Varcoe: How the event centre sparks hope of new ‘anchor’ for city

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New hotels, new public gathering spots, a new area for restaurants, bars and retail — and a new event centre.

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The city announced this week it’s reached a deal in principle with Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. (CSEC), the province and the Calgary Stampede to move forward on a new $1.2-billion arena/event centre, located just north of the Saddledome in east Victoria Park.

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It also comes with an array of related infrastructure investments planned for the Rivers District.

The news was heralded by city officials, the Flames ownership group and a provincial UCP government running to get re-elected, but it also reignited hopes the development will revitalize a struggling downtown and unlock more business investment in the area.

“It really creates that additional anchor in this culture and entertainment district,” Stampede CEO Joel Cowley said in an interview, pointing out that the ongoing BMO Centre expansion and a new hotel will create a top-tier convention centre.

“For this to be a Tier 1 convention city, we need hotel support, and we need restaurants and we need retail. An event centre complex will truly expedite . . . the development that’s needed.”

The arena deal, more than a decade in the making, is proceeding with the new memorandum of understanding, although a definitive agreement and more details — including the project’s timeline — will be worked out in the coming weeks and months.

The city has agreed to pick up $537 million of the project’s tab, with CSEC contributing $356 million and the province adding $330 million to pay for transportation work, land, site clearing — including demolition of the Saddledome — and half of the cost of a new community rink.

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The Stampede will transfer land to the city that will pave the way for the centre, and the broader entertainment district surrounding it.

The complex will be built at the same location proposed in the 2019 arena agreement, a deal that collapsed two years later. It’s to be situated on a 10-acre parcel of land, slightly larger than the earlier plan.

The larger footprint will provide additional room for the community rink and other facilities, including plans for retail along Stampede Trail and an outdoor and indoor plaza.

“Most of the modern arenas and stadiums, they really focus on creating an entertainment experience surrounding the stadium or the arena, and so this one creates additional opportunity for that — whether it’s restaurants or retail — connected with the complex,” Cowley said.

The event centre will be built on parking lots that currently belong to the Stampede. The land where the Saddledome now stands will become part of Stampede Park, he added.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek and Premier Danielle Smith pose with Calgary Flames legend Lanny McDonald.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek and Premier Danielle Smith pose with Calgary Flames legend Lanny McDonald. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

Civic officials believe a new centre will generate additional demand for new hotels to accommodate an increase in visitors.

“The greatest feature of what we are doing is that this type of investment invites other investments,” said Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

“I have no doubt that there will be interest from hotels, there will be interest from residential and commercial developers. That’s what allows this district to build out.”

The $500-million BMO Centre expansion, to be completed next year, will add 565,000 square feet of convention space. Plans for a 220-room Stampede Park hotel were announced in December, with construction expected to begin next year.

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“This (centre) is absolutely a critical piece in the puzzle,” said Mark Wilson, vice-president and a partner with the Hotel Arts Group and the incoming chair of Tourism Calgary.

“With an arena and entertainment district and an (expanded) BMO Centre, I think it will allow us to see a new day. Stampede Park will never be the same once this is built. It really is going to become world-class.”

Wilson sees the new arena to replace the Saddledome drawing more events and concerts to the city, attracting additional business to local restaurants and hotels.

The Saddledome opened 40 years ago, built at a cost of $100 million, and the saga to replace it has been playing out for years.

A plan to build an event centre in east Victoria Park led to a deal in July 2019, with CSEC and city hall agreeing to partner on a $550-million facility, with a 50-50 cost split.

As the price tag escalated on the project, the agreement fell apart in December 2021.

Discussions between CSEC, the city and Calgary’s consultants restarted last year and have been progressing this winter.

Moshe Lander, a sports economist with Concordia University, said the selected site makes sense, given its central location, links to transit infrastructure and the city’s efforts to revitalize the core.

“It’s right next to the existing arena, so it’s already had its proof of concept,” he said.

“It’s downtown adjacent, and it fits in with the city’s broader design of how they want to reimagine these various districts within the downtown and the Beltline.”

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The tourism and hospitality sector, which is still recovering from the downturn tied to the pandemic, welcomed news of an event centre deal, as did downtown proponents.

“It is huge for every business in the area,” said Ernie Tsu, who owns Trolley 5 Brewpub on 17th Avenue S.W. and is president of the Alberta Hospitality Association.

“It sends a message all the way across the country that this city can get stuff done,” said Scott Hutcheson, executive chair of real-estate firm Aspen Properties, which owns several downtown properties.

Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Deborah Yedlin believes the centre will revitalize development in the core by attracting more private-sector investment.

“This creates great opportunities for businesses,” Yedlin said.

“This is about a gathering place that’s going to be active 365 days a year, not just during times when there’s a concert, a game or the Stampede.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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