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Before Premier Jason Kenney handed Steve Allan a plum $290,000 gig, Allan pushed for a new Flames arena as chair of Calgary Economic Development—while also calling for a halt to the Green Line.
We continue our investigation into how Calgary city council prioritized an NHL arena over the biggest transit project in the city's history. A full transcript of the episode is below.
STEVE ALLAN: In this environment, the costs and the risks of the Green Line, I think, are really heightened, and need to cause us to be extra cautious and conservative.
KEN KING: It might be the very best time to make these kind of decisions, because you're clear and cold-eyed about the things that you're looking at.
JEREMY KLASZUS (SPRAWLCAST HOST): You just heard two different voices from this summer speaking about two very different projects. The first speaker was Steve Allan, who was Chair of Calgary Economic Development at the time, and the second speaker was Ken King of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, which owns the Calgary Flames, and he was speaking about the arena deal.
And The Sprawl is continuing our look at how Calgary's city council prioritized an NHL arena over the biggest transit project in the city's history. We're going to zoom in on how these projects have been treated very differently by city council, and how council applies a different standard to its decisions when powerful interests are involved.
To understand this, we need to go back. Here's Alberta Justice Minister, Doug Schweitzer, speaking last month after Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticized the provincial budget and what it means for cities and projects like the Green Line.
DOUG SCHWEITZER: I'm not going to be lectured by Mayor Nenshi on the funding priorities of this government. He needs to get his own fiscal house in order and stop funding pet projects.
JEREMY: Okay, hold on. Who exactly was pushing these pet projects?
Well, one of the people pushing hard for the arena was Steve Allan.
You've probably heard Allan's name in the news lately. Steve Allan is the commissioner for the Kenney government's $2.5 million inquiry into groups that criticize the oil and gas industry, the idea being that if you engage in these activities, you are anti-Alberta – which, of course, is not true. We still have freedom of speech in this province… I think. And last I checked, that was something that conservatives say is important to them, so I'm not sure how that goes together.
But anyways, back to Steve Allan. For his work leading this investigation, Allan is being paid $290,000.
Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer was effusive in his praise for Allan when he was announced as commissioner.
I know Mr. Allan will fulfil his role admirably, and will serve as an impartial and effective commissioner.
Schweitzer and Allan—they go back. Who helped campaign for Schweitzer last year? Steve Allan. Who gave $1,000 to Schweitzer's 2017 UCP leadership campaign? Steve Allan. And who's now getting nearly $300,000 from Schweitzer's and Kenney's government? Steve Allan. You see how this works.
And thanks to the CBC, we know that Allan gave a $900,000 sole-source contract to Schweitzer's old law firm, Dentons, where Steve Allan's son is still a partner. That's all a lot, but we're going to go before all of that.
Because right before he was given this plum job by the UCP government, Allan joined a group of three other businessmen in going before a city council committee and calling for a halt to the Green Line.
Businessmen warned of Green Line 'catastrophe'
COUNCILLOR DRUH FARRELL: It seemed orchestrated to cast doubt in the public …
JEREMY: This is Councillor Druh Farrell looking back at that meeting.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: That's certainly how it appeared, is a group of well-known conservatives speaking against a project—and then the project being unfunded in the provincial budget.
I’m glad that we have some eminent Calgarians and people at council.
JEREMY: Keep in mind what the provincial budget did to the Green Line: cut the amount of funding that the city was expecting from the province by 80% over the next four years. The province says they're still going to pay up, but not until five years later, so instead of the money coming through by 2023, it'll be 2028.
Let's go back and listen in to that June 26th transit committee meeting. As I mentioned, Allan was one of four prominent businessmen who went before councillors. The group was led by retired oilman Jim Gray.
Here's Steve Allan speaking at that committee meeting.
STEVE ALLAN: As you all know, I'm Steve Allan, Chair of Calgary Economic Development. And we had our annual general meeting, and I think you were all there, on Monday, and we talked about advocacy and working with people from the community, with citizens. And I think we are in a very unique position to do that and bring the concerns of the community and business leaders to council in a constructive and collaborative manner.
