By W. Brett Wilson
The recent flurry of administration flubs and related stories around Calgary's potential 2026 Olympic bid are only serving to cloud the real issues and elevate public confusion.
If we are going to commit to hosting the Games in eight years, we owe it to ourselves to do real due diligence — and to embrace common sense in the process. That means we need to do two things: establish a business-focused bid committee and poll educated Calgary taxpayers on what they really want.
First, let's get clear on the economics. The bill for hosting is expected to be north of $4.5 billion (in 2018 dollars). Yes we can expect to gain "significant spin-off benefits" (unquantified as to who benefits and how much) and some $2 billion in civic infrastructure (but not a C-train line to the airport?).
Special purpose facilities rarely generate significant long-term economic spinoff. More general use infrastructure assets (like a new field house, stadium, world class art gallery, or upgraded hockey arena) certainly do. For years, this council has been unable to justify spending several hundred million on any one of those big-ticket facilities. Yet now our city administration can justify billions for a two-week Olympics with no solid evidence of fundamental fiscal return? Something's not adding up.
Another thing missing in the economic evaluation: cooperation with other communities. Where are Edmonton (who offered) and Red Deer in these conversations? Likewise, why are we not talking with Vancouver to consider ways to use their existing facilities?
Let's ask people how much of a loss they would be comfortable taking.
While we wonder whether the provincial or federal governments will help with this bid, our leaderless council and fumbling administration are considering a plebiscite based on a likely biased question. I implore council to consider another option.
Let's QUICKLY poll all residents who are on the city tax rolls. With a bit of effort, we could also include Enmax customers to broaden the reach. Let's immediately create an online poll for our taxpayers. That's easy and cheap — and we all know it. Let's ask taxpayers to respond on a sliding scale — rather than a simple (and likely misleading) yes or no.
Let's ask people how much of a loss they would be comfortable taking. Let's ask how they think we should fund any shortfall (increase taxes, cost of services, add debt?). Let's dig deep into what kind of community infrastructure Calgarians actually want (stadium, airport C-Train, new convention center, arena or fieldhouse).
We could even put the fluoride question back on the table.
Finally, let's get real on the question of who should be guiding the process. If Council wanted to establish trust and credibility with taxpayers, they should have started by ensuring the bid committee had a stronger representation of business leaders capable of assessing the business value of the Games. It worked very well for Calgary '88. And in Vancouver. With all due respect, Olympic athletes and former police chiefs are just not sufficient to the task.
If we are going to strike a BidCo, let the major criterion for selection be business and management expertise — regardless of political stripes.
I passionately support hosting 2026, but only on terms that are economic to Calgary. It's possible that hosting the 2026 Olympic Winter Games could be a great boost for Calgary. It's also possible we could be paying them off for the decades to come.
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Too many questions need to be answered before we can say yes — or no — to this Olympic bid. A little common sense would go a long way in making the choice clear — and the future of our city more secure.
Let's stop and reload — the artificial deadline of the IOC is meaningless if the economics don't work. And let's remember that we may WANT this event, but we don't NEED this event.
Poll the people through mail and townhalls. Be mindful of the economics. It's not too late.
A version of this blog originally appeared in the Calgary Herald.
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