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Alberta Premier hopes funding for Flames arena won't become election issue

Danielle Smith Danielle Smith - The Canadian Press

CALGARY — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, a day after linking $330 million in provincial money for a Calgary NHL arena project to her United Conservatives getting re-elected, told reporters Wednesday she hopes it doesn’t become an election issue.

But Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley says Smith doesn’t get to take it back.

Notley said Smith has openly and directly tied the $1.2-billion project to the ballot box and is now obligated to give voters as much information as possible so they can make an informed decision.

That includes, said Notley, the secret financial details of who is on the hook for what in the deal involving the province, the City of Calgary and the owners of the Calgary Flames hockey team.

“It’s a confidential agreement between all three parties that outline additional financial exposure, additional financial obligations and opportunities for all three parties, including the potential of more exposure for the public and for taxpayers,” Notley said.

“People on my team were advised (about) that by officials today.

“When we asked for more detail (and) if we could get a copy of the agreement, we were told no. All parties have agreed that agreement must remain confidential for six to eight weeks.”

The election campaign begins Monday, and the six-to-eight-week deadline takes it past the May 29 polling day.

“I am calling on Danielle Smith to make those details public,” said Notley.

“Danielle Smith is the only one of those parties who suggested that support of this deal should be on the ballot. And if she's going to do that, then she has to be sharing that information. That's all there is to it.”

Smith’s spokesman Colin Aitchison said there is no secret agreement and that all financial details are on the City of Calgary website.

“The allegations made by Ms. Notley in her press statement and news conference are untrue,” said Aitchison in a statement.

“Despite the premier’s invitation to Ms. Notley yesterday to join with her in support of this deal, the NDP has decided to oppose it – and worse – to criticize the parties and efforts of those involved.”

On Tuesday, Smith stood with other dignitaries in Calgary to announce the framework of the deal to replace the Flames’ current Saddledome rink with a new $800-million home, along with a community rink that the Flames would also use as a practice facility.

“(There’s) still one more hurdle in front of us as we get to the finish line,” Smith said Tuesday.

“After the election, the province’s contribution to this arena deal must be approved by provincial cabinet and the Treasury Board before the end of summer.

“That's why on May 29, I'm hoping Calgarians give our UCP government a clear mandate to proceed with this arena deal.”

On Wednesday, Smith told reporters, “I'm hoping that this doesn't become an election issue.

“I would hope that in the spirit of unanimity, we would see the same kind of approach of all the political parties in supporting this deal.

“I'm really hopeful that the next government -- regardless of who it is -- is going to honour the deal.”

Notley said her party supports hockey and supports revitalizing Calgary but said it would be irresponsible to say yes or no to supporting the arena deal until she first sees details, including the risks and financial exposure to taxpayers.

“We've got secrecy and we've got game playing, and it's disrespectful to Alberta voters,” said Notley.

Smith was also asked why she now supports the project given that years earlier, as Opposition Wildrose leader, she rejected the concept of using public money for such massive private ventures as an NHL arena.

The premier said her views remain consistent given the province is committing to infrastructure around the arena, along with the community rink, but not to the NHL building itself.

“What I wanted to do is respect provincial taxpayers and I knew that provincial taxpayers would not want us to directly fund the team in capital or operating (expense),” said Smith.

The province will also pay to demolish the Saddledome.

Smith said the province is not on the hook for any cost overruns and its maximum commitment is $330 million.

Notley said if Smith is now claiming the government’s commitment is all about infrastructure and not the arena, “I query why she was at the press conference yesterday, and I also query why she’s trying to tie it to how Calgarians and Albertans vote.

“She’s speaking out of both sides of her mouth.”

-- By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2023.