Alberta Politics
A drawing of the proposed Calgary hockey arena by the Detroit-based Rossetti architecture firm (Photo: Rossetti).

Irony is dead but doublethink thrives as Calgary opts to cut services and subsidize hockey billionaires at once

Posted on July 23, 2019, 1:31 am
6 mins

Really, what can one say about the deal the City of Calgary struck with the Flames professional hockey club yesterday for the former Cowtown’s taxpayers to subsidize half the cost of a new arena for the team to the tune of $225 million at the same moment as this city slashes $60 million from its budgets for fire, transit, affordable housing and police services?

I mean, other than, “What the actual (EXPLETIVE DELETED)” — which is, in fact, what a lot of people were saying on social media yesterday.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The message from the city is now simultaneously, “we’re broke — dontcha know? — sacrifices must be made,” and “this arena is a great deal for the city!”

To acknowledge that the optics of this are bad, as an embarrassed-sounding Mayor Naheed Nenshi did at an evening news conference, is to understate things considerably. “The optics of this stink, this is really terrible timing,” he said. “But if the deal is ready to go, I’m not about to hold it back.”

City Councillor Jeff Davison — who represents well-heeled west-side neighbourhoods and campaigned on his “pro-business attitude” — got closer to what I imagine council is actually thinking when he blew off concerns about the cuts by saying, sure, “the timing is not ideal. We know there’s a lot of things going on with respect to the budget. But when you really look at $60 million worth of cuts, that’s really talking about two to three per cent of our operational budget. The sky’s not going to fall for two to three per cent.” (Emphasis added.)

Calgary Ward 6 Councillor Jeff Davison (Photo:

In other words, we don’t really care about the optics, the Flames’ billionaire owners want a new arena and by gosh we’re going to give it to them. People who want transit or quick response times from emergency services in their déclassé east-side suburbs can pound sand.

Calgarians will have a week to contribute their two-cents worth on this, which I’m sure will be considered thoughtfully by council. So if they have anything to say, they’d better get crackin’.

After that, it seems likely the deal will be swiftly passed and everything will get back to normal, with municipal and provincial politicians from Calgary kvetching that we’re broke here in Alberta, and blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for it. Albertans certainly shouldn’t look for critical comments about this deal from Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party Calgary MLAs or any change in their poor-us rhetoric.

Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. Vice Chair Ken King (Photo: Rotary Club of Calgary).

That is to say, expect standard operating procedure, which in Calgary as elsewhere means irony is dead and doublethink is alive and well.

As for whether or not the new arena turns out to be a good deal for the city remains to be seen, but the auguries are not particularly promising.

The city manager’s report to council indicates “no time value of money accounted.” About which University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe tweeted: “OMFG!!!!!”

The city will own the building, while billionaire-heavy Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. will run it till it’s time for the city to tear down the wreck and pony up for a new one or see the team move to Seattle or Halifax.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe (Photo: Twitter).

Speaking of which, CSEC Vice-Chair Ken King thanked everyone for their excellent service, and, as the CBC’s reporter put it, “confirmed that the 35-year deal means the Flames won’t be going anywhere.” Mr. King is a former publisher of the Calgary Herald whose legacy lives on at the former newspaper of record, so don’t look for any incisive coverage of this deal there.

As for the supposed benefits of subsidies for professional sports teams, the consensus among economists seems to be that there aren’t very many. They rudely dismiss the inevitable promises of jobs and tourists as bogus.

Still, there are “intangible benefits.” In Edmonton, for example, heavily subsidized drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz appears to have quietly decamped for Vancouver, and thence to Los Angeles. “Go Oilers!”

Neither Calgary nor Alberta is broke, of course. The city could afford a new arena for the Flames and a decent transit system. But that would mean fair business taxes, not to mention a commitment to public services, and we know that’s not going to fly.