And this has really been Jim Gray's initiative from the beginning, but he brought me into it, I think about a year ago. And in that year, I have heard consistent messages of concern from people like Jim and Barry [Lester] and many, many others in the community through which we have been engaged, many of whom are knowledgeable and have had experience with megaprojects, particularly in the energy industry.
JEREMY: Allan was joined at the podium by Brian Felesky, who's an elite Calgary lawyer and businessman, and he's also a big-time conservative donor. He's given almost $100,000 to conservative parties, provincially and federally, since the 1990s, and in 2017, gave over $9,000 to Jason Kenney's leadership campaigns. Felesky also donated to Schweitzer's 2017 UCP leadership campaign.
BRIAN FELESKY: We're saying to you that it would be great comfort and great solace to the community, and based on experience, great comfort and great solace, in the psychological difference between going on and considering risks, and stopping to have a full, wholesale re-examination of those risks.
JEREMY: At that meeting, Councillor Farrell challenged the group.
Allan 'did not bring up similar concerns' on other projects
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: Many of you were advocates for very large projects - the Olympics, the arena, and the BMO Centre – far exceed the budget of the Green Line. Did you bring –
COUNCILLOR JEFF DAVISON: Chair, this is not before us.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: No, I'm asking –
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Let's get to questions. This is not a question of debate. Let's get questions out for these gentlemen.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: I will ask my question. It's related.
JEREMY: That was Councillor Jeff Davison jumping in, who spearheaded the push for the arena on city council [and also pushed for the Olympics].
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: It is not before us. They are here talking about the Green Line. Please address your questions to the Green Line –
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: It's the – it's the same group.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: … and not in relation to the Olympics.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: It's the same group. I'm just wondering.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Again, you are drawing a conclusion –
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: Excuse me, Mr. Davison.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: … and making a characterization. If you have a question –
COUNCILLOR SHANE KEATING: Councillor Davison, please, let me chair. The Olympics is not debatable. Risk is. So you can ask a question about specifically risks, and that's all.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: Okay. And that is really the crux of this question, is high-risk endeavour that you advocated for, you did not bring up similar concerns. Why?
JEREMY: Here's Steve Allan.
STEVE ALLAN: I was an advocate for the Olympics. I did contemplate and consider risks, and I thought that they were well mitigated within the proposal.
JEREMY: I tried to get an interview with Steve Allan for this episode. I put in a media request with the Alberta Government, but the press secretary for the energy minister said that this request would be better directed to Calgary Economic Development's board. So I did reach out to Calgary Economic Development, and they said that they would pass along my inquiry to Allan.
I did not hear back.
Bracing for UCP budget, city council moved fast on arena
We're going to jump ahead now almost a month, to July 22nd. Now at this point, Allan has been appointed as commissioner of that inquiry, and meanwhile, organizations everywhere are bracing for what's expected to be a tough budget from the UCP government. Arts groups, school boards – everyone is bracing for the hit, and it was pretty obvious that the Green Line was in trouble.
Jason Kenney had been talking about how the project had been mishandled by the NDP, how it had been cut in half by the NDP – which isn't true. And after that presentation with Steve Allan in June, people were saying: Just watch. Kenney's going to pull the funding.
And so what does city council do?
MAYOR NAHEED NENSHI: Let's cut to the chase. This is a good deal for Calgary.
JEREMY: Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced the arena deal at the same time city council was about to cut $60 million from the city's operating budget, and they were doing this midyear as a way of protecting small business owners from some pretty extreme property tax increases. They took the $60 million out of transit, recreation, affordable housing, the city's Indigenous Relations office, and elsewhere.
So it was a time of downsizing. It was a time of caution and conservatism, to use Steve Allan's words. But that caution was applied most selectively.
Here's Ken King speaking on behalf of the Calgary Flames on the night the arena deal was announced.
KEN KING: I think most people would agree that investing in the future and exercising fiscal prudence when running your city are not mutually exclusive goals. You can do both, and you should do both. It might be the very best time to make these kind of decisions, because you're clear and cold-eyed about the things that you're looking at.
It might be the very best time to make these kind of decisions, because you’re clear and cold-eyed about the things that you’re looking at.
