September 19, 2015

How a B.C. town got the Calgary Flames hooked on corporate welfare

Paige MacPhersonAlberta CTF Director

(This op-ed by Paige MacPherson, Alberta Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Jordan Bateman, B.C. Director, CTF, was published in the National Post on September 17, 2015.)

It's all Abbotsford's fault.

That's right. The city of Abbotsford, British Columbia is a bad influence – that nasty kid down the street who got our perfect angel to break bad. The Vancouver-area town apparently got the Calgary Flames hopelessly hooked on corporate welfare.

So hooked, the Flames are now asking taxpayers to front a possible $690 million or more in taxpayer money to build their dream downtown arena/stadium dubbed CalgaryNEXT.

That’s $200 million paid directly for a shared-use fieldhouse, $240 million for a ‘Community Revitalization Levy’ – a local and provincial taxpayer subsidy by another name, and $250 million loan for a ‘ticket tax’ that might be financed by the city. 

And those are just the upfront costs. The city is also expected to provide the land for free and taxpayers across Canada might have the lucky role of paying for the cleanup of the contaminated development site – with costs in the neighbourhood of $50 million to $300 million.

Like most addiction issues, this one started slowly. Abbotsford had a brand new, overbuilt, taxpayer-funded arena in need of a tenant. Desperate to justify their $70 million expenditure, Abbotsford opened their taxpayers' wallets to bribe the Flames to bring their American Hockey League farm club, the Heat, to town.

It was a sweetheart deal for the Flames. Abbotsford taxpayers shelled out for a new $2 million scoreboard and $350,000 for a dressing room redesign and hot tub installation in their brand new building.

That was just the start. Abbotsford taxpayers then covered every cent of the Heat’s losses of $7.2 million over just five years. That's a $21.48 subsidy for every ticket to every Heat home game.

It was so expensive that a new mayor and council eventually bought their way out of the Flames deal. For taxpayers, it was cheaper to just cut the Flames another $5.5 million cheque to escape the final five years of the deal than to let it run its course.

All told, the Flames sucked at least $15 million in corporate welfare out of Abbotsford.

The 7,000 seat Abbotsford Centre now sits empty more than 300 nights a year, a grim reminder of the poison of handing taxpayer money over to billionaire hockey club owners. It has just seven ticketed events scheduled over the next six months.

The day the Heat left, Abbotsford, a city of 120,000 people, had the fourth-highest municipal debt load in BC.

And, in the process, the Flames got hooked. Who can blame them? Taxpayers gave them a free farm club for five years! That will keep anyone jonesing for more taxpayer money. And this time, they have turned to their own city and province to get it.

Albertans shouldn’t make the same mistake.

To state the obvious, Calgary (and the rest of the province) is in a financial squeeze. We’re seeing job losses left and right, and even our provincial government is finally talking about tightening their belts.

Doling out public cash is about making priorities. Giving hundreds of millions to a wealthy sports franchise for a for-profit development doesn’t fit the bill.

They could do it themselves. Look to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa or Vancouver to see that amazing NHL arena complexes have been built without a dime of taxpayer money.

The Flames like to pride themselves on their work ethic, on their young players battling hard every single night, on their gritty defiance even in the face of bigger, more talented teams. That's Bob Hartley hockey.

But off the ice, the opposite is true: demanding taxpayer money is lazy and shortsighted.

Build your own arena, Flames owners. Abbotsford taxpayers are still benched by your last ask. Alberta can't afford your expensive corporate welfare habit.

(The Canadian Taxpayers Federation just launched an online petition opposing tax dollars for pro sports arenas and believes CalgaryNEXT should be paid for with tickets, not taxes.)



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commented 2015-09-20 02:18:55 -0400
Here in Winnipeg, city planning revolves around our hockey arena and football stadium. That means there’s no money left for anything. A long rapid transit corridor to the stadium is to be built for millions of dollars, but Winnipeg Transit had to make cuts to its schedule. As for the arena, city planners want to start charging for downtown two hour max evening street parking, but not on nights when there’s a hockey game.
commented 2015-09-20 00:33:02 -0400
It’s all about the money, Dave Bainard. All about the money.
commented 2015-09-19 21:00:14 -0400
I still can’t understand why they would want to relocate to an expensive and polluted that would be underserviced by both transit and road systems. Last I was in the Saddledome, it still looked like a pretty fine arena.
commented 2015-09-19 20:01:47 -0400
All the various governments (municipal, provincial, federal) have to do is say “No”. Then what will the ownership do? Pull up stakes and go elsewhere? (Bettman won’t take kindly to that…) The Flames’ ownership should look at the headaches Edmonton is going through (and what Edm City Council is now saying)…