FACEOFF OVER NEW ARENA A POLITICAL POWER PLAY
Is a hockey team trying to run Mayor Naheed Nenshi out of City Hall in the Oct. 16 election?
It sure looks that way, after a week in which the Flames backed out of arena talks and blamed the mayor for the breakdown.
Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., via CEO Ken King, insist it wasn’t political. He says owners were upset when the mayor tied his campaign to the assumption of a future deal in Victoria Park.
That wasn’t right because there was no chance of an agreement, King says. But he picked a brutal way to disagree. If the sports group doesn’t want Nenshi sounding positive about the project, it suggests limited enthusiasm for helping him win. And that’s political.
Nenshi’s campaigners, livid, believe the goal is to defeat Nenshi. The mayor himself is equivocal in public, but doesn’t exactly deny it.
His voice dripping with sarcasm, Nenshi said in an interview Friday: “Mr. King very clearly said this has nothing to do with the election, it has nothing to do with the Seattle deal, just purely a coincidental thing. I’m a trustworthy guy, I guess I’ll have to take him at his word on that.”
He also said, “It is a bit strange ... I find it very odd.”
“I will tell you that many folks have tried to make political hay out of this ...
“You really have to go to the other candidates and say, ‘would you give them whatever they want? Is that gonna be fair?’ I think the other candidates have an absolute requirement to actually tell citizens during the election what they’re going to give.”
Nenshi says Coun. Andre Chabot has made it clear he’d put no public money into the arena. “I’d love to hear what the others have to say.”
This is an oblique dig at challenger Bill Smith, the former PC party president who seems to be harvesting conservative support.
Asked about King’s role, Nen- shi says, “I don’t know the man very well. I know him to say hello ... I don’t know that it’s just him ... I think the owners group has a point of view on how they’re going to get the best possible deal. Let’s not forget that there is a script ... It happened in Edmonton, it’s happened in other places.
“So we’ll see how this plays out. But I repeat that the city remains at the table. We’ve never walked away.”
King held a news conference Friday to slam the city’s offer as unworkable and impossible. In the process, he gave a hint of the Flames’ bitterness toward city hall, and especially the mayor.
He suggested politicians don’t value Calgary Sports and Entertainment, or its contribution to the city.
“I have a hunch that our political leadership doesn’t necessarily agree about the value. I’m not saying they don’t like hockey, and I don’t say they don’t like sports, but I don’t think they necessarily see us as part of the community and part of the culture and having public benefit and payback.”
The anger goes back to city treatment of the ambitious CalgaryNEXT project for the west end.
Nenshi, for one, sounded airily dismissive after the sports group put a great deal of effort and money into the proposal for a new rink, football stadium and field house. “We brought CalgaryNEXT forward as a concept,” King said Friday, “but it was never entertained. It was attacked and it was ridiculed.
“It was brilliant and very, very complicated. It was dismissed as a $1.8-billion boondoggle. We challenged that successfully. But we never had an opportunity to find out if it could work.”
City hall wanted the Flames to turn their minds to Victoria Park, which they did, with limited enthusiasm.
On Friday, King would not point to one part of the city’s proposal he likes. He even expressed doubts about the grand revival of the whole Victoria Park area.
Would the Flames welcome a new mayor ready to turn the focus back to CalgaryNEXT?
Do the Flames wear skates?