Sprawlcast Ep 5: Arena Revisited

Who benefits from rebooting negotiations?

The Sprawl

In Sprawlcast Ep 5, we sit down with Councillor Jeff Davison in person after tangling on Twitter over his enthusiasm for a new Flames arena. We also hear from Councillors Ward Sutherland, Jyoti Gondek, George Chahal, Druh Farrell and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

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JEREMY: You’re listening to Sprawlcast. My name is Jeremy Klaszus and I’m the founder and editor of The Sprawl. Sprawlcast is made in collaboration with CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary, and we are broadcasting on Treaty 7 land.

The Sprawl is guided by the 11 principles of the Sprawl Manifesto. We don’t do press release journalism, and we aim to be constructive, not cynical. Now, that’s a high bar to set and we don’t always hit it, as you’ll hear later on in this episode.

Today we’re going to be talking about a hockey arena for Calgary, even though we’re not supposed to describe it as such. The official language from city hall is that we do not refer to it as an arena. It is an “event centre.” Well, I don’t agree with that, so we’re going to keep calling it an arena, but most importantly we’re going to peel away that label and see how City Hall is handling this file.

We’re going to speak with Councillor Jeff Davison. This conversation came about because I got into it with Davison on Twitter.

Davison is a first-term councillor who is leading the attempt to reengage the Flames on arena talks, and when City Council struck a new arena committee in May, only one city councillor voted against it, Councillor Druh Farrell.

We’ll hear from her a little bit later and hear what she had to say at Council, but what you need to know now is that Davison is the chair of this new committee, and in June he made public a letter that he received from Flames president and CEO, Ken King. In that letter, King says to Davison, “If we are to proceed, a simple and preemptive imperative is media silence. Public and/or media involvement must only be rendered in the event of an agreement.”

Now, I took issue with that because it doesn’t sound very transparent, and I took issue with Davison’s response because he, on Twitter, said, “The response from Mr. King is a positive step forward.” And so I went on a bit of a rant about that and then I ended it with a GIF from the movie Zoolander where Will Farrell’s character, Mugatu, says, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

Councillor Davison didn’t like that too much. On Twitter, he wrote, “With all due respect, your tweets show a complete lack of depth and understanding of the issue entirely. Frankly, using the ‘crazy pills’ GIF is both inappropriate and crossed a line, especially in an era of breaking stigma around mental health.”

He also said, “I ask you not to jump the gun. Call me,” he wrote, “instead of making assumptions.” So that’s what I did.

JEREMY: So I’m here with Councillor Jeff Davison. After getting into it on Twitter last week, we meet in person.

COUNCILLOR JEFF DAVISON: We meet in person.

JEREMY: Well, thanks for making the time. I appreciate that.

DAVISON: I’m happy to. This is great.

JEREMY: Maybe to start, you were elected last fall. This is your first term as councillor and you’ve made the arena a priority. Why?

DAVISON: Well, I’ve really tried to make the event and cultural district a priority. I think that’s really what Calgary is missing. I think we really need that central hub of, really, the buildout of where creativity lives in this city, and so a component of that is what are the larger things we need to look at in order to draw that investment in—and really create that hub and envision what we really have had for well over 20 years now.

JEREMY: Yeah, and we can get into that, the language around it, because that’s shifted a bit. It started as this being a debate about the arena and the city and the Flames negotiating for sports facilities. But it seems that that has shifted. The language around this has shifted. Why is that?

DAVISON: Well, I think the Flames are … They’re a single stakeholder. I mean, this is more than hockey, and, frankly, this is more than an arena. This is really about building a cultural and entertainment district, and as part of that we really have to look at what is the bigger vision.

Does a new event centre make sense, which would house hockey—but what else can it be used for? Can it be used for concerts? What are the smaller play concerts that we could get in there? How does that tie into what we’re doing with the Rivers District? Does it tie into anything in the West District? What’s the overall vision?

We’ve got so many programs right now that we’re working on just in the central core. We really need to start tying them together.

JEREMY: Okay, we’re going to hit pause on this interview. We’ll come back to it soon here, but I can’t let this event centre thing go. It’s not an event centre. Use precise language. At City Hall they’re saying they want to use plain language. They’ve even passed a plain language policy, and yet we’re not seeing that.

Actually, this came up in May when this was before Council. Councillors debated: How are we going to frame this?