JEREMY: Before we get into the council debate on the arena, we're going to go back to January, when city council's arena committee met on the 25th. Steve Allan was on the arena committee, and on that day in January, all the committee members were presented with an Ernst & Young economic impact assessment about the Rivers District. That study said there would be a positive economic benefit to the city of doing three projects down there: the arena, expanding the BMO Centre, and expanding Arts Commons.
ERNST & YOUNG STAFFER: It looked at the three projects collectively, not the individual projects as separate, individual projects and the impacts of them.
JEREMY: Certain city councillors were very careful to ensure that the arena proper was never analyzed too much. It was always embedded within the Rivers District plan.
COUNCILLOR WARD SUTHERLAND: As council, we've really got to get off that single building. This is about everything together: how it's going to generate the return. There's the ROI – the ROI is if the CRL works.
JEREMY: Councillor Sutherland is referring to the CRL – that's the community revitalization levy, and that's where a portion of property taxes are reinvested in the area.
COUNCILLOR SUTHERLAND: If the CRL works, all Calgarians benefit, because that tax generation will be there, and they'll have an entertainment and cultural district to go to and to share. And all the ethnic festivals – everybody will be able to participate. So it's not about a hockey team and who's rich or not. It's not about any of that, because all Calgarians can participate in some way.
Allan dangles threat of Flames leaving
JEREMY: In the run up to the arena deal, certain people were dangling the threat that the Flames would leave Calgary if they didn't get a new arena. Certain city councillors have made this threat, and Steve Allan dangled it too, at that January meeting. Allan indicated that the arena aligns with what Calgary Economic Development is trying to do.
ALLAN: But I would also add that I think from a social and qualitative result, and you might not be able to talk about that, but I think if we were to have no hockey team, that would have a significant impact, a negative impact on the qualitative results.
JEREMY: This idea of the Flames leaving Calgary was an empty threat. You can't just up and move a team. You need a bunch of layers of approval from the NHL's board of governors, and they look at how profitable the team is. As NHL markets go, Calgary is strong, and so it's largely an empty threat. But that didn't mean that it wasn't used.
I think if we were to have no hockey team, that would have a significant impact, a negative impact.
ALLAN: In looking at the possibility of proceeding without a hockey team in that area—I was involved professionally for looking at a study for the Saddledome Foundation in the early 1990s when the Flames weren’t doing too well, what the implications would be of their leaving. But it was really only on the cost of operating a facility like the Saddledome without a hockey team, without a professional hockey team.
So we did look at Winnipeg in those days because the Jets had gone. Very significant to keeping the lights on in a building—and particularly today, when that building doesn’t have all of the elements that it needs for concerts and so on.
So what happens to a building without a hockey team?
COUNCILLOR JOE MAGLIOCCA: That report that you did many years ago, do you think we can get a little handout on it for Monday? About, how long does it take to... how much it's going to cost to keep the lights on if we don't have a team, kind of thing?
ALLAN: It was about 1990 – early 1990s, and I was at Ernst & Young at the time, so I don't know if it would still be in your files or not.
JEREMY: Eventually, City Manager Jeff Fielding, who has since left the city, basically told them to knock it off.
JEFF FIELDING: I think it's really important [in the] conversation that we're having today, and the conversation that council will have in the coming weeks, is that you not use a threat of the team leaving as part of your discussion. I think that would be totally inappropriate, because it's speculation—and it puts everybody in a defensive position.
[You shouldn’t] use a threat of the team leaving as part of your discussion. I think that would be totally inappropriate.
JEREMY: Councillor Ward Sutherland is still throwing this around. Here he is in late October at a special meeting of city council in response to the provincial budget.
COUNCILLOR SUTHERLAND: I have really issues when we talk about the projects that we approved as a waste of money or luxury projects or whatever …
JEREMY: Sutherland reiterates that he thinks the city is going to get a return on its investment.
COUNCILLOR SUTHERLAND: What we didn't talk about is, what is Calgary without a professional team? How much is that worth? So let's just cut everything. Let's have no professional sports at all in our city, because hey, we save some money. Let's cut everything and don't do nothing. That is not a strategic business decision. There's spending with investment and return, and then there's bad spending.
