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Downtown Calgary at night

Ensuring Calgary’s downtown remains the economic engine for a vibrant city is going to take time, money, bold new ideas and a lot of hard work.

And, especially, collaboration.

The cooperation essential to success was evident during the Downtown Economic Summit in early March that brought together more than 160 leaders from businesses, governments, education, and arts and culture organizations to address the historic downtown office vacancy rate.

“Tremendous creative energy and ideas,” Councillor Druh Farrell tweeted at one point in the Summit as attendees brainstormed to find solutions to an office vacancy rate that’s approaching 30 per cent two years into a recession triggered by the 2014 oil price crash.

Calgarians were encouraged to roll up their sleeves and be prepared for a decades-long commitment to the transformation by Tom Murphy, mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, who oversaw the revitalization and redevelopment of that city after the steel industry in the United States went through a historic restructuring.

“Change is hard … changing a city is hard work,” Murphy said.

The Summit was organized by Calgary Economic Development, The City of Calgary and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to support a motion by City Council Downtown Calgary and Economic Uncertainty: A Coordinated Response proposed by Farrell and Councillor Evan Woolley.

Calgary’s city centre drives about 25 per cent of employment city-wide and generates up to 40 per cent of non-residential tax revenues but those revenues have been under pressure during a recession that is forecast to give way to a return to growth in 2017.

Most of the themes that emerged from the half-day session aligned with Building in our Energy the 10-year economic strategy for Calgary and the top priorities that had been identified by CED’s Real Estate Advisory Committee at Calgary Economic Development.

The participants said the main strengths that drive the resiliency of the downtown core are; easy access to capital, talented workforce and, affordable and available real estate.Their ideas will be incorporated into an action plan with short, medium and long-term objectives that is part of a report that will be presented to City Council before summer.

All of the findings from the Summit supported growth and diversification of the Calgary economy.The ideas ranged from increasing residential densification and creating more innovation hubs and centres of excellence to incorporating more post-secondary institutions downtown, improving walkability and cycling infrastructure and building a new arena. Overall, the participants agreed on the need for a greater focus by stakeholders on public and private partnerships, infrastructure investment, leveraging real estate assets and recognizing all economic growth is driven by ideas and innovation.

Attendees heard the case study from Murphy and Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin of how Pittsburgh – long famed as America’s Steel City – reinvented itself after a painful downsizing of its main industry in the 1970s and 80s. They revitalized the downtown core and overall economy. 

The Pittsburgh experience was a theme in the extensive media coverage on the Summit as the structural change in the oil and gas sector means Calgary will adjust to a energy sector that is smaller than during the oil sands boom with a focus on efficiency. However, the value of Calgary's young population, well-educated workforce, sense of community and entrepreneurial spirit simply cannot be understated. 

As Murphy noted: “There’s lessons to be learned from us but you’re starting from a much better place than we were.”

BY Stephen Ewart

Manager, Research & Strategy

Research & Strategy

Stephen joined our Communications team in 2016 from the Calgary Herald where he was a columnist on the energy industry. He had previously worked in communications roles with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Cenovus Energy, Encana and Precision Drilling and in journalism with The Canadian Press and the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick.

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