With arched windows and Edwardian pilasters, the Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Calgary is reminiscent of a time when city fathers dreamed of a prairie metropolis as big as Chicago.
Today, the 105-year-old structure lives again with the ambitions of a different generation of Calgarians who have their eyes on Silicon Valley and not the Windy City.
It’s home to Nucleus, a not-for-profit center where users – from startups to post-secondary schools to venture funds – meet, work, learn, and discuss innovation.
If all goes well, it will be a breeding ground for Calgary’s emerging technology sector.
Or as Mark Blackwell, 29 year old, one of the brightest minds behind Nucleus enthusiastically puts it, this will be a place to “find out our Calgary 2.0 shit”.
Mark Blackwell, a successful high-tech entrepreneur in California’s Silicon Valley, believes Calgary’s tech sector has a bright future.
What will Calgary 2.0 look like? Blackwell is one of many people who have invested in this question. Calgary’s future is a hot topic in offices from corporate headquarters to town hall.
It is also a topic of intense focus at Calgary Economic Development (CED). The organization, already pioneering the landing of Amazon’s second headquarters, is currently working on Calgary’s new economic strategy.
I think we still suffer from the stampede and cowboys stereotype and pickups and oil which is not a very innovative stereotype.– Adam Legge, past President of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce
It’s a comprehensive exercise that examines the city’s strengths and weaknesses, the talent it brings out, industries to build on, and potential opportunities for emerging sectors.
“For the past 25 years we have driven 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 our plan is that we will continue to run this country and double our city for the next 25 years.”
It’s a big job.
While it was barely five years since CED’s last strategy was drafted, in some ways it was a lifetime. Calgary once had the boast that came with $ 100 of oil and a boom that brought jobs, immigration, and investment.
The good times would never end. Then they did.
Oil prices began a long decline in 2014 and slipped below $ 30 a barrel two years later. Downtown towers were emptied as dismissal statements spread far and wide. The unemployment rate in Alberta reached its highest level in two decades.
Even now, with the provincial economy leading the country’s growth, unemployment is still above the national average at 7.3 percent.
Calgary Economic Development, which has received international attention for its efforts to attract Amazon, is currently working on an economic strategy for the city’s next quarter century. (@ KIRORadio / Twitter)
CED is now committed to further expanding Calgary’s financial prospects. Perhaps there is no better example than the organization’s ambitious pursuit of the Amazon Price – an offer that made headlines despite competing against greats like Toronto, New York and Washington, DC
CED searches countless analyzes to determine the benefits of Calgary. Consultations with hundreds of citizens are transferred to it. The work that began at the end of last year will be completed in the next few months.
“There is an understanding in this community that we are going through a structural change in the economy,” said Ellingson.
“We often see or think that structural change is the move to oil and gas, but in fact the entire globe is in an era of change right now.”
The recent upheaval has forced many cities to take a closer look in the mirror. And there is no shortage of communities looking for ways to shift their dependence on one industry and spread it across several.
Calgary – and the province – have traveled this route before.
Diversification efforts are important
In the late 1990s, when oil prices fell, the province pumped both money and air into Alberta’s emerging technology sector. While there was success, diversification efforts faded into the background when oil boomed again.
Former Chamber President Adam Legge says Calgary cannot lose its focus on diversification, especially given advances in agriculture, technology, tourism and transport. (CBC)
These days, officials note that the city is making great strides in agriculture, technology, transportation, and tourism.
For example, Tourism Calgary reports that the city had a record of 83 events in 2017, from arts to athletics. In the third quarter of the year, the sector saw an increase of 72,779 overnight hotel rooms sold year-on-year during the three-month summer period – also a record.
“Tourism brings in over $ 1.7 billion [Cdn] for our local economy every year, “said Cassandra McAuley of Tourism Calgary.
“When tourism is strong and we have a strong city, it really has a strong ripple effect.”
Former President of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce Adam Legge says the focus on diversification cannot be lost.
Regardless of the oil price, this is important as Calgary is facing a long spike after the recent collapse. In fact, it could take 10 years to feel like the city has gotten its groove back, Legge said.
He cites Calgary’s level of education, quality of life and enviable location as reasons for optimism. But the city has challenges.
He fears local government may be struggling with the pace of innovation and believes that Calgary is still operating under the stereotype of a city that doesn’t necessarily accept change.
“I think we are still suffering from the stereotype of Stampede and cowboys and pickups and oil, which is not a very innovative stereotype,” Legge said.
However, innovation is no stranger to Blackwell. And while Calgary tries to find its economic path, it is people like him that IBD will seek input from.
Blackwell knows the hustle and bustle of a thriving technology sector and takes a Calgary software company on a roller coaster ride through California’s Silicon Valley.
“We nearly went bankrupt twice … but we have some really good agents,” he said. “Long story short, we kind of held it between the three of us and sold it for only about $ 30 million.”
Life in the valley was good, but Blackwell decided to return to his hometown to expand the local sector. He believes Calgary can do something special and sees promising results in young, talented entrepreneurs starting out on their own instead of scanning job boards.
“We can’t forget that this city was built by entrepreneurs in a very different time, and there’s this entrepreneurship that drives this city,” he said. “It’s just a completely different game now.”