What is Calgary without a professional team? How much is that worth?
Council approves 4 projects, sends admin to get arena deal
JEREMY: Now remember, city council made a decision in March against the advice of the city's chief financial officer. They decided to approve all of four capital projects: the arena, the BMO Centre, Arts Commons expansion, and the fieldhouse, even though CFO Carla Male recommended that they do just one. She warned about upcoming elections, that the political situation could change; she warned that the city had a lot of dollars tied to government announcements; and she also brought up the cost of the Green Line.
But council ignored her advice and went ahead and approved all four projects anyway. And right after they did that, the same night, they tasked admin with going out to get the arena deal: to go negotiate with the Flames and come back with a deal.
Here's Councillor Evan Woolley speaking that night in March.
COUNCILLOR EVAN WOOLLEY: Calgarians deserve, before a final decision is made, to give us their feedback on what that deal looks like. We are talking about hundreds – potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of public money …
JEREMY: At that meeting in March, Councillor Jeff Davison gave a hint as to the kind of consultation that would be happening – or, more accurately, wouldn't be happening.
I don’t need an official town hall or multi-million-dollar engagement strategy to tell me that I know how to listen to my constituents.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: We are not negotiating the terms in public, but once we reach a deal, we will come to the public and we will ask if it's acceptable, and that decision will be ratified by this council. I don't need an official town hall or multi-million-dollar engagement strategy to tell me that I know how to listen to my constituents. I take their phone calls, I respond to their emails, I see them on the street, and I know they engage with our committee.
And I expect each and every one of you to do the same, and upon ratification of this deal, bring that voice back to council.
Davison, Sutherland and the city's third-party negotiator
JEREMY: Also in March, City Hall picked its negotiator for the arena deal: Barry Munro.
GLENDA COLE: Councillor Sutherland and Councillor Davison reached out to Barry Munro, senior partner with Ernst & Young, who has been an absolute stellar leader of our negotiations.
JEREMY: This is City Solicitor Glenda Cole, who was acting city manager during the summer.
COLE: By way of background, Barry's been at Ernst & Young for 35 years, and a partner with Ernst & Young since 1995. He's worked in all of Ernst & Young's service lines and held multiple leadership roles, including as Managing Partner in Calgary for eight years, and as Ernst & Young's Canadian oil and gas leader.
JEREMY: Now remember, the city had commissioned Ernst & Young to do the economic impact assessment on the Rivers District, and last year, the city also hired Ernst & Young to do a cost-benefit analysis of the Olympics.
There's a lot of overlap between Steve Allan and Barry Munro. They worked at Ernst & Young at the same time, and Barry Munro chairs the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund, which is a $100 million city fund set up to try and lure investment to Calgary to keep head offices here and to draw new investment. And it's administered through Calgary Economic Development, where Steve Allan was chair.
Clayton Riddell is a true Prairies powerhouse who transforms ideas into valuable and viable businesses.
Barry Munro was no stranger to the Flames. In 2008, he honoured one of the Flames' billionaire owners, Clay Riddell, with a lifetime achievement award on behalf of Ernst & Young. At the time, Munro praised Riddell as "a true prairies powerhouse who transforms ideas into valuable and viable businesses."
Just as a footnote, Riddell died in 2018.
Arena committee mostly stopped meeting while deal neogtiated
After March, the city's arena committee, chaired by Councillor Davison, basically stopped meeting for the spring. Davison canceled their April meeting, their May meeting, their June meeting. They did finally meet in July, but spent most of it behind closed doors, and this was while the negotiation was taking place.
And then it was announced on July 22nd that all sides had reached a deal, and the gist of it was that the city and the Flames were going to split the cost of the $550 million arena. So $275-million each, although the city is also covering the cost of demolishing the Saddledome, which actually pushes the city cost up to $290 million.
At the press conference where the arena deal was announced, Mayor Nenshi was asked about the city hoovering up every last available capital dollar to make this work.
MAYOR NENSHI: I think that's actually a fair characterization. But I would add one nuance to it, which is council passed a financing framework for four major capital projects. So it's not this one that's hoovering up all the crumbs. But the idea was, when we looked at all four of those projects, that we were in a very cash-positive position. We made a lot of smart financial choices over the years.
