Stampede agricultural fair, and in 1947 its future would be inextricably tied to the development of oil and natural gas. The city’s position as the epicentre for Canada’s energy sector — rather than Edmonton, which was much closer to the legendary Leduc No. 1 well — was cemented by the bold decision made by J.B. Barron to build the Barron Building on 8th Avenue and 5th Street S.W., which became the Canadian headquarters for American and international oil and gas companies, including the Sun Oil Co., Royal Dutch Shell and Mobil Oil.

Despite an economic ride over the last 50 years that resembles the undulations of a roller-coaster — with some drops more dramatic than others — Calgary has been seen as the place where things can happen.

This is the city of second chances, where the running joke is if you are laid off, you start your own business and become an entrepreneur — and a city that still looks for opportunity, even when the situation appears dire.

That was what drew many young university graduates west in the 1980s. Even in 1981, when the economy was challenged by the downturn in oil prices and interest rates were sky high, then-mayor Ralph Klein, with the support of Premier Peter Lougheed and other community leaders, forged ahead with a successful bid for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

The city came together. New connections were built through massive volunteer effort, which morphed into being the foundation of the strong community that Calgarians are very proud of.

As we look at that foundation today, through the lens of a deal to build a new event centre that would support a broader and much-needed revitalization underway in Calgary but has apparently collapsed, we must ask ourselves where the “can do” spirit has gone.

Do we have the ability to achieve consensus, look through the challenges of today, and take the risks needed to invest in the future of tomorrow as was done in the past? And can we work with individuals who have been important community leaders, but might have lost sight of what that really means, by virtue of no longer living in Calgary? Does it make sense for anyone — Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. or city hall — to walk away from a project that would generate $411 million in economic benefits to the city?

The fact the gap is $10 million — equivalent to the annual salaries of two left-wingers on the Flames’ roster — seems a bit extreme in its ability to kill a deal that will not only increase the value of the franchise but elevate the experience for players, coaches and fans. Don’t think for a minute there isn’t venue envy going on, as the Flames are on the ice in arenas that are not as tired and worn as the Saddledome. That fact, whether the CSEC group wants to recognize it or not, creates flight risk for members of the team, as there is increasing evidence that performance is elevated when the physical surroundings are modern and welcoming. That holds true as much for office space and employees as it does for sports venues and athletes.

Here’s what also doesn’t make sense.

One of the sticking points is the “climate requirements.” The city has a sustainability policy and both parties would have been involved in setting the appropriate target for the event centre. And today’s approach is more flexible compared with when the new Central Library was built, when everything new had to meet the LEED Gold Standard. Why the sudden pushback?

In a city, where the energy sector is pivoting towards achieving net-zero goals, as evidenced through the Pathways to Net Zero initiative involving the six major oilsands producers, wouldn’t it make sense to have a prominent new piece of infrastructure in line with that commitment, particularly given many of the CSEC leaders are also connected to the energy sector?

Or is this all about a test for the new city leadership and administration to see how “business-friendly” and “pro energy” it really is?

The arena represents an important calling card for Calgary and would fit into our values-based conversation on climate change. Not only will it reflect well on the city, it sends a strong message to the talent our current and future unicorns want to bring to Calgary: that we are a city looking ahead to the future, not focused on the rear-view mirror. Think of the impact our new Central Library has had on the city and how much more the new venue would add to the city’s next development opportunity, the Rivers District. Done right, this is a critical opportunity to showcase Calgary for what it is: collaborative, forward-looking, and committed to sustainability. That’s why so many Calgarians are excited to see it move forward.

Now isn’t the time for tests or brinkmanship. Now is the time to find ways to get to an agreement on the new arena, which will serve as a signal to the talent we must attract and retain to support Calgary’s economic recovery, growth and diversification. This is about the broader plan to transform the downtown, boost and rebalance the tax base and increase the vibrancy of the city.

Calgary knows how to do hard things. We have done it before. And for the benefit of the city’s future, and future generations, we must do it again.

About the Calgary Chamber

The Calgary Chamber is an independent non-profit, non-partisan business organization. For 130 years, the Chamber has worked to build a business community that nourishes, powers and inspires the world.

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