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Experts say Flames arena may not sway votes in upcoming provincial election

City of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, and Calgary Sport and Entertainment Corp. CEO John Bean City of Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, and Calgary Sport and Entertainm - The Canadian Press

CALGARY — A political scientist says it's too early to say how a Calgary NHL arena project could play into this spring's provincial election, but notes it may not be the game-changer the United Conservative Party wants it to be.

Lisa Young, a professor at the University of Calgary, said the early anecdotal reaction to the proposal was mixed at best.

"There might have been a temptation to think about this being a certain boost to the party's fortunes in Calgary, and I think that the immediate reaction wasn't exactly that," she said in an interview.

Young said there was a negative reaction from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and some social media comments that criticized both the deal and the broader UCP strategy of trying to win over voters with their own tax dollars.

The $1.2-billion deal between the city, the province, the Calgary Stampede, and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. seeks to replace the aging Saddledome with a new event centre.

The provincial government's $330-million share includes upgrades to infrastructure around the arena, along with the community rink.

Premier Danielle Smith's distinction that the provincial dollars are for infrastructure around the arena won't matter to most voters, Young said.

"In the eyes of most Albertans, this will be seen as money for the arena or at least for the arena deal," she said. "It's hard to imagine that Calgary city council would have agreed to the deal without the province coming forward with that money. So, from that point of view, it's money for the arena."

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said regardless of where the money comes from, there's a price to taxpayers in money that could have been spent or invested elsewhere.

"One way to think about one of those alternative uses is to ask, well, what would it mean for taxpayers if it was used to generate investment income and lower property taxes?" he said.

He said, as an example, if the $538 million committed by the city was invested instead — generating a conservative rate of five per cent return — it would be equivalent to a 2.4 per cent change in residential property taxes, or about $88 for the median homeowner.

"There's always a cost. There's no such thing as a free lunch," Tombe said. "We should be very clear about what the trade-offs are that we are making when contributing public funds to the arena.

“To be clear, this is not an argument against what the city is doing. People will disagree and that's fine, but it is not like (a situation) where the money just grew on trees.”

Young said some Albertans are likely to be thrilled about the idea of a new home for the Calgary Flames, but there's no polling data to suggest whether they are the undecided voters whose minds may be changed.

"There is a group of the so-called reluctant UCP voters — people who voted UCP last time and haven't made up their minds or are wavering right now," she said. "We know they are disproportionately women. Now there are women who are hockey fans but, in terms of probability, less likely, perhaps, to be swayed by this.

"We also know that those reluctant UCP voters make cost of living and affordability their No. 1 priority."

Young said the proposal also may not play well with people outside of Calgary.

"There's certainly some grumbling here," she said. "The contrast between how Calgary is being treated and how Edmonton was treated, I think, is a very clear contrast. And that's going to add to the sense of discontent."

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi noted earlier this week that there was no provincial government support for its new NHL arena about a decade ago.

However, Smith said Wednesday there's likely to be a second phase in the development around Rogers Place, the home of the Edmonton Oilers.

"I fully expect they are going to want us to assist them with some of the infrastructure," she said. "Plus, in order to be able to make that deal work … the Boyle Street shelter does need to be moved and we have a role to play as a province to ensure those who are suffering from homelessness, addiction and mental health have support.

"We want to make sure both of our major cities have vibrant, robust downtowns."

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she supports hockey and revitalizing the downtown, but noted it would be irresponsible to say yes or no to the arena deal until she's able to see more details.

Calgary city council unanimously passed a restricted report on the deal earlier this week, but voted to keep it confidential.

— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.