It's precisely because we run a lean government that we've been able to be in this position. And we thought that at this point, it makes sense to take that money and put it to work for Calgarians, rather than have it sit in a bank account.
So when you look across those four projects, it's a fair characterization – hoover up the money in the drawers. But I think it's more important to say, hoover it up to put it to work for Calgarians, rather than have it sit in, you know, rainy day funds that get larger and larger.
We thought that at this point, it makes sense to take that money and put it to work for Calgarians, rather than have it sit in a bank account.
City CFO warned against all 4 projects. What changed?
JEREMY: So what changed since March? Councillor Jeromy Farkas asked this question of city's CFO, Carla Male, that night.
COUNCILLOR JEROMY FARKAS: When we engaged the four-project major capital fund, it was your professional recommendation to only go ahead with one project. Given that the BMO Centre expansion has proceeded, what material changes to the city's financial positions have changed your mind to proceed with more than one?
CARLA MALE: Councillor Farkas, when we were going through the financial strategy, that was on March 4th. That was the day before we began to talk about the scenarios around shifting from residential to nonresidential [property taxes], around further understanding moving forward what we would be doing with the impact – the economic impact – around that. We have done a number of things since then.
JEREMY: One of the things city council did in June was to vote for the $60 million in cuts in order to ease the tax burden on small business owners.
MALE: Since that time, you have requested that we reduce our overall operating budget to the benefit of nonresidential property taxpayers of $60 million, and we're going to go through that exercise tomorrow.
There were additional movements to move more of the share of tax responsibility through tax room and the overall balancing of the budget, and there were also one-time payments to shoulder nonresidential. So over time, different things happen, and so we have had a number of different changes in our environment since March 4th.
JEREMY: Some city councillors have been trying to portray the arena deal as not affecting other city services at all – almost as if this money could only be spent on the arena. But this is not true. On March 4th, councillors debated whether they should be earmarking money for these big projects or helping small business owners instead.
Here's Councillor Farkas at that meeting.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: It's reckless to overextend ourselves in this way. I think our focus needs to be tax relief for every business, rather than a particular business.
JEREMY: But council went ahead with all four. They took money from the city's fiscal stability reserve and earmarked it towards those projects, creating a new capital fund. The fiscal stability reserve is a contingency fund that can be used for capital projects, but it can also be used in a pinch for urgent operational situations. But now a bunch of that money was tied up in the four projects.
I think our focus needs to be tax relief for every business, rather than a particular business.
Meanwhile, city council never really sorted out the tax shift situation, and so when small business owners stormed City Hall in June to angrily protest their property taxes, city council took it out of the operating budget. They took some from their reserves, too, but they approved the $60 million to be cut, which meant transit cuts and inner-city pool closures.
So like the city CFO suggested, that $60 million cut did affect the city's capacity to take on the arena deal. It was $60 million that council didn't have to find elsewhere.
City admin pushed hard for speedy arena decision
Once the arena deal was reached and presented to council and the public, the pressure was on.
COUNCILLOR EVAN WOOLLEY: A number of citizens and stakeholders and city councillors frankly have said that one-week turnaround is an incredible amount of pressure on us. Was that time of one week for approval of this transaction, one week to talk to Calgarians—was that on our end? Did we request that, or did the Calgary Flames?
COLE: No. We're certainly conscious of the fact that next week is council's last meeting, and so I'm – I frankly think it would be important to capitalize on the momentum that we have in terms of our arrangements. There's a short timeframe within which we're hoping to sign definitive agreements if council approves the arrangements.
I think it's important when you have momentum to keep moving forward and get agreements signed that fulfill those objectives, if council approves it.
I frankly think it would be important to capitalize on the momentum that we have.
JEREMY: This was acting city manager Glenda Cole. Councillor Woolley made a motion to delay the vote on the arena deal to give more time, and here's what Councillor Davison had to say about that.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: You should know that if this passes, this deal is done tonight, and you will forever be known as the council that likely lost the Calgary Flames.
