February 23, 2016

Flames owners' pitch for corporate welfare isn't doing us a favour

Paige MacPhersonAlberta CTF Director

(This op-ed was published in the Huffington Post Alberta blog on February 22, 2016. Paige MacPherson is Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.)

Calgary taxpayers have now had a little time to recover from the puzzling pitch for public cash that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman delivered when he came to town. Bettman may have left, but the ask is still on the table.

In January, Bettman told us we must “embrace” the idea of handing hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare to a wealthy pro sports franchise for a downtown arena project.  

He proclaimed that when the owners of the Calgary Flames group are asking taxpayers to fund their pro sports arena complex, they’re actually the ones investing in us.

Take a minute to get your head around that one.

In "Opposite-Land," where Mr. Bettman clearly resides, the Flames owners asking cash-strapped Calgary taxpayers to cough up the money for a pro sports arena is actually the Flames owners giving something to Calgary.

It’s not about the owners wanting a glittering new arena with oodles of corporate box seats.

It’s about the Flames owners earnestly wanting to make an investment in Calgary’s infrastructure … with our money.

Bettman said on CBC Radio Calgary that the Flames ownership group was “willing to make a sensible investment in the infrastructure of Calgary.”

Facts are facts: The Flames owners are willing to put up $200 million for a $890 million project.

For the remaining $690 million, they’re asking taxpayers to front the cash in one way or another.

They’re not exactly donating infrastructure to the City of Calgary.

The estimated $890 million is a lowball as it is. It doesn’t include the cost of cleaning up the creosote-contaminated land the owners have chosen as their desired site, pegged between $50 million and $300 million.

Ironically, it doesn’t cover the likely costs of (actual) infrastructure surrounding the site, either.

Nor does it account for the assumption that the owners wouldn’t pay a penny in property tax, since they’re suggesting the city own the building. We’ll assume that means taxpayers will also pay for the eventual demolition when the owners grow tired of this arena, too.

Heck, we might as well write a big cheque for a new one in 2045 while we’re at it.  

If the owners wanted to build their professional arena and stadium, then donate or rent out the space to local teams, they could call it an investment in Calgary’s infrastructure.

For now, that assertion is as smooth as sandpaper.

On the radio, Bettman dodged the question of why Calgarians should be expected to hand a taxpayer subsidy to some of Calgary’s wealthiest individuals (many co-owners of the Flames group).

When asked if the Flames hockey team was profitable, he said: “Frankly the question is irrelevant,” again showing us some of that good old-fashioned Opposite-Land charm.

Fortunately, that charm did nothing to mystify the mayor.

“I know that Calgarians require very wealthy people from New York to come and tell us what we need to do in our community because they understand vibrancy better than we do,” said Mayor Nenshi after declining a meeting with Bettman.

The city has already heard the proposal from the Flames owners. Thanks to Mr. Bettman’s interjection it’s looking more like a demand than an ask. As with any use of public funds, that shouldn’t sit well with taxpayers.

At the best of times, there are certainly higher priorities for tax dollars than a big fat subsidy to moneyed pro sports owners. Don’t forget, the owners’ proposal puts provincial and federal taxpayers on the hook, too.

But with unemployment spiking in Calgary and an economic slump across the province, our current climate makes the proposal additionally absurd. Perhaps the owners would accept one of Calgary’s soon-to-be-empty office towers instead?

Thankfully for taxpayers, we’re not in Bettman’s Opposite-Land. We’re in Calgary, where corporate welfare is still corporate welfare. And the answer should still be no.

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commented 2016-03-01 19:20:54 -0500
How can anybody think about expensive extravaganzas like this when the economy has a down turn especially energy sector synonymous with Calgary,and at the same time the country is run by anti-energy marksest left wing windmills.—like who can afford the tickets.
commented 2016-02-24 10:33:11 -0500
Political mafia/unions will ensure new pink pink elephant! Nenshi reluctance just a spoof!
commented 2016-02-24 02:24:03 -0500
Sam Young they did that here in Edmonton as well, the arena is in a spot that will make great traffic nightmares. They have already had traffic problems with the new LRT around it and is not even open yet. But as long as Katz(oilers owner)stands to make many millions off the condos he is building around the arena which are worth way more because we bought him a new arena and since no one else was allowed to build any condos but him.
commented 2016-02-23 20:33:46 -0500
Looks like Calgary did not learn anything when Winnipeg lost the Jets back in 95-96. And what did Winnipeg do in response? We built an undersized arena in the middle of downtown, thus creating the worst traffic jams we have ever had. Sadly, most people in Winnipeg do not care, as their priority is to pay for expensive professional hockey.

