For several years, Calgary Flames ownership and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have been expressing the need for Calgary to replace the aging Saddledome. In August 2015, the Flames kickstarted the political and public discussion on a new event centre with a $890 million proposal to build CalgaryNEXT – a massive sports facility that would replace the Saddledome, McMahon Stadium, and build a new recreational fieldhouse in the city’s West Village along the Bow River.
CalgaryNEXT was a visionary proposal wrought with complications. First, there were environmental concerns. The proposed location of CalgaryNEXT is located in a floodplain and is contaminated with creosote. The estimated cost to clean up the site is measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. CSEC’s proposal was silent on the remediation costs meaning that the real cost of CalgaryNEXT was going to be well over $1 billion.
Second, the CalgaryNEXT proposal was reliant on a new Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) for the West Village like the one that was used to redevelop the city’s East Village. CRLs allow municipalities to borrow against future property tax revenues to help pay for infrastructure required to spur new development in a specific area. The problem was that an analysis by CMLC, who manages the East Village CRL, indicated that at most a CRL in the west would generate $430 million – well shy of the over $1 billion needed to properly clean the site and construct the facility.
Third, the CalgaryNEXT proposal had some cultural and planning problems because it wasn’t supported by the Stampede and was inconsistent with the City’s vision for the downtown west end. The Calgary Stampede has long held the position that a replacement to the Saddledome should be situated in East Victoria Park, and the City – while in favour of revitalizing the west end – preferred to build a cultural and entertainment district with the new BMO centre and event centre as anchor tenants in Stampede Park.
By June of 2016 the CalgaryNEXT proposal was effectively dead and Ken King, President of CSEC, agreed to explore a plan B location within Victoria Park. For almost a year, discussions stayed behind closed doors but by the spring of 2017, CSEC started to become restless with the pace of negotiations and began commenting in local media that without a deal on a new arena they would consider relocating the Calgary Flames.
Negotiations famously collapsed just weeks before the October 2017 municipal election when CSEC walked away from the negotiating table blaming Mayor Naheed Nenshi for the ongoing impasse. The political powerplay by King was largely seen to be an effort to assist Nenshi’s main challenger Bill Smith in the upcoming election. Nenshi ultimately won re-election and while both sides continued to favour reaching a deal on a new events centre, the relationship was tainted by real animus, and the newly vindicated mayor was happy to wait for CSEC to come back to the table, their powerplay having failed.
By May of 2018, councillors tired of the waiting game between the Mayor’s office and CSEC established a council subcommittee to lead development of a proposal and funding framework for a new events centre. Talks intensified in March of 2019 when Barry Munro, an experienced negotiator of large financial deals for EY, agreed to volunteer his time and mediate between City administration, CSEC, the Stampede and CMLC in an effort to reach a deal.
Munro was able to help the parties find consensus and make the deal that was presented to Calgarians on July 22nd. Both the City and the Flames ultimately moved off some longstanding positions and Ken King credited Munro with helping all parties better understand their counterparts’ needs and perspectives to get the deal done.