Joe McFarland: Expect new arena talks to start up again in Calgary

Drawing of proposed CalgaryNEXT project. Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation

History has a funny way of repeating itself sometimes.

That said, don’t be surprised if a new arena deal is announced in the next few weeks or months. And by arena, I mean events centre.

Over the last few weeks, we have been inundated with talk of and then the actual vote surrounding a possible bid with the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. All the while, the debate over a deal between the city and the Flames has remained virtually quiet.

All except a few tweets from Councillor Jeff Davison.

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That was when I realized we are entering a new era in the negotiations and I wondered out loud if I have seen this story before.

Between 2006 and 2010, my career took me to Medicine Hat to work at a pair of radio stations. That time was highlighted by the highly-politicized and publicized debate over building a new arena in Medicine Hat to replace the old structure, aptly named The Arena.

The debate took a very similar feel to the one created here when we were introduced to CalgaryNEXT in 2015.

“Why would we build something just for hockey players?,” Hatters shouted. “Where is the public benefit?”

Sound familiar?

After a few, shall we say, contentious years — including one vote at the council table where a councillor actually requested and was granted the chance to change his vote after claiming he pressed the wrong button — all seemed lost.

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Then a new council came in and the conversation started to change. Instead of calling it an “arena”, those tasked with developing a plan to build a new building started calling it an “events centre.”

The argument for the change surrounded a couple of different issues.

One was to create an understanding that it was more than just a hockey rink. It would be the home for concerts, expos and other major events.

I vividly remember one presentation from the Spectrum Group in Philadelphia where councillors were told that for an events centre to be successful — a.k.a. profitable — it needs to be utilized for 100-110 dates per year.

LISTEN: Ward 14 councillor Peter Demong joins Calgary Today to discuss the possibility of a new event centre coming to Calgary

I have a feeling this is one of the key reasons why we’re now seeing talk of a Calgary “events centre” instead of an arena. You will likely hear chatter about concerts, trade shows and other events we could have had.

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The other reason they changed the definition of the facility was in hopes of getting senior levels of government — provincial and federal — to pony up some cash. They went so far as to dub it a “regional events centre” to service all of southeastern Alberta to sweeten the pot.

Maybe the hope is the city and CSEC can get some other sources of funding. Maybe that will save them money on the big project, which will allow them to cost-share on other projects like a replacement for McMahon Stadium or even the much-needed fieldhouse project.

I’m just spitballing of course, but I fully expect talks surrounding the new arena, errr, events centre will only ramp up. The fact it’s been quiet thus far is a good thing in my books, as the two sides likely learned a lot from the CalgaryNEXT experience.

I also wouldn’t be shocked if we have a new proposal officially on the table sooner rather than later.

After the Olympics, this city is looking for something to rally around. And if those at the bargaining table can find something they both agree on, it will be much easier for Calgarians to get behind it.


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