Analysis

'There's this entrepreneurial spirit': Calgary charts new course for its economic future — again

Calgary Economic Development, already spearheading efforts to land Amazon’s second headquarters, is crafting Calgary’s new economic strategy, a blueprint over the next quarter century and charts a course for the city’s financial prospects.

Following hard lessons from oil crash, city again seeks prosperity in diversity

The skyline of downtown Calgary, as seen from the ridge above the north bank of the Bow River. Calgary Economic Development is now working on a new economic strategy for the city's next 25 years. (Leslie Kramer/CBC)

With arched windows and Edwardian pilasters, the Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Calgary harkens back to a time when city fathers dreamed of a prairie metropolis as great as Chicago.

Today, the 105-year-old structure is alive again with the ambitions of another generation of Calgarians, one with an eye on Silicon Valley, not the Windy City.

It's the home of Nucleus, a not-for-profit hub where the users — ranging from startups to post-secondary schools to venture funds — meet, work, learn and discuss innovation.

If all goes well, it'll be a hotbed for Calgary's emerging technology sector.

Or as 29-year-old Mark Blackwell, one of the bright minds behind Nucleus, enthusiastically puts it, this will be a place to "start figuring our shit out as it relates to Calgary 2.0."

High-tech entrepreneur Mark Blackwell, who found success in California's Silicon Valley, believes Calgary's technology sector has a promising future.

What will Calgary 2.0 look like? Blackwell is one of many people invested in that question. Calgary's future is a hot topic in offices from corporate headquarters to city hall.  

It's also a subject of intense focus at Calgary Economic Development (CED). The organization, already spearheading efforts to land Amazon's second headquarters, is now crafting Calgary's new economic strategy.

I think we still suffer from the stereotype of Stampede and cowboys and pickup trucks and oil, which is not a very innovative stereotype.- Adam Legge , former president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce

It's a sweeping exercise scrutinizing the city's strengths and weaknesses, the talent it's producing, industries that could be built upon and potential opportunities for upcoming sectors.

"For the last 25 years we have led economic and population growth in this country," said Court Ellingson, CED's vice-president of research and strategy.

'We will continue to lead this country'

"And it is our plan that over the next 25 years we will continue to lead this country and we will double our city in size."

It's a tall order.

While it's been barely five years since CED's last strategy was inked, in some ways, it's been a lifetime. Calgary once had the swagger that came with $100 US oil and a boom that delivered jobs, immigration and investment.

The good times would never end. Then they did.

Oil prices began a long slide in 2014, ultimately skidding below $30 per barrel two years later. Downtown towers emptied out as layoff notices spread far and wide. Alberta's unemployment rate hit its highest point in two decades.

Even now, with the provincial economy leading the country in growth, unemployment at 7.3 per cent remains greater than the national average.  

Calgary Economic Development, which has received international attention for its efforts to lure Amazon, is now working on an economic strategy for the city's next quarter century. (@KIRORadio/Twitter)

CED is now looking to further broaden Calgary's financial prospects, with perhaps no better example than the organization's ambitious chase of the Amazon prize — a bid that has grabbed headlines despite going up against the likes of Toronto, New York and Washington, D.C.

CED is sifting through reams of analysis to identify Calgary's advantages. Grafted onto it will be consultations with hundreds of citizens. The work, which began late last year, will be completed in the next few months.

"There's an understanding in this community that we are going through a structural change of the economy," Ellingson said.

"We often see or think about the reflection of that structural change being the change to oil and gas, but actually the whole globe is going through an era of change right now."

Recent upheaval has forced many cities to take a hard look in the mirror. And there's no shortage of communities looking for ways to shift their reliance from one industry and spread it over several.  

Calgary — and the province — has been down this road before. 

Diversification efforts important

In the late 1990s, with oil prices sagging, the province pumped both money and air into Alberta's nascent technology sector. While there were successes, diversification efforts took a back seat when oil boomed again.

Former chamber president Adam Legge says Calgary must not lose focus on diversification, especially with the strides made in agriculture, technology, tourism and transportation. (CBC)

These days, officials note that the city is making big strides in agriculture, technology, transportation and tourism.

For instance, Tourism Calgary reports that the city attracted a record 83 events in 2017, ranging from the arts to athletics. In the third quarter of the year, the sector saw a year-over-year increase of an additional 72,779 overnight hotel rooms sold during the three-month summer period — also a record.

"Tourism brings over $1.7 billion [Cdn] to our economy, locally, every year," said Cassandra McAuley of Tourism Calgary.

"When tourism is strong, and when we have a strong city, it really has a strong ripple effect."

Former Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Adam Legge says the focus on diversification can't be lost. 

It's important, regardless of oil prices, because Calgary is facing a long climb after the last collapse. In fact, it could be 10 years before it feels like the city has got its groove back, Legge said.

He cites Calgary's education levels, quality of life and enviable location as reasons for optimism. But the city has challenges. 

He worries local government may struggle with the pace of innovation and believes Calgary still labours under the stereotype of a city that doesn't necessarily embrace change.

"I think we still suffer from the stereotype of Stampede and cowboys and pickup trucks and oil, which is not a very innovative stereotype," Legge said.

Innovation is no stranger to Blackwell, however. And, as Calgary tries to find its economic way, it's people like him from whom CED will seek input.

Blackwell knows the buzz of a thriving tech sector, taking a Calgary software company on a "roller-coaster ride" through California's Silicon Valley.

"We almost went bankrupt twice … but we got some really good advisers," he said. "Long story short, we kind of kept it between three of us and sold it for just about $30 million."

Valley life was good, but Blackwell chose to return to his hometown to help grow the local sector. He thinks Calgary can create something special and sees a lot of promise in the young, talented entrepreneurs who are striking out on their own instead of scanning job boards.

"We can't forget that this city was built from entrepreneurs in a whole different era, and there's this entrepreneurial spirit that drives this town," he said. "It's now just an entirely different game."

About the Author

Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He has written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

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