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Calgary opts to cut public services as it subsidizes hockey billionaires

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Calgary cityscape. Photo: Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr

Really, what can one say about the deal the City of Calgary struck with the Flames professional hockey club yesterday for the former Cowtown's taxpayers to subsidize half the cost of a new arena for the team to the tune of $225 million at the same moment as this city slashes $60 million from its budgets for fire, transit, affordable housing and police services?

I mean, other than, "What the actual (EXPLETIVE DELETED)" -- which is, in fact, what a lot of people were saying on social media yesterday.

The message from the city is now simultaneously, "we're broke -- dontcha know? -- sacrifices must be made," and "this arena is a great deal for the city!"

To acknowledge that the optics of this are bad, as an embarrassed-sounding Mayor Naheed Nenshi did at an evening news conference, is to understate things considerably. "The optics of this stink, this is really terrible timing," he said. "But if the deal is ready to go, I'm not about to hold it back."

City Councillor Jeff Davison -- who represents well-heeled west-side neighbourhoods and campaigned on his "pro-business attitude" -- got closer to what I imagine council is actually thinking when he blew off concerns about the cuts by saying, sure, "the timing is not ideal. We know there's a lot of things going on with respect to the budget. But when you really look at $60 million worth of cuts, that's really talking about two to three per cent of our operational budget. The sky's not going to fall for two to three per cent." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, we don't really care about the optics, the Flames' billionaire owners want a new arena and by gosh we're going to give it to them. People who want transit or quick response times from emergency services in their déclassé east-side suburbs can pound sand.

Calgarians will have a week to contribute their two-cents worth on this, which I'm sure will be considered thoughtfully by council. So if they have anything to say, they'd better get crackin'.

After that, it seems likely the deal will be swiftly passed and everything will get back to normal, with municipal and provincial politicians from Calgary kvetching that we're broke here in Alberta, and blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government for it. Albertans certainly shouldn't look for critical comments about this deal from Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party Calgary MLAs or any change in their poor-us rhetoric.

That is to say, expect standard operating procedure, which in Calgary as elsewhere means irony is dead and doublethink is alive and well.

As for whether or not the new arena turns out to be a good deal for the city remains to be seen, but the auguries are not particularly promising.

The city manager's report to council indicates "no time value of money accounted." About which University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe tweeted: "OMFG!!!!!"

The city will own the building, while billionaire-heavy Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. (CSEC) will run it till it's time for the city to tear down the wreck and pony up for a new one or see the team move to Seattle or Halifax.

Speaking of which, CSEC Vice-Chair Ken King thanked everyone for their excellent service, and, as the CBC's reporter put it, "confirmed that the 35-year deal means the Flames won't be going anywhere." King is a former publisher of the Calgary Herald whose legacy lives on at the former newspaper of record, so don't look for any incisive coverage of this deal there.

As for the supposed benefits of subsidies for professional sports teams, the consensus among economists seems to be that there aren't very many. They rudely dismiss the inevitable promises of jobs and tourists as bogus.

Still, there are "intangible benefits." In Edmonton, for example, heavily subsidized drugstore billionaire Daryl Katz appears to have quietly decamped for Vancouver, and thence to Los Angeles. "Go Oilers!"

Neither Calgary nor Alberta is broke, of course. The city could afford a new arena for the Flames and a decent transit system. But that would mean fair business taxes, not to mention a commitment to public services, and we know that's not going to fly.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr

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