JEREMY: Needless to say, it didn't pass, and the following week, on July 30th, the pressure was even more intense. Now keep in mind, city council had tasked admin with going out to make the arena deal, and so admin came back to city council with that deal, and when they did, they were pushing very hard.
If this passes, this deal is done tonight, and you will forever be known as the council that likely lost the Calgary Flames.
Here's Councillor Farkas asking questions of acting city manager Glenda Cole.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: Is an extension prohibited by the terms and conditions?
COLE: There are no terms and conditions that speak to an extension, because the expectation of all parties was that council would make a decision today.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: Is it possible to extend the timeline by mutual agreement?
COLE: I am not aware of there being any room on the part of any party for further negotiation at this time.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: If an extension is not prohibited, why are Calgarians being told that a delay would kill the deal?
COLE: Councillor Farkas, I'm simply going to stick to the truth on this matter. All parties agreed that we would bring forward to council today the deal that the three parties negotiated in good faith, and our understanding was that council would make a decision today.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: Then if I understand you right, it was our city negotiating team which agreed to no delay.
COLE: Our city negotiating team participated in good faith in the discussions throughout, and our understanding was that council would make a decision today.
'Deal momentum is critical': city third-party negotiator
JEREMY: Glenda Cole reiterated that the tight timeline was important.
COLE: It is a good idea to have tight timeframes when you have the momentum and goodwill of the parties moving forward together.
JEREMY: This was echoed by the city's third-party negotiator, Barry Munro.
MUNRO: So from my vantage point as a deal person, and I make my living doing deals, deal momentum is critical. It's not about rushing or being rushed, but it's about sort of seizing the opportunity when you see there's an opportunity to have agreement.
JEREMY: Let's stay with that idea of momentum for a moment, and let's go back to that June Transit Committee meeting, where the four businessmen called for a halt on the Green Line.
Here's Steve Allan at that meeting.
ALLAN: In this environment, the costs and the risks of the Green Line, I think, are really heightened, and need to cause us to be extra cautious and conservative, as Jim and Barry have indicated.
JEREMY: And here's what Brian Felesky had to say about momentum at that meeting. Remember, he's the big conservative donor.
BRIAN FELESKY: All the studies that we've examined, whether they're from McKinsey or whether they're from Oxford and so forth, that there is a danger in momentum of getting people on side, getting bids, getting consultants and so forth, that drives you in a direction that may not be healthy.
There is a danger in momentum of getting people onside… getting consultants and so forth, that drives you in a direction that may not be healthy.
JEREMY: So you see, we have a double standard in this city, and it has to do with powerful interests. Momentum is a good thing if you're talking about publicly subsidizing an NHL arena for a team owned by billionaires. And this is a facility that will primarily benefit the city's upper class.
But momentum is a bad thing, apparently, when you're talking about a public transit project that will primarily benefit the city's working class.
There are no big, powerful interests to ram that project through, and with the arena, there was.
'Now is not the time to amend' deal, warns Davison
We're going to listen in now to some of the debate that happened on July 30th, the day that council approved the arena deal. First up, Councillor Jeff Davison.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: We've done significant and almost unprecedented due diligence on this project. Through engagement conducted by CMLC, thousands of Calgarians have provided their input on the cultural and entertainment district. Renderings have been circulated, and an economic impact assessment was commissioned so we could better understand developing in the Rivers District.
JEREMY: Davison also addressed the tight timeline.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Make no mistake: Whether it be a three-day information period or a 300-day period, the fundamentals of this deal would not change. We had a trusted third-party negotiator achieve an agreement with three independent parties: the Stampede, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, and the City of Calgary. Now is not the time to amend a signed multiparty agreement.
COUNCILLOR SUTHERLAND: So what has changed the last few months? Well, a group of councillors got together and said, "These clouds are ruining our city. We're going to work towards the stated outcomes. We may disagree on how we get there, but we're going to get there. We must put the future of Calgary first."
This started with the $60 million in cuts and stuck to committed cuts regardless of pressure, the passing of the Rivers District Master Plan, and the BMO expansion, which is one of the two accelerators of the entertainment and culture district.
What has changed the last few months? Well, a group of councillors got together and said, ‘These clouds are ruining our city.’
