Flames’ Ken King makes the case for $550M-Calgary arena

Ken King is pushing hard for Calgarians to support a tentative deal for a new arena.

The Calgary Flames need a new home, says the vice-chairman of Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, which owns the professional hockey team. And King says this deal  — priced at $550 million — is the right option.

Calgarians have until noon Friday to tell the city what they think of the new arena deal, and have it go on the public record. Calgary taxpayers would be on the hook for half the total cost, to the tune of $275 million.

It’s a big ask, especially when council has just made deep cuts to the city’s operating budget. But council intends to vote next week.

King spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Thursday to make the case for a new arena.

Here is a condensed version of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why should the taxpayers of Calgary pay $275 million so a privately owned professional hockey team can have a shiny new arena to play in?

A: Well, actually I don’t think they should. What they need to decide is whether or not building that Rivers District and and building a new arena and building out our city is a worthwhile or not.

We need a place to play. I don’t think that’s any enlightenment. So it really is about the whole package, the BMO Centre; it’s about the whole situation.

They should not give us any money. By the way, they’re not giving us any money. It’ll be a city-owned building.

We’ll play in it, hopefully for a long, long time, and we’ll be able to solidify our future in the long term.

(City of Calgary)

We’ve been at this for a long time. It’s been 10 years. We don’t characterize it as some would like to characterize it as somebody giving something to us.

I’m so proud of our owners. They’re prepared to write a cheque for $275 million to invest in our city. That’s a very big number in this day and age — in any day and age. So I have no qualms and no defensiveness on this issue at all. I think we’ve come up with a really good package for everybody.

Q: I get that it’s been billed as an events centre. But how many events outside of hockey games can you hold in this place? I mean, what are the numbers on this?

A: We’re down to now as low as sort of 25-26 down from a high of the mid 30s. I think you can probably get to 40-45 with other events, concerts, cultural events, WE Days, Oprahs, you name it.

I think now with a new and more kind of versatile building, including the community space outside, I think we will even be able to be creative and do some more. Ideally, you’d like the thing to operate 24/7. It won’t but that would be the best objective.

Q: Can I talk about the timing of the delivery this deal? Here we are, midsummer, Calgarians on holiday. Furthest thing from their minds is hockey games and the Flames right now — maybe not for you but for everybody else. And there’s a sense on the outside looking in that this is something they’re trying to slip into a sleepy, summer season and make a rush to a decision.

A: This would be the clumsy, slippery process ever known. We’ve been at this for years. You know that, David? Yeah, we’ve sat in your other office and we looked across the street at West Village or would have become possibly West Village and dreamt the dreams: field houses and football stadiums and arenas.

And we really thought that was compelling and necessary. That did not turn out to be. We were invited to come to East Village and to the River District. We weren’t nuts about it. We weren’t crazy about it. But we’re pragmatic, too.

A rendering, right, shows the proposed events centre that would replace the Saddledome, left, in Victoria Park. (CBC, City of Calgary)

We can’t only look after our own needs and issues here. We have to be team players — pardon a sports cliche. So it’s it’s been a long, long process, one of which, given the last iteration before this one, I was never sure we were ever going to talk again. Not because we didn’t want to. Just didn’t seem there was an ability to gain common ground. 

When Councillors Davison and Sutherland and Keating and Barry Munro [president of Ernst & Young Orenda Corporate Finance] came to us, and said, “Look, would you just consider this more seriously?” We said, “Sure.”

We had a couple of requests, one of which was that it was expedient because we have to get on with our lives. If we’re relegated to playing in the Saddledome, we have to figure out how to do that on a very long term. If the city is saying, “Look, there’s no room, there’s no way to do this,” then CMLC [Calgary Municipal Land Corporation] has got to figure out how they’re gonna develop that area without it. The Stampede has to figure out how they’re going to do.

(City of Calgary)

So nobody snuck up on this. We would have hoped that this would have been done six months ago. We need to do a deal when a deal can be done. Multi-part is complicated. I frankly think the voices of delay, delay, delay are not voices of delay. They’re the voices of don’t do this.

You know what? That’s a privilege. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, other people, they’re really just looking to buy some time in order to figure out how to nuke it.

Q: I appreciate the points you’re making but does anyone have a gun to their head in this thing at any point? At any point, did the Flames ownership group say, “Get this deal done, get it done the way we want it or we’re gonna walk?” Was that ever part of the conversation?

A: Never, and I would refer you to the committee and the several hundred hours of meetings that we’ve had. We just said, “Look, this is complicated. It’s very big money.

It requires a big allocation of capital and a huge commitment from our owners, and all they’re really saying is, “Just give us an answer so we can understand what the future looks like.”

Q: Is this deal better than Edmonton’s, in your view, when Edmonton built their arena?

A: Not for us.

Q: But is it a better deal for the city, in your view?

A: Absolutely. It’s not for me to opine on Edmonton deals.They made their agreement.

Q: We’re trying to compare apples to apples as close as we can, and that’s our closest comparison.

A: You look at Winnipeg, you look at Calgary, you look at Edmonton, you look at cities like this in this size, and we’ve said this frequently, these are pretty marginal pro team cities. They’re kind of the minimum standard and it’s just impossible to do. If we can’t do it, we’re big boys and girls, we’ll have to live with a No. But what we can’t live with is procrastination and continued filibuster.

Those people that don’t want to do this should simply say that and say it out loud, whether they’re a politician or an economist or anything else, and they should do their level best to kill it. Others should hopefully do the reverse.

Q: The mayor supports this deal. But the mayor says the optics around this are terrible. I think you probably agree. The question is, how in good conscience can you bring this deal forward at the same time the city is making cuts to the police department, the fire department, after-school programs, all of that? “Oh yeah, but we should spend money on an arena.” That can be tough.

A: I think that’s really completely valid.… If you look back over the last two years, I don’t know when it ever could have been good timing.

We muse about what can we explain, the difference between capital and operating costs, to the general public. Will they get it? I think the general public is pretty smart. They understand that if this deal goes away, you’re not changing the cuts. You’re going to cut what you need to cut for fiscal prudence and run your city. And they may make more cuts. I don’t know. That’s not my job.

But they’re not related. If you want to spend your capital money on operating, ultimately, you’ll be out of capital and you’ll still have an operating problem.

So again I’m not here to sell anything. I’m just here to say that, at your invitation, that we managed to cobble together a deal that works for a whole bunch of people. And the council are charged with making that decision and they’re going to make it … and we’ll live with what they are.

We’re not running a campaign, we’re not trying to convince people of anything other than there is a deal that’s available now. Pay your money and make your choices for them and that’s it.

What do you think? Should Calgary agree to pitch in $275 million for a new hockey arena? Share your opinion in the comments.

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