Let’s listen in. It’ll go in this order: Councillor Ward Sutherland, Councillor Jyoti Gondek, Councillor George Chahal, and, finally, Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

COUNCILLOR WARD SUTHERLAND: The challenge, I think, that we need to move forward with — and I agree with Councillor Davison in terms of pushing the restart button — is the public messaging, is the fact that this Notice of Motion actually does say “event centre,” and I think it is wrong messaging to call it “arena.” Because hockey is only 43 days a year — unless, of course, you get in the playoffs like Vegas. But normally, it’s 43 days a year.

So what we’re talking about here is the committee coming together and looking at the macro position and a vision because this building that’s an event centre is more than one purpose.

COUNCILLOR JYOTI GONDEK: And I’ve been a long-time critic of calling this “the arena deal” as well. I don’t think it’s an arena deal. This needs to be part of an overall entertainment district, and my opinion is that it needs to be in Victoria Park, so I’m particularly happy to see the third ‘whereas’ that talks about the city’s preferred option of Victoria Park.

COUNCILLOR GEORGE CHAHAL: It’s not just about an arena. This is about more than that. It’s about a district, an event centre. It’s having a vision of what our city is going to be in the future. It’s an opportunity for city shaping and city building, opportunities for major redevelopment.

MAYOR NAHEED NENSHI: I have to admit, I must be in the minority, but I really dislike the term “event centre,” because I think that could be anything. City Hall could be an event centre. I think it’s important to use plain language and actually talk to people about what we’re creating, which is an arena which can also host concerts. But, whatever. I don’t really care that much.

JEREMY: Well, I do care, Mayor. But I’m going to let it go. At least for the duration of this podcast.

Let’s go back to that interview with Councillor Davison.

JEREMY: Going back to the Flames, why do you think the onus is on City Council to go back to the Flames? Because looking at it, I looked at it and I thought, City Council holds all the cards right now, because they can sit there and wait for the Flames to come to them. The Flames didn’t like the city’s deal that was put forward last year, and so it seemed … I don’t know. From my vantage point, it looked like the city was sitting pretty on this one and there was no need to go back.

DAVISON: Well, I really look at it as this is much more than hockey, to me. I’m not a diehard hockey fan by any means. Do I love the game? Yeah, sure. I like watching it. I’m not the uber fan.

This is really beyond what hockey is all about. Obviously, I wasn’t part of the last deal, and so I can’t … you know. There’s a lot of rumour, a lot of speculation as to why that deal fell apart, and, frankly, I’m just not interested in it.

I’m looking at how do we move the city forward in a much bigger way, and, as a stakeholder, the Flames obviously have to be a part of that conversation. That’s really one of the holding points of why we would look at a new event centre, but they’re a stakeholder. This really has to work on the much larger scale.

We’ve gone out, really, with the philosophy that “no dollar for free.” And what I mean by that is that if we’re going to make an investment, we’ve got to be able to show there’s a return there to the people that don’t go to Flames games — frankly, don’t go to concerts. Not because they like or don’t like something, but probably because they can’t.

And so what does that boil down to them to mean, and is there value that we can generate in terms of tax revenue off a large-scale project like this that can provide money back into our system?

JEREMY: As you saw on Twitter, I put out the question … I said I’m interviewing you and asked, “Does anybody have questions?” And people did. So I’m just going to fire some of these at you.

DAVISON: Absolutely.

JEREMY: Looking back at the city’s offer from last year, they offered to pay a third of the new arena, $185 million. Should Calgarians pay more than that amount, and, if so, how much and why?

DAVISON: For me, I’m not in any position at this point to speculate even what a deal might look like. We’re really not at that stage, and so trying to get into the should-we-could-we’s, all of that, it really doesn’t make sense at this point.

Frankly, we’re trying to boil this back to a much more general level. Does it make sense to go down this path, and can a project like this lead to that larger vision? So talking about any kind of deal right now is very premature.

Frankly, again, I’m not really interested in what did or didn’t work before or why something fell apart. There were a lot of outside pressures, I think, on that deal, given that it was an election time.

And so I think, really, we’re at a point now where we can have a more realistic conversation, and so before we get into dealmaking and who’s paying for what and all of that and where’s the benefit lie, it’s really about take a step back. Let’s look at that bigger picture, and is there value there for everyone?

JEREMY: We’re going to hit pause on that interview one last time, because I want to bring in Councillor Druh Farrell.

Now, she’s the only city councillor who voted against the creation of this new arena committee — or, the “Event Centre Assessment Committee,” as City Hall calls it. Because why say something in two words when you can say it in four words? Sorry. I said I would let that go, didn’t I?

Anyways, here’s Councillor Druh Farrell in late May at city council.

COUNCILLOR DRUH FARRELL: Having a new arena and not paying for it, I would say, would be the best in terms of all Calgarians. The offer the city made was extremely generous. I voted against it, but it was extremely generous [and the] majority of Council supported it. Would we be talking about an additional cost to the taxpayer?

