(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.