“Calgary Next” Better Be Built Right

Now that the new arenas in Edmonton and Quebec are opened, what’s next on the new arena front in Canada? The is talk about two new projects; a new downtown arena in Ottawa and “Calgary Next”, a joint arena-stadium project costing $890 million (according to the official planners) or costing as much as $1.8 billion (the realists?).

This proposal first saw light of day in 2015. Naturally NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned up in January urging the project be accepted.

(Note to Bettman: Straighten out your Quebec City mess first and get a proper owner for a returned Nordiques team before urging new NHL arenas elsewhere.)

But such projects need to be well thought out before anything is built. Such projects are so complex they can become meaningless and when they are finally built, problems that were not envisaged come to the fore.

Here are two good examples in Canada. When the Olympic Stadium was built for 1976, it was assumed it would be the permanent home of the Montreal Expos and Montreal Alouettes. But nobody liked to watch football and baseball games there. Today the Alouettes play in a much more modest stadium and the Expos are gone, in part because Montreal would not build a new stadium to replace the Olympic Stadium.

The Skydome in Toronto was a similar project that blew up in the faces of its creators. First of all it was built to house the Toronto Blue Jays, the Toronto Argonauts, get the Olympics and an NFL team. But the initial seating, 48,000 was too small for the Olympics or an NFL team. And for baseball, there are some seats in the outfield in the upper deck where it is impossible to see if the fielder catches the ball if it is hit to that side of the outfield. Then it was decided that nobody liked watching a football game in the Skydome and now the Toronto Argonauts play at BMO field.

So if Calgary wants to build a new home for the Flames and Stampeders it had better be done right. This is a long term project and you had better get it right the first time or you will have to live with serious, costly consequences for a very long time. Here are some factors to consider before accepting the project. Remember that the thinking should be for the long term and not just for immediate needs.

FOR WHO

Arena

The arena section is said to be the new home of the NHL Calgary Flames, the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, and the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse League. But what about the NBA? Is there a market for professional basketball in Calgary? A new arena would certainly make Calgary a serious contender for an NBA expansion team. Until the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed all four major professional leagues in North America, NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB were headed to 40 teams, meaning two conferences of four divisions each with five teams in each division. Currently there is no talk about getting an NBA team but it should be a factor when considering this project.

Stadium

The new stadium is supposed to be big enough to house a CFL field for the Stampeders, a soccer field (a new Major League Soccer team?) and serve as a field house facility for the general public. But has anybody considered bringing a MLB team to Calgary? Because of the cold weather, any baseball team would have to play indoors, so this is an ideal project to build a stadium to bring Major League Baseball to Calgary. Currently there is talk of returning baseball to Montreal again if the city builds a suitable stadium. Why not bring baseball to Calgary (and Vancouver) too? Remember, you only get one shot at this so take in all the factors and possible tenants too.

WHERE

There is talk that this complex should be built on reclaimed contaminated land, but factors to consider should be parking, accessibility from public transit, and the impact of the complex on nearby neighborhoods.

SIZE AND DESIGN

It almost goes without saying that the design of the arena-stadium should allow all patrons to see the entire field and not have fiascos like the SkyDome seating. Size is a trickier factor. Is the seating for the hockey/basketball arena enough to generate enough revenue for the Flames to sign top draft choices, stars, and free agents? In today’s NHL/NBA you cannot win by being able to sign one good player. A professional team has to be able to afford to sign several star players. The stadium is said to be anywhere from 30,000 to just over 40,000. Is that big enough? Is that big enough to get an MLB baseball team? Calgary is no longer the city of 500,000 it was back in 1980. It is Canada’s fifth largest city with a population of over one million. Do you want to host the Grey Cup game and if you do, do you want attendance to be 50,000+? Do you want the Summer Olympics? They want a grand march-in stadium of 60,000+. So does the NFL, if you want it. All these factors have to be considered.

COST

The official cost is listed at $890 million but I have seen figures as high as $1.8 billion. If you consider all the possible factors and potential tenants (and they have not been so far), the cost could be much higher. Unforseen factors could be discovered and of course there is the “corruption” factor that nobody ever takes into account. The recent Toronto Pan American Games did not come in under budget.

“Calgary Next” is an exciting project that could solve the long term facility problems for the Flames, Hitmen, Roughnecks,and Stampeders, and perhaps bring Major League Soccer, the NBA, and Major League Baseball too. Calgary should take its time to consider everything before accepting a project of this size. It should be prepared to ask for major modifications, especially if it wants to bring in tenants as yet unconsidered like the NBA and MLB. Take your time to consider everything and get it right. Remember, you only get one shot.

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