And then my understanding, as well, certainly the Flames organization had been referencing the city as a partner, and when we talked about what a partnership meant, it meant a sharing of risk and a sharing of reward and sharing of responsibility. And so is that your mandate as well, is to share the risk, reward, and responsibility?

It’s my understanding that the Flames organization left the table because they did not want to share in the reward. And we do know, because we did a study and discussed in camera, how much that reward was, and it’s significant, so surely the reward could be shared with the people who put in some of the funding, if that’s a true partnership.

My concern is that it’s an arena at any cost, and I’m just not there. I can’t support that.

JEREMY: Okay. So now we’ll go back to our interview with Davison.

JEREMY: One of the points of contention last week was about, in Ken King’s letter … Now, just a bit of context. Ken King sent that letter to you, right? And you released it to the media.

DAVISON: Yep.

JEREMY: But one of the lines in there is that he said if this goes ahead and we come back to the table, there needs to be media silence on this and only involve the media and the public in the event of an agreement. And so is that something you’re comfortable with? Because afterwards you said this letter is a positive step. So what would transparency look like in this process to you?

DAVISON: Again, I go back to the idea of that I think what he means in there is that if we are to come to a deal or we’re going to talk terms on who’s paying for what and things like that, that we’re not doing it out in the open. Let’s come to some consensus before anything is brought publicly. Any business would do that.

I’ve got 20 years in business, all with publicly traded companies, and I have never, ever done a deal in the public where every single shareholder has a say in that. That’s just not how business operates.

Now, that said, obviously any proposals that we look at in the future, if and when we get to a point where we say, “There’s a need for this,” and we believe that is going to create value for people, if and when, it’ll obviously … a proposal will be brought to committee. Committee would then kind of evaluate and work through that proposal system and, if appropriate, would then bring the final decision to Council, or the recommendation to Council, for any approvals.

So at that point it will be a very public and open and transparent debate on what are the numbers, what does it look like, and where does the value lie.

JEREMY: I want to ask you, too, about the committee makeup, because this is one of the questions that’s come up. It’s not a very diverse committee. You’ve got seven people on there, all men. As one person said on Twitter, “Looks like a bunch of white dudes,” and this person also mentioned, if this was led by women, it would have been done a long time ago.

DAVISON: [laughs]

JEREMY: So why do we have this committee of, you know, all men?

DAVISON: You know, I think it’s a function of startup. Ultimately, right now we have very few female councillors on Council, frankly. There’s only three, and they’re tied up on various other committees, and so we’re trying to do and accomplish a lot right now with the city, and so the three councillors you see on this now were there for a reason.

In terms of the other additions on the committee, you’ve got to remember, these are the CEOs and the chairpeople of the boards of the two corporations that we see value in having a board right now. As we move forward, we’re obviously going to … we’re going to grow based on what we see a need for.

There’ll be an engagement side of things. We’ll have to look at economics. We’ll have to look at all kinds of other things that will be a part of what we’re trying to accomplish in this, and I think that’s where you’ll start to see some of the current committee diversify.

JEREMY: And Lyle Edwards is also on that committee, who has held positions with different Flames-affiliated organizations in the past, which raises the question of, is this an impartial committee? Will this be in the best interests of Calgarians when those connections are there? Not current connections, but in the past. What would your response be to that?

DAVISON: Lyle was very transparent about when I had asked him to join the committee. I see value in his leadership through Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, and that’s really why I wanted him on the committee. He was very transparent that he’s been involved with the Flames Foundation in the past. That ended about four years ago.

The reality is, with the Calgary business community we all kind of know one another, and so you’re not going to get to a very at-arm’s-length and not know someone who has worked with, directly or indirectly, with any different organization. And so I think it’s really about the objective we’re after.

Again, the Flames are a single stakeholder in this game that we’re trying to play, and so the event centre is really just this catalyst who … you know, can this be used to create the vision and build the dream of this entertainment and cultural district? And so Lyle is critical in that through his leadership at Calgary Municipal Land Corporation.

JEREMY: Do you see any examples in other cities of where this has worked well for the municipality and where it isn’t just a sports facility, but is kind of this reimagined … I don’t know, reimagined public realm around the arena or stadium or whatever it is?

DAVISON: Yeah. I mean, there’s lots of different examples throughout North America that we could point to. We live at a very interesting time, though, and so trying to draw a conclusion of, “Hey, this was good for Edmonton. Is this going to be good for us?” or Toronto or Vancouver or, frankly, some of the cities in the US, each city is in a very unique financial position.

