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Flames' arena fight takes another twist after the re-election of popular Calgary mayor

The re-election of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is the latest turn in the Flames' ongoing quest for a new arena. Nenshi pushed back when the NHL team wanted a handout of public money to help build a new rink, but now the Flames will have to deal with the city's popular leader.

Throughout the Calgary mayoralty campaign, the Calgary Flames insisted they weren’t in the business of politics. But they didn’t stick to sports. They went about on a public campaign to discredit incumbent mayor Naheed Nenshi, who let’s say didn’t exactly share their vision for a new arena. And when we say he didn’t share their vision, we mean he didn’t want to pay an obscene amount of public money for it without getting anything in return.

A couple of things here. First, the Flames were entirely within their rights. Second, as has been said in this space before, they are simply taking a page out of the sports owners’ playbook on this one.

So what are we to make of the fact that the Flames ultimately failed in running Nenshi out of office, but that a vote that was supposed to be a landslide for Nenshi a month ago turned out to be much closer than anyone imagined? Nenshi finished with 51 percent of the popular vote, with 44 percent going to a candidate who was much more Flames-friendly. In 2013, Nenshi won with 73.6 percent of the vote.

Surely this would embolden the Flames, one would think. Voter turnout was high with reports of long lineups and a shortage of ballots. So people were engaged in this election. So knocking Nenshi down a peg could at least give the Flames some leverage as they continue negotiations that everyone knows they will at some point, despite saying negotiations are closed. Right?

Well, not according to Jack Lucas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in urban politics and governance. Lucas told in an email that the arena issue was asked about in a survey, but the results won’t be available for several weeks. He also said it’s his personal opinion that the arena issue did not move the needle considerably. “My gut feeling is that the arena was significant largely in an ‘opportunity cost’ way, it sucked up so much oxygen for a few weeks that there wasn’t much room for other issues, and I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that the issue was the ‘loser’ for Nenshi that the anti-Nenshi forces perhaps hoped it would be,” Lucas said. “I don’t think Nenshi’s more competitive win will mean anything for negotiations. When all the dust is settled, what matters is that he’s still the mayor.”

That tells us that perhaps Calgarians are more concerned with things such as taxes and municipal services than they are with their city’s spat with an organization that wants to build a monument to the rich with their money. More importantly, it means Nenshi will be able to, with a mandate behind him, continue to extend what is a very reasonable offer to the Flames, which amounts to a $185-million handout on a project that is expected to cost a little north of $550 million. In return for that, the Flames wouldn’t be able to get tax money earmarked for other things and they’d have to pay a few taxes of their own.

And that’s why they pulled out all the stops in trying to oust Nenshi, including calling in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to comment on the situation. Nenshi -- who once said of Bettman’s pressure tactics, “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. That’s not how we operate here” -- got it from all sides in this campaign and it didn’t stop even after his victory, with a Flames staffer tweeting that Nenshi is worse than Donald Trump. Despite the Flames saying they would not interfere with a staff member’s democratic right to state his opinion, the tweet was quickly deleted.

Nenshi responded to the tweet by saying the Flames “really have to determine, are they a political body or are they a community body?” Nenshi, of course, knows the answer to this one. The Flames are a political body as long as this issue goes unresolved.

And it will get resolved. Nenshi knows it, the Flames know it, the NHL knows it and every hockey fan and non-hockey fan in Calgary knows it. The thing now is that the parameters of the debate just changed. If the Flames want a new arena and want to get moving on it within the next four years, they no longer have the luxury of trying to oust the mayor. The can bring in Bettman for more threatening statements all they want, but it likely won’t accomplish much. And Nenshi may have to give a little more, but not a lot.

And in a couple of years from now, this will all get done and there will be no harm, no foul. What Nenshi’s victory has done is force all sides to actually begin negotiating in earnest.



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