It’s easy to see why mayor Naheed Nenshi enjoys rock-star status in Calgary. It might have something to do with the fact that he’s all kinds of awesome. And after his reaction to the NHL’s scare tactics over providing funding for a new home for the Calgary Flames, the taxpayers of Calgary should be beating a path to his office and offering to take him out for lunch.
Nenshi stared down the one of the most powerful men in hockey Monday and did not blink. It wasn’t just that the man in question was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, that was just a bonus. But for the leader of a major North American metropolis to tell any professional sports league to shut its pie hole takes an enormous amount of guts.
Let’s start with the premise that the Flames need a new home to replace the Scotiabank Saddledome. The most popular concept is a piece of infrastructure called CalgaryNEXT that would see the Flames get a new arena and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League have a new home field. Costs have been pegged at $890 million for the project, with the Flames kicking in $200 million, or roughly 22.5 percent of the cost. The city would pay another $200 million, with the remaining $490 million coming from a ticket tax levy and a community revitalization levy.
Nenshi has called the proposal “half-baked” and has done nothing more than refuse to commit the city and its hard working tax payers to ponying up money without a lot of study and comprehensive public consultation. But, of course, that’s not good enough for the billionaires. So when Bettman spoke at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce event, he chose to go NFL-style with his demands. “If this project is going to happen, the mayor needs to embrace it, the city needs to embrace it,” Bettman said. “If (Nenshi) is not prepared to embrace it, then the people will have to deal with it."
And if he does embrace it, the people will also have to deal with it. They’ll have to deal with watching $200 million in their tax money go to a monument to the rich. They’ll have to deal with higher ticket prices and money from a “community revitalization levy” going to build an arena and a football field rather than infrastructure that would both revitalize the community and be more accessible to more people.
Nenshi’s response was classic. Bettman requested a meeting and Nenshi responded by saying that he would be in council today – you know, doing stuff he was elected to do - and that unless Bettman had something new to bring to the conversation, it probably wouldn’t be worth his time. How courageous is that? Bettman was very clear in saying that if the city doesn’t partner with the Flames that it doesn’t mean the team would move, but the threat was veiled and calculated. Nenshi got a little smarmy and snarky in his response to Bettman when he said: “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.”
What you have to understand here is that this is all part of the game. Chances are, in some form or another, this project is going to get completed and there will almost certainly be public dollars put into the project. Bettman is right when he says that these things don’t get done this day without public-private partnerships. As perverted as that is, it’s reality. And despite the veiled threats, the NHL will not abandon Calgary. When the economy is healthy and the price of oil is high – neither of which is happening at the moment – the Flames represent a very deep and rich revenue source for the league.
But the fact that Naheed Nenshi is not willing to simply bend to the will of billionaires who want an new sandbox to play in is refreshing to see. “Perhaps in other cities he has come to, city councils have just written checks based on back-of-the-napkin proposals without any consultation or without any analysis,” Nenshi said. “That’s not how we operate here.”
What we have here is a good, old-fashioned western standoff. Both sides have pulled out rather heavy verbal artillery, but those who think the Flames are in peril or that they won’t get a new home someday is probably jumping the gun. This is all part of the process. Nenshi is not saying the city won't do its part. He's saying how much it does will be determined after sober second thought. And whether you’re a Flames fan or not, it’s nice to see a mayor who is looking out for your interests ahead of those of billionaires.