Each city is at a different place in terms of global economic stability, and so there’s a whole bunch of varying factors that you have to look at in terms of just saying, “Well, if we do this, it’ll build the district and it’s easy as that because they did it.” We can’t play that game. We have to play the game for Calgary. Does it make sense for Calgary?

We’ve heard for decades that we wanted to create much more of an entertainment and cultural district in and around Vic Park, for instance, and so it’s really about—is now the time to do that and can we kickstart that, because it’s much more than just building the centre itself. It’s what investment comes along with that. Are there hoteliers looking to come in and get involved with that? Are there other businesses that want to build in and around near that?

When we talk about diversifying just Calgary’s economy, is this a place the tech sector wants to be, and what advantages do we have to be able to provide them in terms of dark fibre and other things right now, and is that where they want to be? Is that the cultural hub that they can help build out?

So I’d love to point to the easy, “Hey, they did it. We can too. Let’s just replicate it.” I don’t think there’s any world where that exists right now, because we just live in such an economically diversified time.

JEREMY: But are you wary of the experiences of other cities? These deals are shown to have been bad for municipalities where they’re stuck holding the bag. Promised revenue doesn’t come through and basically it’s a losing deal for the city. That’s happened in Toronto with the SkyDome, all over the place, and is still happening. Heading into this, is there any wariness of that?

DAVISON: Of course. Absolutely. It’s totally top of mind. But the reality is, is that we’ve got to be able to look at that much bigger vision and does this work. That’s why I don’t look at it in terms of, are we building a single-use facility. No. It has to be much bigger than that.

JEREMY: Last thing. Are you going to ask Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation to open their books? Is that important at any point in this for you?

DAVISON: Hard to say, right? We’re so far away from talking terms and financial commitments and things like that right now. We’re really at the high level right now, so as we go forward, it’s hard to say. It’s very difficult for any business to say, “Open your books for us. We want to see everything.”

It’s really about more doing your due diligence in a proper way and making sure the commitment they would or would not make is attributable, and you would do that with any deal that the city would do. It wouldn’t matter if it’s a land deal or anything, right? So time will tell, I guess, but I don’t know where that one will go.

JEREMY: Did I say “last question” on the last question? I always say, “Last question,” and then I ask another question. But, last-ish question.

DAVISON: Third-last follow-up question. [laughs]

JEREMY: Yeah. [laughs] What’s the rush on this? This is what I question: Who benefits from moving this along faster? Is it Calgarians who benefit, or is it the Flames who benefit?

DAVISON: There is 100% no rush behind this. Now that we’re up and running, I think it’s really about taking it back to that high-level vision and working our way down. And so the beauty of this is that I don’t have an election push on me trying to make something happen at the 11th hour.

We can develop the vision now, and so as we have enacted a bunch of these programs that we’re looking at, including the Rivers District and things we’re already going out and trying to engage with the community on now, that’s really the high-level catalyst at this point, is just to say, “Okay, well, we’re doing some of this work already. Does it make sense to now go out and figure out how we start engagement and start laddering it into those other programs that we have?” Because, again, they really have to tie together.

JEREMY: And does it fit into the Olympics, too? Because that’s obviously another big thing that’s on the go, and a new arena would play into that.

DAVISON: In terms of the Olympics, we don’t need the facility for it. That’s not a request of the IOC or anybody else. I think, given the time we’re at right now, you really have to ensure that any new event centre would have legs to stand on its own, regardless of what else is kind of happening around us.

It’s really about the development, not about certain other cultural things we’ll be bringing in. There’s obviously a way to tie that together if one really wanted to, but, again, we’re not under any timeframe or any time pressures, I guess, so …

And at this point, to see a whole bunch of those projects laddered together, who knows? The timing just might not work. We’ve got a $4.5 billion Green Line that we’re in the process of running, and so that alone is a huge commitment to try and get moving and meet some deadlines.

JEREMY: Great. Well, thanks, Councillor Davison, for your time.

DAVISON: Thank you very much for coming down.

JEREMY: This is better than trading barbs on Twitter, I would say.

DAVISON: I would say any day. Yes, yes. We should do this much more often.

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JEREMY: Hey, thanks for listening to Sprawlcast. This show was made at an event centre for various radio-making stakeholders, CJSW 90.9 FM. In simple terms, we could call it a radio station.

Our theme music is by Dan D’Agostino and Kenny Murdoch, and our CTrain narrator is Holly McConnell. Make sure to check us out online at www.sprawlcalgary.com, and we’re @sprawlcalgary on all the major social media platforms.

I’m Jeremy Klaszus. Thanks for listening, and see you soon.

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