Majority of public feedback on Calgary’s arena deal was negative: analysis

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A majority of Calgarians who shared their feedback with the city in the days leading up to council’s decision on the $550-million arena deal were opposed to the project, a Postmedia review suggests.

An analysis of more than 4,000 individual public submissions found about 55 per cent of those who wrote to the City Clerk’s office did not support the deal approved by city council in an 11-4 vote on July 30.

The city received more than 5,200 public submissions on the arena deal between July 22 and 29 — hundreds more were sent directly to individual council members. City staff released the trove of submissions on Thursday afternoon, scrubbed of identifying personal details, in response to a request by Postmedia.

A significant number of those opposed were particularly upset that council had agreed to only seven days for public feedback on the specifics of the deal.

“The fact that the Flames made the timeline so tight that it disallowed for meaningful public consultation shows an utter disdain for democratic norms and should have been an absolute non-starter,” read one submission from July 25.

The second most common complaint had to do with the council’s decision to pursue an arena deal while simultaneously cutting $60 million from the 2019 operating budget.

“Do not let (Calgary Sport and Entertainment Corp.) bully you into spending money that could desperately be used elsewhere,” wrote one respondent on July 24. “And please for the safety of all Calgarians, reconsider the cuts you are making to CPS and the Fire Department.”

The approved arena agreement will see the city and the Flames each contribute $275 million toward the cost of a new facility in Victoria Park.

Approximately 42 per cent of submissions reviewed by Postmedia were supportive of the deal. The remainder were inconclusive.

“It is about time the City made a positive decision. We have wasted enough time dithering about something that should have happened a long time ago,” wrote one respondent late on July 22. “Look at Edmonton and see what it has done for their city.”

The findings echo a December survey by the School of Public Policy which suggested Calgarians were almost evenly split on the idea of public money for a new arena — but the people who were negative were more strongly negative, says Jack Lucas, an associate professor of political science with the University of Calgary.

“You would expect that you’d get a little more response from the No side than the Yes side, because the No side believes in their opposition a little more firmly than the Yes side believes in their support,” said Lucas. “That’s what we found in late 2018 and it sounds like that hasn’t changed that much.”

Lucas said he wasn’t surprised much of the negative feedback focused on the short timeline for public engagement.

“There never was a very clear argument made by anyone in the process about why the number had to be seven days,” said Lucas. “And why was it impossible to add a week or two, or indeed a month or two to the process. It’s interesting to see people were frustrated by that.”

A ThinkHQ survey also found opinion evenly split, at 47 per cent each. The poll of 645 Calgarians carried a margin of error of +/- 3.9 per cent.

A number of city council members who were asked for comment Friday did not respond to Postmedia’s request. Previously, some council members had estimated the feedback on the arena to be 50-50 between detractors and proponents.

A sizable portion of feedback went directly to council members, including the mayor who received “several hundred” responses to his office, a spokesperson confirmed Friday. Postmedia has only reviewed submissions that were sent to the City Clerk’s office.

University of Michigan professor Mark Rosentraub, who has consulted for cities and sports teams looking at new stadiums and arenas, including Calgary, says a random survey would be a better gauge of Calgarians’ attitudes on the deal.

Different jurisdictions have taken different approaches to decision making on public funding for sport venues, he said.

“In California, no city can allocate money for a sport venue without a referendum. So there you have a very different decision structure because it must go to a referendum and then there’s a lot of public discourse,” Rosentraub said.

But the ultimate test of whether or not Calgarians feel that their interests were represented could be in the next election.

“Each way of doing it has its ups and its downs. In Calgary, a lot of authority is vested in the council. They were elected, they voted and they voted (in favour of the deal). If people are dissatisfied, then they should vote the scoundrels out.”

— With reports from Olivia Condon, Darren Francey and Steve Jenkinson

On Twitter: @mpotkins

Source: Calgary Herald