8 Comments to: Irony is dead but doublethink thrives as Calgary opts to cut services and subsidize hockey billionaires at once

  1. Farmer Brian

    July 23rd, 2019

    David I was with you until the last paragraph when you talk about Calgary “fair business taxes”. I looked at an article by the Canadiam Federation of Independent Business on this topic. They were discussing the differential between the commercial and residential tax mill rate. In 2018 Calgary’s commercial mill rate was 4.14 that of residential, in Edmonton it was 2.82 and Lethbridge it was 2.36. If I look at those numbers it appears the issue isn’t the tax rate on business but that the property tax rate on homeowners needs to go up. In fact it looks like businesses are being overtaxed in Calgary compared to other cities. Enjoy your day.

    • Farmer Dave

      July 23rd, 2019

      Farmer Brian, I see you have not got out from under the dome yet. Calgary businesses and residences have received the biggest subsidies from any municipality in Alberta from past governments. Calgary is the same to Alberta as Quebec is to Canada. Anytime Calgary feels some pain they blame the rest of Alberta and Canada. I have lived in Calgary and dealt with governments on Calgary issues and all they end up doing is whining that everyone has done them wrong. Calgary chose to be a one economic industry and when it does not work they whine. Northern Alberta might be wise to separate from southern Alberta.

  2. J.E. Molnar

    July 23rd, 2019

    How shameful — more corporate welfare!!

    Those who regularly condemn democratic socialists with their hair-on-fire diatribes over at the Postmedia franchises are eerily silent in their condemnation these days over this corporate giveaway for billionaires. As far as the socialist-eating head honchos over at the UCP rage machine goes, Climenhaga is spot on when he points out the outrageous doublethink associated with our new politically ordained masters of the Legislature.

    Gullible voters who continue to be hoodwinked by right-wing political parties and politicians preaching government austerity at any cost, once again just got taken to the woodshed for a practical lesson in political double-cross and political doublespeak. Now that’s really shameful.

  3. David

    July 23rd, 2019

    I suppose it was inevitable – Edmonton has a nice shiny new arena so Calgary would get one too. Unfortunately, Premier Redford did no favours in ruling out provincial money for Edmonton and the new provincial government doesn’t seem in a spending mood either. The city of Calgary will have to carry the financial can on this one at the same time as claiming to be broke and cutting services, talk about bad timing.

    I suppose Mayor Nenshi is not planning on running again so may use whatever political capital he still has to move this forward. Unfortunately, its a bit late for him to jump into provincial politics or probably even Federal. Also, there is no cozy cabinet post possibly available in Edmonton, as there was for the last Calgary mayor who needed to escape the hangover of big projects.

    I suspect the debate will be interesting and I am not sure the arena will even go ahead, the timing is particularly bad. Perhaps if things get desperate Calgary city council could take money from the Green Line and try re-allocate it to the arena. Oh wait that’s money from the carbon tax that no longer exists. Imaginary money for expensive projects, just another day in Alberta politics.

  4. pogo

    July 23rd, 2019

    Apart from all the rest? I want to applaud you for modelling restraint in the face of existential profanity! I have learned from you!

  5. Jim

    July 24th, 2019

    Most people in Calgary likely can’t afford to go to the circus, and the bread is getting pretty expensive too. Socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for everyone else.

  6. David Grant

    July 25th, 2019

    This is a completely unnecessary. if the owners won’t pay for the arena, we should not. There are a lot of economic studies which show that the benefits that arenas give to a city is far less than what the proponents claim it will bring. We need to contact our alderman and let them know our opposition to this proposal. There are many alderman who have said that they are undecided at this point and perhaps they can be convinced to vote no.

  7. Athabascan

    July 27th, 2019

    All Calgarians were just robbed. This is blatant and open theft of public funds. Enjoy your property tax hikes in the coming years as you cheer for the Flames.

    Meanwhile, Who needs improved public transit? Who needs public school funding? Who needs timely police and fire rescue? Who among the 115 city staff members laid off needs a job? I guess the answer to those questions is no one.

    Billionaires need money and their hockey palace so they can make even more money. Screw everyone else, eh?

    Irony may be dead, but so is Democracy. Steal from the poor to give to the rich – nice democracy you got there.


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