If you were looking to gauge public support for helping the Calgary Flames replace the aging Saddledome, one assessment couldn’t have been more straightforward.
“(The) answer is clear. There is no support for (a) publicly funded arena,” Coun. Druh Farrell tweeted after Brian Burke, the Flames’ president of hockey operations, had the audacity to put forward the case last week for a new building, while stopping short of asking for any money.
You can just imagine the outcry if taxpayers were to play a role in financing a state-of-the-art $228-million facility — say, $50 million put up by the province, $100 million from the City of Calgary, $68 million from Calgary Economic Development and just $10 million from the prime tenant.
Now of course you’d be hard-pressed to build a new arena for just $228 million, but the figure is useful when comparing the financing for Calgary’s new film studio, which was confirmed with great fanfare on Monday. The project wasn’t immune from public criticism, but few seemed to question a financing formula that requires the anchor tenant, William F. White, to put up just $1 million of the $22.8 million and the province, city and Calgary Economic Development to contribute the rest.
Granted, a new arena would carry a bigger price tag than a film studio, but opposition to helping the Flames build a new home seems to be based on principle — objection to the idea of using public money to fluff up private interests. But the users of the new studio are likely to be private businesses in any case, so why is it so worthy to set them up with the most modern conveniences at public expense, but then balk at lending the Flames a hand?
“There are things the city can do to facilitate the building of a new NHL arena. They can assist with the regulatory process or cut through the red tape for a land deal,” said Derek Fildebrandt, the Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “But there’s no room for public money. This is a business owned by billionaires paying millionaires. It’s grossly unfair to ask Calgarians to pick up the tab.”
The owners of the Flames are indeed well off, and the players well compensated for their talents, but that’s hardly cause to dismiss the idea of providing a measure of support to the team, which even a decade ago, was estimated to have an economic impact of between $75 million and $100 million annually.
Far from denigrating the Flames and their owners, we should count ourselves lucky that they’re part of our community. We’re talking about individuals such as Alvin Libin, who helped establish the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta with a mission of providing world-class cardiovascular health care, education and research. Philanthropist Allan Markin is another of the team’s owners. Along with supporting countless other causes, Markin gave $18 million to the University of Calgary in 2004. The donation capped $22 million in gifts to the U of C by Markin in a five-year period and another $20 million to St. Mary’s University College.
And let’s not forget legendary Flames owners Doc Seaman and Harley Hotchkiss, now deceased, who left their mark on Calgary in many positive ways with landmarks and endowments.
The people who make movies are also billionaires and millionaires, but who would grumble if the Walt Disney Studios were to benefit from Calgary’s new film facilities while creating employment and building awareness of the city, just as the Flames do? Stock in Disney’s parent company is trading at more than $80 a share. Its CEO, Bob Iger, is said to be worth $85 million and receives $30 million a year in salary. And far from carping, we’d all beam with pride if an actress such as Angelina Jolie — who has a net worth of $145 million — were to be spotted on the Calgary set.
So you can set aside the “billionaires paying millionaires” malarkey. The Flames’ owners are community leaders who have made a home in Calgary for decades and been generous in their support. Calgarians should be wary of getting drawn into a costly arrangement like the one Edmontonians fell victim to with the construction of their new rink, but it’s cold-hearted and short-sighted to reject the notion of any public financial support for a new arena.
Calgarians have an enviable record of accomplishing great things, and they do it by working together, not by fostering divisions, whether it’s over a film studio or a defining structure like a sports facility.
David Marsden is a member of the Herald editorial board.
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