The ambitious arena- stadium plan will surely have its share of detractors, but if the city wants to remain a magnet for young, creative talent, CalgaryNEXT is the direction it needs to take.
The ambitious arena- stadium development plan announced Tuesday by Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Ken King will surely have its share of detractors.
A chance encounter I had Tuesday with a young man who had just returned to Calgary spoke volumes about why the project, called Calgary NEXT, is integral to this city’s future.
The young lad, who has been living a successful entrepreneurial existence south of the border, chose to come back to the city where he grew up, attended school and graduated from the University of Calgary. He came back because of the business opportunities that exist here. By the same token, he left an urban environment much more cosmopolitan than what Calgary offers.
If we want people, like him, to come back and stay, it’s incumbent on our leaders — in business and government — to make sure the city continues to grow with the younger population.
Much has been made about the propensity for Calgary to be used as an ATM; a place where individuals make their money and then leave for parts more interesting. A lack of commitment to remain in one place — much like an individual not committed to a relationship — means a lack of investment in the future, which in this case is Calgary.
“People can live anywhere. They don’t have to be here, which is why it’s important to have amenities that will attract and keep people in your city,” said Michael Brown, president and CEO of Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, which has developed the East Village and is interested in developing West Village.
“It’s a logical step for us,” said Brown.
Calgary NEXT is particularly relevant in the broader context of the direction Calgary needs to take.
Last fall, Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke at the Big City, Big Ideas lecture series in Toronto that’s spearheaded by Richard Florida, the urban theorist who is professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
During an interview with Florida, our mayor talked about the trap many resource- based economies fall into — one that focuses on monetizing a resource but not necessarily as good at investing the proceeds for future generations.
“We’re good at monetizing the resource and we’re really lousy at using the proceeds to actually invest in infrastructure, in education, in the knowledge economy; in all those things that make cities work regardless of what the core business in those cities is,” said Nenshi.
“When we make investments in arts and culture and sports and recreation, in vibrant public spaces, and even great public transit, those are hard- nosed economic development decisions. We have got to figure out a way that we make sure we’re investing so that when the resource isn’t there anymore we actually continue to have a system and an economy that is humming and turning.”
Florida’s thesis about what makes cities great is what he calls the “creative class,” which is largely comprised of individuals with higher levels of education who use their knowledge to solve complex problems in everything from business and finance to health care.
Florida expects this “creative class” will be a critical element of economic growth in the coming decades because it basically exemplifies a shift away from the traditional, industrially- focused complex to one more driven by the knowledge- based economy.
For Calgary, where the need to diversify the economic base is as real as it will ever get given current oil prices and the impacts, becoming a magnet for individuals who fall into the world of the “creative class” is not negotiable.
Without it, Calgary risks becoming a city like Buffalo, N. Y., which once had a strong economy.
Florida has written about Buffalo’s failed attempt to become a magnet for creative talent. By coincidence, one of Calgary’s business leaders, George Brookman, was in upstate New York this week, visiting Buffalo and Rochester.
“There is a depressive feel to these cities. They were literally booming, they had vibrant industry and they thought it would last forever,” he observed. “I cannot walk around here without drawing parallels to Calgary and to Alberta.
“These cities squandered their opportunities by not re- investing, by not encouraging new industry, by allowing their infrastructure to simply deteriorate.”
Buffalo, with just a population of just over one million people, has one LRT line that runs from the marina to downtown, a distance of five miles, said Brookman.
“On Saturday afternoon I could not count 20 people in downtown Buffalo,” he said. “It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone. There are certain areas where you do not walk, but when I took a taxi to a restaurant, the driver suggested that I was his second fare all day.”
We have to do all we can to keep this from happening in Calgary. Our black swan has been the collapse of oil prices, accompanied by increasing cries for the use of other sources of energy.
Buffalo is working hard to change its fortunes. It’s investing money in medical research facilities. It has a new downtown hockey arena and is home to the Blue Jays’ farm team. The city has redeveloped the Erie Canal Marina and is encouraging commercial and residential development downtown.
Nonetheless, people there say it’s a “long and painstakingly slow road to economic recovery,” wrote Brookman in an email Monday.
A project like CalgaryNEXT will help ensure the city’s longterm vibrancy and economic viability. World- class venues attract world- class events that generate tourism dollars and enhance the overall tax base.
Calgary has a chance to attract the three “T’s” — talent, tolerance and technology — Florida says are critical to transform an economy to one that isn’t as dependent on the health of a commodity price. San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and, yes, Toronto have done this.
“If we want to be a globally consequential city, this is the kind of thing we want to contemplate,” King said during a presentation Tuesday afternoon.
An updated facility of size that’s also flexible in terms of configuration would complement the National Music Centre project in the East Village. It’s a way to grow Calgary’s music presence on this continent in a unique way, not to mention provide Calgary arts groups additional venue options.
Then there’s the field house aspect of the announced project, something that’s been needed in this city for the better part of three decades.
Ask the athletes and parents who regularly shlep to Edmonton for track and field meets over the years because these events can’t be hosted here and the Stampeder fans who have frozen through many a fall football game.
In tough economic times it’s easy to focus on the short- term challenges — like creosote contamination — rather than the long- term benefits. Regarding the creosote concerns, Brown said it’s something CMLC will concentrate on to fully understand what’s involved.
“There are so many rumours and innuendo, an organization such as the CMLC has to look at the facts and understand how best to remediate the area,” said Brown, pointing out every major North American city has had to address the byproduct of the railway industry.
“Other cities have overcome it,” he said.
Calgary has long been seen by outsiders as a ‘ can do’ city, known for an entrepreneurial spirit that includes a high tolerance of risk if the endgame is compelling.
Some will look at this project as a long shot. To use a football analogy, think about Ottawa quarterback Tom Clements’ winning touchdown toss to Tony Gabriel in the dying seconds of the 1976 Grey Cup. Without taking a risk, as Clements did, there is no possibility of winning.
In this case, the win will last decades and attract more people like that young man who just moved back — and not for just one season.