There’s a consensus building in Calgary that our city needs new direction. Through the uncertainty of the pandemic and the economic downturn, Calgarians are being forced to take a hard look at how we operate our homes, our businesses and our government institutions. While we don’t yet have a map to navigate this reality, we do have examples of other cities that have come back from the brink. Denver, Colorado is one such city, providing Calgarians some solace that we can return to the vibrant city we know and love.
While our situations are not exactly the same, Denver and Calgary are sister cities, sharing significant industrial and economic parallels and spectacular foothills geography. While Calgary’s reality is not yet as dire as Denver’s was in the 1980s and 90s, the cities share a history of boom and bust cycles in their resource-based economies; declining opportunities for young people, rising unemployment rates and unmatched vacancy rates in downtown buildings during the economic bust.
Denver was described as hollow and stagnant in the 1980s. The city was heavily dependent on oil and gas, and the OPEC crisis of the 1970s shrunk their economy significantly. By 1986, with oil at $10 per barrel, things looked bleak. Buildings downtown were empty, and growing crime rates and “skid rows” did little to attract new investment.
Thirty years later, in 2016, Denver was named “America’s No. 1 place to live” by U.S News & World Report, based on affordability, job prospects and quality of life. An oil price rebound helped, but was not the only factor. In a 2017 Denver Post article, former CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation Tom Clark said “purposeful diversification of Denver’s economy saved the city”. Denver put strategic investment into a variety of sectors, which fueled economic strength and grew employment opportunities. Business leaders are also believed to have played a critical role in the revival of Calgary’s sister city, through investment and urban redevelopment. It was risky to put more skin in the game, but without it, Denver’s history may have been much different.
Calgary, like Denver, needs the support of its business community to succeed in diversifying and strengthening our economy. Supporting economic development and diversification requires a measured approach to taxation. We can’t pile taxes on like we have in the past. We need to build a system of balance for business and residential property taxes, create incentives to attract and keep business here, and rally our people around all of our industries to create an economic ecosystem.
We need purposeful focus on diversification. The hard work of Calgary Economic Development has seen some success in a number of sectors, but more must be done. Recently, Premier Kenney announced the creation of a Global Investment Attraction Agency and a list of targeted sectors to get serious about economic diversification. The City of Calgary is critical to that work. We need to support those efforts and when we do, this city we love will reap the benefits.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Calgary can take the learnings from Denver and other cities and bring ourselves back from the brink. To reimagine Calgary’s future will be hard, but Calgarians have never shied away from hard work. Our business leaders will be integral to this success – we need a government that will be there to support and lead them.