How the numbers add up for Cal­gary’s Olympic bid

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - AL­LAN MAKI

As the city pro­motes its Games pro­posal ahead of plebiscite, those op­posed say $5.23-bil­lion es­ti­mate is a colos­sal low-ball

They don’t agree on host­ing the 2026 Win­ter Olympics or what ef­fect it would have on the lo­cal econ­omy. But the ri­val fac­tions in Cal­gary’s bid for its sec­ond Win­ter Games in 38 years can agree on one point: $5.23-bil­lion will not be the fi­nal cost.

Yes Cal­gary, which is pro­mot­ing a bid in the lead-up to the Nov. 13 plebiscite, is adamant that se­cur­ing the Games would come with $3bil­lion in gov­ern­ment fund­ing and that means the real cost of the Olympics to Cal­gar­i­ans would be far less. (Nei­ther the prov­ince nor Ottawa has com­mit­ted to a fig­ure yet.)

“It’s not a $5.2-bil­lion cost when you’re get­ting the rev­enues,” said Stephen Carter, a strate­gist for the pro 2026 side.

Those op­posed to a Cal­gary bid, a group dub­bing it­self No Cal­gary, clar­ify they don’t want the Olympics “at this point in time.” Founder Dan Gauld says $5.23-bil­lion is a colos­sal low­ball and he points out that the bid com­mit­tee’s bud­get is pro­jected to be less than than the $7.7-bil­lion Van­cou­ver spent on hav­ing the Win­ter Olympics in 2010. But John Fur­long, the for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Van­cou­ver Olympics, noted the true cost of 2010 was closer to $4-bil­lion: The new rapid-tran­sit line and con­ven­tion cen­tre built in time for the Games were never a project of the Van­cou­ver Games or­ga­niz­ers, nor should they have been put on the Olympic tab, he ar­gued.

Mr. Carter, the po­lit­i­cal ad­viser who was the cam­paign man­ager that first got Na­heed Nen­shi elected mayor then later served as Premier Ali­son Red­ford’s chief of staff, admit­ted chal­leng­ing the mind­set sur­round­ing the $5.23-bil­lion price tag will not be easy.

“Peo­ple are pretty hung up on the idea that this is $5.2-bil­lion of Cal­gary tax­payer money. They are grab­bing onto it pre­tend­ing like that’s the real num­ber,” Mr. Carter said. He also points to the prov­ince’s strug­gling econ­omy as a fac­tor. “I think it’s be­cause peo­ple are re­ally an­gry right now. They don’t see this as a way out of our [eco­nomic] sit­u­a­tion. They see this as fur­ther wors­en­ing of our sit­u­a­tion.”

But there are out­side ex­perts who be­lieve Cal­gary could in­deed host an Olympics for less than what Van­cou­ver paid. Robert VanWyns­berghe, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia who did a post-2010 study for the Cana­dian Olympic Com­mit­tee, agreed with Mr. Fur­long’s view.

“It re­ally de­pends whether in­fra­struc­ture costs for cer­tain things - like a high-speed trans­porta­tion link to the air­port or an arena – are at­trib­uted to the Games, or seen as good tim­ing,” Mr. VanWyns­berghe wrote in an e-mail.

Dan Ma­son, the Univer­sity of Al­berta pro­fes­sor who con­sulted for the City of Ed­mon­ton dur­ing its down­town arena project, noted ev­ery Games “has its own unique bud­get. … Some costs, like se­cu­rity, can change dra­mat­i­cally. If some­thing hap­pens in a broader geopo­lit­i­cal con­text, such as a ter­ror­ist attack, it would change th­ese costs sig­nif­i­cantly.”

Chang­ing costs are as much an Olympic sta­ple as pin trad­ing. Mr. Gauld in­sisted ev­ery Olympics “since the 1960s has been more than 130 per cent over bud­get.”

Dur­ing that time frame, the Games have seen the ex­cess of its ways: Los Angeles posted a sur­plus of US$200-mil­lion in 1984 with a strong cor­po­rate ap­proach; Sochi spent a record US$51-bil­lion on the 2014 Win­ter Olympics; and af­ter 40 years Mon­treal fi­nally cleared its 1976 Olympic debt, which had grown to $1.6-bil­lion, 13 times the orig­i­nal es­ti­mate.

Cal­gary 2026 has listed $900-mil­lion as the cost of ren­o­vat­ing its ex­ist­ing Olympic fa­cil­i­ties [ex­clud­ing the ski jump, since the event would be held in Whistler, B.C.] and build­ing a new field house and 5,000-seat com­mu­nity arena specif­i­cally for the Games. That has led some peo­ple to think the small arena is a bar­gain­ing chip to be played in ne­go­ti­a­tions for a larger one to re­place the Sco­tia­bank Sad­dle­dome.

“You know some­one is even­tu­ally go­ing to ask, ‘What are we build­ing a 5,000-seat arena for. We might as well build a whole new arena,’ ” Mr. Gauld said.

The Cal­gary Flames walked away from arena talks last Septem­ber say­ing they were frus­trated with the process. Talks have since re­newed in a quiet, back-room fash­ion.

There are out­side ex­perts who be­lieve Cal­gary could in­deed host an Olympics for less than what Van­cou­ver paid.

CHRIS BOLIN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Can­more Nordic Cen­tre Pro­vin­cial Park was the site of the 1988 Games. Cal­gary 2026 es­ti­mates the cost of ren­o­vat­ing ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties at $900-mil­lion.

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