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Calgary 2026 leader expects close vote in Winter Games plebiscite


CALGARY — Scott Hutcheson carries a volunteer medal from the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary with him these days.

His parents Bob and Jane relocated from Ontario for a month to donate their time at the Nakiska alpine ski venue during those games.

Bob recently sent the medal to his son, who hopes Calgarians feel its value as much as he does when they vote Tuesday in a plebiscite on whether or not they want the city to bid on the 2026 Winter Games.

"That's what it's about," Hutcheson said Monday. "Giving your spirit, giving your all to a community. That's what he did."

The board chair of the bid corporation Calgary 2026 feels the plebiscite will be a close race between those who want to host another Winter Games eight years from now, and those who don't.

"I think it's a jump ball," Hutcheson said. "Depends who votes, depends who gets out."

The result may be non-binding on a Calgary city council that has the final say on a bid, but it will heavily influence its decision.

"Vote, regardless of where you stand," Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi said. "Let's make sure there's a really high voter turnout so there's an unambiguous decision on this.

"I hope people vote 'yes'. I think there are many, many great reasons to keep this process going and to not let this opportunity pass us by."

The cauldron atop the Calgary Tower began igniting last week at 8:26 p.m. for 20 minutes 26 seconds. The tower is a symbol of the '88 Olympics, as the relay torch was a replica of it.

The tower is an asset in Hutcheson's commercial real estate company, but the former national alpine team skier says he's not using it to ignite '88 nostalgia in Calgarians to favour another bid.

The pro-bid Calgary Hotel Association is sponsoring the lighting of the tower in the run-up to the plebiscite, as well as cauldrons at WinSport and the Olympic Oval, he said.

Calgary 2026's mandate is to "promote a responsible bid".

It became easier to do that, Hutcheson said, after the proposed cost-sharing agreement between the three orders of government became public less than two weeks ago.

"The bid is understood. That momentum is exciting, but it's late," he acknowledged. "If it were done three months ago, it would have left way more time to talk about what this means from an investment standpoint."

In an estimated $5.1 billion total price tag, the federal government has committed $1.45 billion and the province $700 million.

The city's share would be $390 million. Hutcheson wants Calgarians to see it as a small investment for a big return.

"I never expected this small an investment to work from our city at $390 million," Hutcheson said. "I never expected they'd put that little an amount in and we'd be able to get the federal government and the province both in for a remarkable number that works. This deal to me is way better than what I would have pencilled in months ago.

"I respect that not everybody is going to want to vote 'yes.' But I would ask those that vote 'no' to make sure they have another community project in their mind that will make a difference. 'No' doesn't build a community."

No order of government has put up its hand to be a guarantor against debt. Calgary 2026 has built $1.1 billion in contingency funds into its proposed budget as insurance.

"If Calgarians make a decision to move forward, 50 per cent plus one vote, I will be respecting that decision," Coun. Evan Woolley said.

"Each of our individual colleagues on council, because it is a non-binding decision, will have to make those decisions for themselves.

"No means no. Yes means we've got a bunch of work to do. We will move forward on that basis, but I can tell you that without more certainty from our federal and provincial governments around guarantees and helping us mitigate these risks, the city of Calgary cannot carry some of those risks on our own."

Calgary 2026's proposed draft plan earmarks $502 million towards upgrading the '88 legacy venues, now over 30 years old.

WinSport, formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA), is a non-profit organization that oversees much of the legacy.

While the '88 Games produced endowment funds to help pay for the continued operations and upgrades of venues such as the oval, the Canmore Nordic Centre and Canada Olympic Park, WinSport CEO Barry Heck says those facilities' require a bigger investment to extend their lives.

"There are the legacy facilities from eighty-eight, that have served Calgary so extremely well for 30 years, has put us on the map, as a world-leading winter sport Olympic city, but they're end of life," Heck said.

"For us to keep delivering what we have for the next two or three generations, we need this renewal. Five hundred million is a lot of money, but it's a fraction of what it would cost to rebuild these facilities."

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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