Olympic decision time for Calgarians in 2026 plebiscite

CALGARY — Calgarians will make important choices on behalf of their province and country when they step into the ballot box Tuesday.

In answering the question whether they want to host the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games or not, they are also answering the questions who do you trust, what do you believe in, what are you afraid of and where do you see your city in eight years?

The massive financial and logistical undertakings of holding a Winter Games asks those hard questions of a host city.

Calgary is the beating heart of winter sport in Canada. The 1988 Winter Olympics put it there in a different era.

Tuesday’s plebiscite will reflect at least to some extent whether there is appetite for its renewal, or whether there is contentment for it to keep pumping as it has for as long as it can.

Calgary’s ‘88 legacy is considered among the most successful in Olympic Games history because the majority of venues are still used by both high-performance and recreational athletes three decades later.

Canada is a world winter sport power, winning 29 Olympic and 28 Paralympic medals at the most recent Winter Games in South Korea.

Many of those medallists train and compete on the sliding track and ski slopes at WinSport, the ice at the speedskating oval and the nordic centre trails in Canmore, Alta.

Under the International Olympic Committee’s new “reduce, reuse and recycle” motto to attract future host cities, Calgary fits the bill in that 80 per cent of the required venues are already built.

But do Calgarians believe they can again deliver an experience that floats all boats and do they even want to?

“It’s a little bit like Calgary wrote an exam in 1988 and there are people suggesting today they’re going to write it again and get a lower mark,” observed John Furlong, who co-led the bid and organizing of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

The plebiscite’s result is non-binding, but the result could give direction to a city council that has wrestled mightily with the risks of approving this mega-project worth billions of dollars.

“This conversation for all of the Olympics conversations that happen around the world are really tough at the municipal level because we do not have the benefit of the majority government, with a prime minister or a premier and cabinet can make those decisions unilaterally because they are a majority government,” Coun. Evan Woolley pointed out in council chambers.

“It has been divisive for a lot of us. I’ve never been part of something so complex.”

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi supports a bid, calling it a deal that is good for the city.

One key difference between Calgary’s bid for 1988 and a potential bid for 2026 is the former was initially driven by local businessmen who asked little from the public purse in the bid stage.

The runway to build a 2026 bid and budget, and time for Calgarians to digest and trust both, has felt short.

Bid corporation board chair Scott Hutcheson, a commercial real estate entrepreneur and former national-team skier, was appointed five months ago.

Chief executive officer Mary Moran, formerly of Calgary Economic Development, was hired less than four months ago.

A breakdown of the cost-sharing agreement between the federal, provincial and municipal governments wasn’t made clear to the public until Oct. 31, after some plebiscite votes were already cast via mail-in ballot.

Almost 55,000 Calgarians have voted in advance polls and mail-in ballots.

The mandate of the bid corporation Calgary 2026 is to “promote a responsible bid.”

Along with Yes Calgary 2026, the bidco has stepped up its campaign in recent days with social media messaging and events and town halls in the city.

Lacking the same financial resources as Calgary 2026, No Calgary Olympics has flooded social media attacking and refuting the $4.4-billion economic impact stated by 2026 proponents.

While $1.1 billion in contingency funds is built into the draft host plan, no order of government has put up its hand, as the B.C. government did for 2010, to be a guarantor against debt.

In the estimated $5.1-billion price tag, the public investment ask is $2.875 billion, down from an initial $3 billion.

Games revenues — tickets, merchandising, TV rights — and corporate sponsorships pays for the rest.

The Alberta government’s commitment is $700 million, while the Canadian government’s is $1.45 billion.

The city is asked for $370 million in cash, plus another $20 million for the premium on a $200-million insurance policy that is part of the contingency fund.

In order to get matching funds from the federal government, the city is credited with the $150 million already committed to improving an area southeast of the downtown that would be a Games hub.

The two new sport venues proposed are a multi-purpose indoor fieldhouse, which has been at the top of the city’s recreational wish list for over a decade, and a 5,000-seat ice arena.

No new NHL arena or stadium is in Calgary 2026’s plan.

Upgrades to the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium are, although there have been overtures between the city and the Calgary Flames to re-start talks on an a new arena.

Holding ski jumping and nordic combined in Whistler, B.C., in the 2010 venue is a cost-saving measure, but not popular in part because of the testy relationship between Alberta and B.C. over the building of a pipeline.

Edmonton was once considered for the curling venue, but Moran says that is no longer the case and Calgary 2026 is now looking at four options in southern Alberta.

The security bill estimated at $495 million seems low compared to the $900 million of the 2010 Games, but Calgary does not have an ocean harbour to defend.

The B.C. government accelerated the construction of a rail line from downtown Vancouver to the airport and a waterfront convention centre, as well as improved the highway to Whistler, in time for the 2010 Games.

Calgary’s non-sports infrastructure legacy would be more modest under Calgary 2026’s proposal. The athletes’ village and other accommodation built for the games would provide 1,800 units for market and affordable housing.

The IOC is accepting 2026 bid books in early January. Stockholm and a joint Italian bid involving Milan and Cortina were invited to be Calgary’s competition should it enter the race for 2026.

The election of the host city is in June.

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