COUNCILLOR MAGLIOCCA: Hey, you know what? Just a short few months ago, when Calgary Flames were in the playoffs, the vibe was incredible and everybody's engaged. You know what? We're going to hold the Calgary Flames back in Calgary for the next 35 years. It's a go-win situation for every Calgarian out there.
And you know what? And I guarantee you that they will do their best to bring a championship back to Calgary.
MAYOR NENSHI: I think, ultimately, this deal meets my criterion of public good for public benefit. And look, I'm not going to be all boosterish about it. I've read a lot of stuff in the media over the last few days; they're saying things like, "Ah, we lost our mojo, and the arena is the only way to get it back. The arena will miraculously transform our downtown. We'll become just like Nashville, whose per capita income is almost up to Calgary's, after being half of Calgary's for the last few decades."
I don't believe in any of that. What I believe is that the deal has to make sense on its merits. And I also believe that there needs to be some valuation of those intangible benefits, because there are intangible benefits.
So I take a very kind of pointy-headed view on this, which is, how much is that community spirit, that sense of belonging, that gathering, the ability to attract tourists and others, which cannot be calculated tangibly – how much is that actually worth?
I think, ultimately, this deal meets my criterion of public good for public benefit. And look, I’m not going to be all boosterish about it.
COUNCILLOR GIAN-CARLO CARRA: I think one of the major intangibles of this project is to make sure that the billions of dollars that have been amassed in fortunes in this city over the generations rather than decamping, stays.
JEREMY: Councillor Carra described the arena deal as the most corporate welfare-y of the four projects.
COUNCILLOR CARRA: And then there's the cognitive dissonance of spending $275 million of money won through savings and efficiencies in how we run the municipal government, and at the same time crying poor and emergency cutting back $60 million in the middle of a budget year.
The debate that will ensue regarding that cognitive dissonance over the next year or so as we recognize that we have a structural challenge is whether that structural challenge is related to a spending problem, as has been popularized in some quarters, or whether it has to do with a revenue collection problem associated with a revenue collection system that was never equal but now has broken due to the devaluation of the downtown core.
We will have a conversation about whether we pursue austerity, or whether we pursue an environment where we actually rebalance who pays for what and we pay what things cost.
I really can’t fathom why, in our negotiations, the thought of allowing Calgarians the opportunity to digest the details of this deal wasn’t contemplated.
COUNCILLOR PETER DEMONG: Over the next several years, we'll undoubtedly be looking back at this deal and determine one way or another that either it was a good deal or it was a bad deal. I'm at the point where I don't think it's a great deal, but I'm looking at it and I'm thinking, it looks to be a fair deal. I am very unhappy as to how this played out – not with the negotiating team, because I think they did a spectacular job.
But I really can't fathom why in our negotiations the thought of allowing Calgarians the opportunity to digest the details of this deal wasn't contemplated. I appreciate that once a deal gets made, you want a momentum to move forward. But you also have two willing participants that are fully aware that the third participant is a government body and looks for this kind of engagement.
COUNCILLOR GEORGE CHAHAL: I feel that this short period of time – and I think it's been mentioned from many of my colleagues – was inadequate. We do require more time to do further due diligence to mitigate risk, ensure financial accountability and public confidence.
COUNCILLOR WOOLLEY: There is no reason to have a rushed the deal. I find it to be a bullying tactic and an unnecessary ultimatum. I don't understand what council is so afraid of and so unwilling to face the public in even a semblance of a conversation and the most basic of communications.
JEREMY: City Council voted 11-4 to approve the arena deal. The councillors who voted against were councillors Chahal, Farrell, Farkas, and Woolley.
There is no reason to have rushed the deal. I find it to be a bullying tactic and an unnecessary ultimatum.
Cash-strapped Green Line now being sliced and diced
We're almost done, but first we need to return to the Green Line – and let me tell you, it's not pretty. City council has a new Green Line committee that's supposed to get the project back on track by January, and the committee held its first meeting on November 15th. Councillor Shane Keating, who's the chair of the committee, kicked things off by trying to set the tone and restore a sense of focus.