If it makes you Calgarians feel any better, we Winnipeggers made the same stupid mistake you did. We both picked up a failing hockey team from Atlanta.
commented 2016-02-23 17:28:40 -0500
Yeah i am so glad i am paying for a new arena in Edmonton that i cannot afford to go to. My property taxes have always went up more than the promised rate, my taxes for my condo parking spots have increased from $19 to $44 in 5 years , that is over 20% a year. They hide the huge increases where people may not notice like the crooks they are. If the owner wants to move the team then move it. Go someplace where you will make less money.
commented 2016-02-23 17:25:39 -0500
Daniel that is utter BS , the NHL needs to face reality and quit paying these guys so much.
commented 2016-02-23 15:16:29 -0500
Arts venues don’t have a dedicated audience that is big enough or consistent enough. Its impossible for them to exist without subsidy. To equate them with Sports events is like comparing apples and oranges. Sports make profit, The Arts rarely stand on their own feet. If American owners want to hold cities hostage for subsidies, let them try.
commented 2016-02-23 12:59:10 -0500
Funny how attitudes change. It wasn’t that long ago that the greedy owners were held out as saviours when they lost millions of dollars per year to keep an NHL team in Calgary. Save the Flames and all that stuff.

Taxpayer money should be spent on this arena. I know no new revenue is generated and if not for this people will still spend money on other forms of entertainment. Ask Winnipeg or Quebec how it felt or feels not to have a pro hockey team.

Without government subsidies theatrical and artistic entertainment disappears. I don’t frequent live theatre or the symphony, but I know many people who really enjoy a fancy night out. Are the best musicians and performers also not millionaires who are benefit from tax money? I don’t see these people raising money for charity, visiting sick kids and generally being part of the community.
commented 2016-02-23 12:31:20 -0500
So the profitability of the Flames is irrelevant, eh? I suppose the creosote remediation, the necessity to massively realign Bow Trail, the floodplain location, and the worst recession since the Saddledome first opened, all those things are irrelevant too? I remember Bettman’s exact words to the Chamber of Commerce; “It has to happen.” What’s that, another one of Bettman’s famous franchise relocation threats? An old line from a movie comes to mind: “Go ahead, make my day.”
Nenshi’s response was surprisingly gentle.
commented 2016-02-23 12:09:01 -0500
Not bloody likely! What kind of loser businessman is he. Maybe Bettmen thinks that just because some Albertans were stupid enough to vote in Notely that they’d all be stupid enough to go for this very one sided stupid idea. Go jump Bettmen. They may call it Cowtown, but it was only stupid town during the last election. I hate to give one of my least favourite mayors any kudos, but Nenshi gave Bettman all he deserved.
Its too bad Americans get to own Canadian hockey teams anyway. Way to make us hate you more Bettmen.
commented 2016-02-23 11:50:27 -0500
Maybe If Bettman fulfilled his promise to NHL franchise owners to have a Wednesday hockey night in America with national TV market exposure , paying the franchise fees to be in his NHL show biz gig would make economic sense. And maybe if the Flames owners put some product on the ice that could fill the empty seats in the existing “Saddle dome” venue expansion talk would make sense.

Unfortunately for them both pro hockey will ever make sense as long as a PT Barnum hustler like Bettman runs it like a Las Vagas Casino extravaganza
commented 2016-02-23 11:43:31 -0500
Whats really stuns me is they plan to build it on a flood plain again. 2 years after the Saddledome was flooded. ?
commented 2016-02-23 11:04:08 -0500
Does this mean free tickets to all the Flames home games for the residents of Calgary?

Not likely.

Then, no deal. Take your rotting two-bit NHL franchise somewhere else – like Houston, TX.

The Dallas Stars need someone to play with.
commented 2016-02-23 11:03:54 -0500
great plan, Garry Bettman !
i have a better one…
honk on bobo.