Calgary 2026 CEO peppered with mostly skeptical questions on call-in show

Ellis Choe/CBC

With seven weeks left before the Calgary-only non-binding plebiscite on whether the city should host the 2026 Winter Olympics, the CEO of the bid corp was on the defensive and more often than not on a call-in show, it was a hard sell.

"This city needs a win really badly and everybody in downtown Calgary knows that as well as Mayor Naheed Nenshi. We haven't been able to do anything bold for a long time and this is an opportunity to get out of that rut," Mary Moran has said.

The bid corporation says hosting will cost about $5.2 billion with about $3 billion coming from taxpayers from all levels of government. The rest should be covered by private funds like IOC funding, merchandising and ticket sales.

That however — says former Calgary MLA Tom Sindlinger — is pie in the sky kind of stuff and there are always overruns in Games that aren't part of the budgeting process.

Moran joined Alberta@Noon Tuesday to field questions and make her case in favour of the now controversial bid.

Here's some of that hour-long conversation edited and paraphrased for clarity and length, and here's the complete show.

CBC

Alberta@Noon: Economists and others have said the $5.2-billion estimate is low and unrealistic.

Mary Moran: We had a team of about 30 experts with years of experience, they built a budget. We are very confident in this number and we understand the risks and opportunities.

We've put the A-team on this. We have shared this with all of our government partners who have all hired auditors who have spent six to eight weeks reviewing everything and we have fielded thousands of questions.

Alberta@Noon: Documents leaked recently show the estimates don't include a lot of things, like removing the Victoria Park bus barns.

MM: I can't comment on that, because I have not seen the document, but it is not uncommon for cities to have closed-door conversations about incremental costs outside of the games that are probably in urban development or city plans.

Caller Gary from Calgary asked why a new stadium/events centre was not included in the bid, but added he's against the bid because of the corruption and dysfunction within the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

MM: We are in a bid competition with winter cities that have great venues. Some have all the venues, they don't have to build any.

The IOC would like to see the utilization of existing venues with minimal costs to upgrading. They have difficulty justifying infrastructure that will only be used for 50 days for public consumption. They want venues that are public access.

There are often infrastructure projects that are inspired by the Games. We saw that in Vancouver with both the Canada Line and Sea-to-Sky Highway where the province, the federal government, Vancouver and Whistler agreed that these were important projects.

​I hope that Calgary and the Calgary Flames are having a different discussion today than they were a few weeks ago. If a new [sports and entertainment complex] can get completed for the Games, then it's going to be a better experience for everybody. We hope the Games inspire this.

Canada is a leader in clean and ethical sport. We demonstrated that in Vancouver and we plan on demonstrating that to the world, including the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency by hosting the Games here. We have a tremendous amount of expertise in this area.

Caller Tom from Spruce Grove, Alta., asks if the province and federal government are contributing, why is the plebiscite only in Calgary?

MM: That is a City of Calgary question and should be directed to them.

Alberta@Noon: How do you respond to the many people who feel we just can't afford it?

MM: Three billion dollars of the estimate would come from three levels of government. The federal government has committed to up to half of that, $1.5 billion. The investment will not come into this community unless we host the games. It is not earmarked for anything else other than an international sporting event that will go to another community. That leaves the province and Calgary with a total of $1.5 billion to cover. We are renewing 11 venues, building two new ones that will continue to generate revenue as a winter sports city.

The City of Calgary and the Bow Valley corridor host more world cups than any other location in the world, so if we don't invest in these infrastructure projects then we will see a deterioration in tourist dollars.

I think the question should be, "Can we afford not to do the Games?"

Caller Jim from Calgary wanted to know about the plans for a curling venue and how ticket availability be managed with scalpers, sold-out situations, corporate block-buying?

MM: We are looking across the province for curling venues and have four or five options now but they are commercially sensitive so can't be disclosed at this time.

We have about 70 per cent of tickets allocated for spectators. There is usually more demand than tickets. A lottery-type process is common and we will be looking for best practices to try and mitigate scalping the best we can.

David Goldman/The Associated Press

Made sense at one time, not today

A former MLA for Calgary-Buffalo and economic analyst has deep concerns. He called in to share his thoughts.

Tom Sindlinger: I am for the Olympic spirit. I am a former Canadian champion, a hall-of-famer in Alberta, but as an economic analyst I have questions and concerns about the cost of the Olympics.

If we take just the minimum numbers and divide by the number of Calgary households, it's over $5,000 per household, when you factor in most Calgary residents pay municipal, provincial and federal taxes.

Olympic experience has shown us, that the actual costs are much more than the original estimates. Then there are the interest costs.

Both the Calgary and provincial governments have maxed out their credit cards. Anything we are going to be doing, we are going to be borrowing money. Anyone with a mortgage or car loan knows you pay more on interest than on the principle.

The economy in 1988 was way better.

We could fund infrastructure better ourselves.

We could build three NHL arenas in Calgary plus have enough left over to buy the Calgary Flames. It would be less expensive to do these things on our own rather than pay for a lot of things we don't need.

The majority of Calgarians don't even know about the plebiscite.

Alberta@Noon: Is there anything that could change your mind?

Tom Sindlinger: If you could give me a net benefit from the Olympic Games, I'd say go ahead. But study after study shows there is no net benefit to hosting them.

Quite a few people and experts are saying it is financial folly to host the Olympic Games today. At one time it did make sense, today it's completely different.

That's why the IOC is having trouble finding any city that is dumb enough to host them today. City after city are backing out of this after the initial approach by the IOC.

Mary Moran says, however, it's possible for this to be a financial win for Calgary.

MM: The actual Games operations are 91 per cent funded by private revenue, so IOC revenue, domestic sponsors, ticketing, merchandising, almost pay for the games.

The additional costs are what it costs to host the games, so security, essential services, snow removal, transportation, waste removal, they all increase because we have most visitors here but a large percentage of the costs we are asking for the governments to pay into, is capital investment into venues, new and renewed, and 2,800 units of inclusive housing.

This is about building on a legacy we already have, adding a few new venues and dealing with a housing issue, so we can host the athletes but also leave legacy of inclusive housing for seniors, low-income people and our Indigenous partners.

We will be able to utilize that for years to come.

Alberta@Noon: How will McMahon Stadium be improved if the bid is successful?

MM: It will be renewed, everything from the lobbies to the backroom services, entrances, washrooms. It's quite a significant lift for McMahon Stadium.

Caller Jeff in Calgary is all for the Games.

Jeff: It's a great opportunity for the city and the country. It will be an amazing volunteer opportunity. It's a once a generation that someone gets to experience something like this.

Alberta@Noon: What about the cost?

Jeff: The cost is important. We have to trust in these people bidding and our politicians, they that are trying to do the very best for the citizens of our city and province.

I may not want to pay the $5,000 initially but over the course of the years after and the benefits, I think that outweighs the cost of it.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at: calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

More from the series:

With files from Alberta@Noon