COUNCILLOR SHANE KEATING: What is the plan? We often hear that from other orders of government and others outside. We have heard several plans for the Green Line in recent history: under the river, over the river, 4-km tunnel, no tunnel, LRT partial alignment, BRT partial alignment, no LRT, complete BRT, change in alignment, revert back to Nose Creek …
JEREMY: The committee needs to figure out financing the Green Line, because they're not getting the money they expected from the province when they thought they were getting it, and then they also need to land on a final design.
COUNCILLOR KEATING: We have to save money and resolve the technical issues. We have to confirm that the final alignment, and how to look at lengthening the LRT and include a BRT section, if that's the choice.
We have to bring down costs while upholding the ridership experience, which we often seem to forget. That, my friends, is the plan. Let's not delve into rabbit hole after rabbit hole. We have two and a half months to finalize the plan – and I do mean finalize the plan.
JEREMY: So basically, this project keeps getting sliced and diced.
Let’s not delve into rabbit hole after rabbit hole. We have two-and-a-half months to finalize the plan.
Davison is pushing to cut Green Line in two
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: I’d like to propose for committee’s consideration that we include principles as an appendix to the terms of reference, that would really kind of address three overall key themes. Number one, in a way, putting pens down on all non-critical elements of the project. Number two, looking at rider experience and ridership numbers again. And number three, delivering the best rider experience within the budget we have before us.
JEREMY: The big thing that came out of this meeting is that Councillor Jeff Davison was pushing for a set of principles which include having the line split.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Consider options to split the line and not cross 7 Avenue SW. Focus on bringing life-cycle costs down. And finally, continually review any BRT routes as planned, and accelerate them in all options going forward.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: Mr. Chair, some of these principles are actually different than the principles that were identified by council to guide the whole Green Line project. And so I see them as possibly contrary.
COUNCILLOR WOOLLEY: I don’t know that adding very specific direction, sneaking that into a principles in the terms of reference, when this is actually straight up—
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Point of privilege. I am not sneaking anything councillor. Your opinion is fine, I am not trying to sneak anything, so please address that appropriately.
COUNCILLOR WOOLLEY: Yeah. Through the chair. You are embedding very specific direction into the principles of a terms of reference of a governing structure. These are just recommendations.
Folks, vision costs money, and you have to live in reality.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: We need to have options that are laid out for this committee to move forward and consider efficiency and functionality and affordability and rider experience. Despite how much rider experience comes into this, cost actually matters, folks, so we have to deliver a project that delivers the best rider experience within the cost structure we have.
And I know a number of councillors are shaking their head, because that doesn’t align with vision—but folks, vision costs money, and you have to live in reality.
COUNCILLOR CARRA: All right, I’m going to raise on a point of privilege. Everyone has said that we all agree with this, we’re just saying that they’re not principles. No one’s saying that we should blow the budget or not consider costs or anything like that.
COUNCILLOR DAVISON: Well actually—to debate, when you use terms like “weirdly and strangely put,” councillor, there’s nothing weird about it. You know what’s weird? That we have moved this project nowhere in six years.
COUNCILLOR KEATING: Okay committee, we’re not here to debate with each other…. If we need to refer this to administration to come back, then that’s what we’ll talk about. Councillor Farkas.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: I’ll refer this to administration to come back with the recommendations.
COUNCILLOR KEATING: We need a report-back date.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: Report back by the next meeting of Green Line committee?
COUNCILLOR KEATING: December? Okay.
COUNCILLOR FARKAS: Thank you.
I can’t imagine we’ll get there if we don’t figure out a way to work together.
JEREMY: Councillor Druh Farrell is going to close us out.
COUNCILLOR FARRELL: I'm concerned that we're no longer talking about the city building, the city shaping. This is not just transport. It's not about a commuter rail getting people as quickly as possible through the city. It's about creating a city around transit, and that's exactly the way we should be looking at this, is using transit to influence however city develops and changes.
I think it's still salvageable. The approach that we've been taking where we're, you know, every man for himself … We've got pretty much 15 mayors sitting around the table scrapping, as you can see from the last meeting. It's – I can't imagine we'll get there if we don't figure out a way to work together.
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
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