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Flames losing the public relations battle to popular Calgary mayor

The Flames unveiled their own arena proposal on Thursday, but don't pay much attention to the team's threats or count on the Calgary's mayor bending to the team's demands.

Generally speaking, when most politicians are faced with strong-arming from a professional sports team, they react pretty much the same way hockey-mad dads do when they’re told their son or daughter has unique abilities. They lose all perspective and start throwing money at the situation.

Thankfully for the good people of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi isn’t one of those kinds of politicians. And when this deal gets done with the Calgary Flames for a new arena – and we all know that will happen despite the bleating of the Flames – they’ll be able to thank their mayor for keeping his wits about him and watching out for the interests of his constituents. (This is assuming, of course, that Nenshi stays the course and doesn’t cave in to the Flames and their ham-handed demands for enormous amounts of public money to build a rink.)

The thing is, when teams hold their cities and the people who govern those cities hostage, they almost always win. Because even when they lose they win. And that will likely be the case in Calgary, where the Flames will grudgingly accept a deal they say publicly is not fair, all the while knowing they’re getting more public money than they deserve to build a monument to the rich. That’s the way these things work.

There’s no way Nenshi and the city of Calgary get away without putting public money into a new building for the Flames. But what the city is offering – $185 million, which includes $30 million worth of land and $25 million to demolish the Scotiabank Saddledome, on a project that costs out at $555 million – is more than generous. But as the Flames tried to portray when they revealed the details of their plan to replace the aging rink, that’s not enough. And they’re pulling out all the stops, even referring to themselves as “a small-market team.” It is to laugh. Small market, of course, is all relative. Calgary is, according to its population, a small market. The Arizona Coyotes play in a market that is more than three times the size of Calgary’s, but which fan base would you rather have if you owned a team?

This “small market team” revealed today that it was willing to foot the cost of what it believed would be a $500 million project to the tune of $275 million, which it revealed to be 35 years’ worth of prepaid rent. The other $225 million would come from a community revitalization levy, or CRL, which would essentially direct property tax money from property owners within the immediate area of the new building. The Flames’ proposal would also see them not pay property tax and get the $185 million the city earmarked as ticket surcharge that was part of its proposal.

You have to wonder if the Flames realize how silly they look here. Perhaps they don’t care. After all, they’re taking a page right out of the manual teams use when they want a new facility, which includes demanding an outrageous amount of public money, then make some threats, then visit a facility or two in another city, then rattle the sabers some more and finally get down to negotiating a realistic deal.

And that’s what’s bound to happen here. The Flames aren’t going anywhere. And neither is Nenshi. He’s expected to win the Oct. 16 municipal election in a landslide, which will give him major amounts of currency and a ton of leverage when he and the Flames get around to getting back to the negotiating table.

The Flames, meanwhile, say there is no point for further negotiation and have pledged to continue playing in the Saddledome, “for as long as we believe it is feasible.” Don’t be surprised if that time dovetails nicely with an announcement that the Flames and the city have reached a long-term deal on a rink.

You really can’t blame the Flames for sticking their hand out as far as it will go. And Nenshi is looking out for the best interests of Calgary’s taxpayers, whether they’re Flames’ fans or not. The Flames will get their arena and when they do, they’ll portray themselves as great corporate citizens who are taking a hit and staying in Calgary because it’s the right thing to do. They may even have to pay some property taxes.

But until then, be prepared to hear a whole lot of white noise.

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