Opinion: With the collapse of the arena project, what happens next for Calgary’s Rivers District?

via Calgary Herald

Over the last few weeks, there has been no shortage of commentary about the collapse of the new event centre deal. Yet, what many are overlooking is the full scope of the impact the latest news has on the Calgarians employed in the design and construction industry and the organizations they work for.

Construction on the new arena was set to start this month. Members of our industry were already engaged in work, thousands of hours were spent, and many more would follow. Indeed, so much great work was done by so many. Notably, the development permit on the project was unanimously approved in November 2021 by the Calgary planning commission — which is an incredible feat for such a complex and multilayered project. The failure of the current event centre deal represents an immediate loss in terms of jobs and certainty that contractors and many businesses were depending on.

In 2019, Ernst & Young prepared an economic impact assessment on the full build-out of the district (event centre, BMO Centre expansion and Arts Commons) and estimated that 4,750 full-time jobs could be created during the construction phase of the projects, with a direct economic impact of $600 million.

As city-builders, our vision has always been to see Calgary grow and excel. We build the infrastructure where people live, work and play. Our “product” is the social and cultural fabric of our city. However, it is not just about building office towers and commercial spaces. To us, it is about realizing a Calgary we can all be proud of.

Our belief was, and remains, that the event centre is the catalyst project to lead off the culture and entertainment district within the Rivers District. The district is key to adding to the cultural and social fabric of the city by creating spaces for Calgarians to gather, eat, attend concerts and sporting events, and genuinely live, work and play.

We also believe that anchor projects like the event centre and BMO expansion would attract new investment: new residential spaces, hotels, restaurants, bars, museums — creating new construction jobs and opening the door for many other businesses and future jobs with it.

It seems the City of Calgary thought so too. After all, significant investment has made been in developing the 20-year vision for the Rivers District, including spending millions to build a new Green Line LRT Station in the area, while extending connectivity to Stampede Park through 17th Avenue and Olympic Way.

Tax revenue from the developments around the event centre was set to make the community revitalization levy flourish and fund other projects in the district. In 2021, the revised deal had Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. cover overruns on the construction phase of the project. All the ingredients for success were there.

With all of this in mind, many in the construction industry are wondering what happens next. With the absence of an anchor project, what happens to this vision, the promise of a culture and entertainment district — and the economic activity that comes with it? How do we activate the investment city hall is already spending in the area? What is the plan with the Saddledome and the spaces around it? And finally, what is the true cost of a further delay on a new event centre, both in terms of time and money?

This week, we were pleased to see city council unanimously support the vision of a new event centre for Calgary. We wish the revived event centre assessment committee well in exploring a new event centre and answering the questions that have been raised. We hope that the work that has already gone into this project by all committed stakeholders is not simply thrown out and forgotten, but, rather, serves as a new base to develop the best possible facility for Calgarians.

Now is a time for certainty, vision and leadership. Bold ideas require commitment and execution. After all, our industry and all Calgarians deserve it.

Bill Black is the president and COO of the Calgary Construction Association.

Article by Lena Hogarth
January 19, 2022

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