Calgary has had its challenges with the economy over the last several years. In addition to the unique economic issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy sector has struggled with both low oil prices and a restructuring of the industry. Office vacancies are around 30% and unemployment sits at around 8.7% (May 2021). It is fair to say our economic recovery is top of mind for Ward 11 residents and the city as a whole.
As we work on our overall economic recovery, I think it is critical we take it a step further and focus on Calgary’s economic health. What is the difference? Economic recovery is about getting us back on our feet. Economic health however is achieving both recovery AND ensuring we have the tools, processes and plans in place so our recovery is sustainable and scalable. It is making sure we are well positioned in the future to deal with market changes and external influences that are beyond our control. If we are in good economic health, we will be able to better weather crises, adapt and be nimble. This will allow us to remain competitive and deliver greater certainty for investors. It will ensure our business ecosystem is strong while also protecting our most vulnerable residents who are exponentially more affected by periods of economic decline.
So how do we improve our economic health? Here are 11 steps I would work to implement to start us on that path:
- Diversify the economy: Support our current industries while looking for ways to harness the existing talent and skill sets found in Calgary’s labour market. Support retraining programs through partners like the Calgary Public Library
- Create jobs – any jobs!: Focus on recruitment of any industry to move/grow in Calgary and not hyper focus on 1-2 industries. This approach has had great success in similar sized American cities like Denver, CO and Austin, TX. Encourage growth in our existing local companies by eliminating unnecessary policy and process hurdles that may be limiting opportunities for expansion.
- New approach to balanced growth: Implement a realistic and strategic approach to growth, with clear targets including public and private sector investment, predictability in process, support for enterprise, appropriate regulation and incentives, and effective, achievable long-term city planning.
- Reform property taxes – commercial and residential: Work with the provincial government to reform the residential and commercial property tax programs so that they are a sustainable source of City operating cost funding, while not placing an unreasonable burden on homeowners and businesses.
- Improve our Industrial strategy (learn more about the challenges here): Provide more flexibility in land use options for investors/land owners. Right now land-use can be over prescriptive - unnecessary red-tape that slows investment down. As a municipality, we are not seen as an easy city to deal with compared to other nearby regions. We need to continue the current Direct Control District pilot and implement long term policy quickly should it be successful. We also need to take steps to be financially competitive in terms of taxes, development costs and levies.
- Develop more private/public partnerships: Build a shared long term vision for Calgary’s future with all industry and business stakeholder groups (including small business). Create mutual accountability. Utilize the local business expertise, technology, and data so that everyone can do more with less. Develop standard scalable and sustainable models for public/private partnerships. (Note: I am not using the term private/public partnership in the same way that City unions do ie: I am not talking about privatizing or contacting out City Services)
- Create a culture of adaptability at City Hall:– Eliminate policy that hinders innovation and adaptability, or conflicts with other policy. Empower administration to find ways to say yes to things that would provide demonstrable positive results to Calgary
- Housing choice and affordability: Amend policy AND practices support a variety of housing choices for consumers across Calgary. Work with landowners to address the lack of housing diversity in a number of Ward 11 communities and identify solutions.
- Create a strong business ecosystem and be an investment friendly city: Be a city where people (including young people) want to live and work. Invest in transit, arts, culture, and communities. Amend policy and processes to ensure we are an inclusive, accessible city. Remove unnecessary barriers to business development and growth. We also need a council that will show leadership and professionalism at all times.
- Invest in maintaining aging infrastructure: Develop a transparent strategic project management plan for proactively maintaining aging infrastructure – on budget. Review the current system of asset management and evaluation to create reasonable budget and timeline forecasts of repairs and upgrades. Re-evaluate funding sources for capital projects related to aging infrastructure.
- Show that Calgary is open for business: Limit overly prescriptive policies and regulations. Establish better working relationships with key industry partners. Eliminate processes that impede Calgarians from starting businesses or expanding existing businesses. Remove barriers to competitiveness with other regions and cities. Ensure there is predictability for investors.
When we ensure we are economically healthy as a city, we are giving future Calgary the tools to overcome adversity, adapt and succeed. It will not be an easy or quick fix but the effort will have many long-term benefits for generations to come.