Games plebiscite a much closer race than many ex­pected

With Cal­gary’s Olympic-bid cam­paign near­ing the fin­ish line, fond mem­o­ries of 1988 fade amid skep­ti­cism and cost-over­run fears

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - NEWS - JUSTIN GIOVANNETTI

Cal­gary’s bid for the 2026 Win­ter Olympics was sup­posed to be an easy sell to a city with fond mem­o­ries of the ’88 Games and where res­i­dents are look­ing for an es­cape from years of eco­nomic trou­bles. In­stead, it has turned into a bit­terly di­vi­sive de­bate marred by con­cerns about costs, gov­ern­ment in­fight­ing and a level of pub­lic skep­ti­cism that has taken bid or­ga­niz­ers by sur­prise.

The city’s pur­suit of the Games has been dom­i­nated in re­cent weeks by wide­spread pub­lic con­fu­sion over a $5.1-bil­lion bud­get and a last-minute fund­ing pro­posal that did not an­swer ques­tions about who would be on the hook for cost over­runs. Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi has de­scribed a late Oc­to­ber scram­ble be­tween all three lev­els of gov­ern­ment to se­cure fund­ing for the Olympics, marked by pub­lic bick­er­ing be­tween of­fi­cials in Al­berta and Ot­tawa, as “gross.” Coun­cil has also lost its en­thu­si­asm for the project and a ma­jor­ity voted against the bid last week.

The fi­nal days be­fore a Nov. 13 plebiscite, in which Cal­gar­i­ans will be asked whether they want to con­tinue with a bid, have been a strug­gle for the 2026 Cal­gary bid cor­po­ra­tion. Sit­ting in a fourth­floor con­fer­ence room over­look­ing down­town Cal­gary, chief ex­ec­u­tive Mary Mo­ran and the bid group chair Scott Hutch­e­son say they didn’t an­tic­i­pate the level of neg­a­tive feel­ing the bid would face.

“Why is ev­ery­one so caught up in fear and skep­ti­cism when there is an abun­dance of hope?” said Mr. Hutch­e­son, an­swer­ing a ques­tion about the risk of pos­si­ble cost over­runs. “It’s a re­mark­able place we are in and to sit here with you, I just have to say, you have to ask us about the up­side be­fore the end of this. Be­cause we can’t just an­swer ev­ery ques­tion for days and weeks about all the neg­a­tiv­ity.”

At sev­eral points dur­ing a 30minute sit-down with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Hutch­e­son used the word “fear” to de­scribe the atti- tude the bid cor­po­ra­tion has faced in the days be­fore the plebiscite. “I’m so tired of fear. Can you ask us about hope?” he asked.

The bid cor­po­ra­tion, as well as an un­af­fil­i­ated group ad­vo­cat­ing for the Yes side in the plebiscite, are staffed with high-pro­file con­sul­tants and have pub­licly dis­closed an ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get of more than $1-mil­lion to per­suade Cal­gar­i­ans to stick with the Olympic bid. The city’s ho­tel as­so­ci­a­tion has also said it will pay to light a large caul­dron at the top of Cal­gary Tower in the evenings be­fore the plebiscite. The No side is made up of a hand­ful of vol­un­teers and, when asked by The Globe, said their ad­ver­tis­ing bud­get was about $10 – the cost of a few cups of cof­fee with vot­ers.

De­spite the lop­sided bat­tle over Cal­gary’s Olympic dreams, the his­tory of Olympic ref­er­en­dums doesn’t bode well for the city’s bid. A grow­ing num­ber of ci­ties have walked away from po­ten­tial bids af­ter failed votes, and only one plebiscite in re­cent decades has led to the Games: the 2003 vote that cleared the way for Van­cou­ver’s bid for the 2010 Win­ter Olympics.

Emma May, an or­ga­nizer for the Yes side, said the bid has faced a num­ber of head­winds over the past month. The city had promised to have a com­pleted bid bud­get for res­i­dents to read at least 30 days be­fore the vote. The bud­get was more than two weeks late. “For the No side, that was an easy thing to pick on when we didn’t have the deal yet,” she said.

While the Yes side has drawn heav­ily on Cal­gary’s ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter host­ing the 1988 Win­ter Olympics and the legacy of new venues, Ms. May said much of the op­po­si­tion has come from the city’s cur­rent eco­nomic stag­na­tion.

“I’m sur­prised that neg­a­tiv­ity has at­tached it­self to this project. You can pick up a real frus­tra­tion about the state of the econ­omy. We had an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter 1988 and we’ve been in the dol­drums be­fore, but there is a real sense of pow­er­less­ness in the elec­torate. They are wor­ried about pipe­lines, they are wor­ried about the oil price dif­fer­en­tial and they don’t have con­trol over that. This has be­come a way for peo­ple to ex­press them­selves and re­ject all lev­els of gov­ern­ment,” she said.

Speak­ing to Cal­gary’s Cham- ber of Com­merce on Thurs­day, Mr. Nen­shi high­lighted the city’s eco­nomic woes. There is cur­rently as much empty of­fice space in down­town Cal­gary as the city of Van­cou­ver has in to­tal of­fice space, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Nen­shi.

The Olympics would bring a “huge eco­nomic ben­e­fit, $4.4-bil­lion in­jected into the lo­cal econ­omy. So from a dol­lars-and-cents per­spec­tive, it’s hard to pass up on this op­por­tu­nity,” the mayor said. In re­cent weeks, a num­ber of econ­o­mists have ques­tioned whether the eco­nomic ben­e­fits would hap­pen, es­pe­cially the 15,000 jobs Mr. Nen­shi says the Olympics would cre­ate.

“It’s an amaz­ing deal for Cal­gary. It’s bet­ter than any­thing I could have imag­ined when we started this process,” Mr. Nen­shi said, adding that he is un­de­terred by the crit­i­cism.

The mayor said he has seen in­ter­nal polling over the past few days show­ing mo­men­tum swing­ing to­ward the Yes side.

Most peo­ple have al­ready made up their minds about how they’ll vote, said Erin Waite, a spokes­woman for the No cam­paign.

“It prob­a­bly has been a sur- prise to some that it has been as chal­leng­ing as it has been for them. I think that re­flects a lack of con­sid­er­a­tion about how dif­fer­ent Cal­gary is to­day from 1988,” she said. “This project comes at the ex­clu­sion of many, many things Cal­gar­i­ans need right now.”

Ac­cord­ing to city staff, Cal­gary’s $390-mil­lion in ex­pected spend­ing on the Games, along with a fur­ther $200-mil­lion in con­tin­gen­cies, would leave the city’s cap­i­tal bud­get largely tapped for the next decade. Ms. Waite said she’s con­cerned that the city’s slim bud­get for the Games, which has al­ready seen sub­stan­tial cuts to the ex­pected cost of se­cu­rity and hous­ing, could go sig­nif­i­cantly over the es­ti­mates.

Back at the bid cor­po­ra­tion, Ms. Mo­ran said that wor­ries about cost over­runs are overblown. Un­like other Olympics, the city’s bid calls for the con­struc­tion of only two new venues as well as the re­fur­bish­ment of 11 more. “They are ob­sessed,” Ms. Mo­ran said about the ques­tions she’s re­ceived about over­runs. “There aren’t go­ing to be any over­runs.”

JEFF MCIN­TOSH/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Cal­gary Olympic-bid sup­port­ers pose in a photo booth dur­ing a rally on Mon­day. Cal­gary res­i­dents will vote on whether to con­tinue pur­su­ing the 2026 Win­ter Games on Tues­day.

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