The City of Calgary

Be Part of the Energy

The picturesque City of Calgary, with the beautiful Rocky Mountains as a backdrop to the west, is Canada’s third-largest municipality and one of the main business hubs in the nation. In spite of a prolonged international oil slump, Calgary has consistently shown tremendous economic resiliency with a number of other core business sectors that carry a significant portion of its commerce base and is a prime example of how a well-constructed diversified economy provides the best insurance for success.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Mary Moran, President and CEO of Calgary Economic Development about the current economic climate in Alberta’s largest city and what plans are afoot for the future. Calgary Economic Development works with business, government and community partners to achieve economic success; embrace shared prosperity and build a strong community while collaborating to advance enterprise opportunities for smart growth to achieve individual, business and community potential for the entire Calgary Region.

In addition to the obvious oil and gas sector, health and education and business services each account for a sizable percentage of Calgary’s total employment base. Trade, advanced manufacturing and agribusiness are also considerable contributors and now high-tech innovation projects are becoming a vital component as well. Finance and other services round out the employment sectors.

An overriding theme is that Calgary firmly embraces a holistic approach to economic development. It’s about the promotion and advancement of all enterprise sectors and not just the needs of the few. Calgary Economic Development, in partnership with Mayor Naheed Nenshi and about 40 members of the corporate community, recently unveiled a progressive campaign called Calgary: Be Part of the Energy. It’s all part of a promotional effort to showcase the city as a destination centre of business and a prime location to advance business and individual career objectives.

Transportation and Logistics

One of numerous enterprises sectors that directly caters to Calgary’s strengths is transportation and logistics. The CANAMEX corridor links Canada to Mexico through a series of highways through the United States and was initially developed as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The corridor is also proposed for use by railroads, fiber optic telecommunications and new pipelines, the latter of which has often been tied up in political wrangling south of the border.

“It’s a competitive business but Calgary is better set up than any jurisdiction in western Canada for it,” Moran states. “If you think about our infrastructure assets, we’re on the CANAMEX Corridor and the TransCanada Highway. There are two intermodals railways, one headquartered in Calgary – CP – and CN, which has made a significant investment into an intermodal yard.”

Calgary is also home to WestJet, the nation’s second-largest commercial airline company. A significant amount of money has been invested for the airport in the northeast section of the city, including an international terminal equipped with the longest runway in Canada and a large cargo facility that allows for high-quantities of exported goods to reach their destinations in a timely fashion.

From a geographical positioning perspective, Alberta’s largest city has access to 50 million people within a 24-hour radius and thus is perfectly set up to compete and advance its stake in transportation and logistics. Moran says one of many plans is to be an inland port from Vancouver as part of the many global trading endeavours that exist between Canada and other nations.

“We also have a foreign trade zone which obviously helps from a cash flow perspective in not having to pay duty and taxes until products are consumed,” she adds.

An engaged corridor of business activity exists between Calgary in the south and Edmonton to the north with transportation available on the QE2 Highway and also the Canadian Pacific Rail line. Calgary anchors the south end of what Statistics Canada defines as the Calgary–Edmonton Corridor with Red Deer positioned perfectly at the halfway point.

Creative Industries & Tourism

Emerging possibilities are sprouting up with respect to creative industries. As example, construction of a $28 million film centre is underway. In addition to what it will do for the city, it’s a prime opportunity for other municipalities to work together with Calgary as part of a north-south digital corridor to advance the creative industries throughout the heart of the province.

“Both Red Deer and Edmonton have a piece to play in that creative industry. One jurisdiction is great at gaming while the other is great at animation,” Moran mentions.

A tenant now occupies the film centre with productions lined up outside the door waiting to get in. There is warehousing and studio space with a complete sound stage and it’s expected the Grand Opening will likely take place in April. From a weather standpoint, a very cooperative autumn season greatly enhanced the construction timeline. The opening can’t come soon enough for Moran and the city.

“We have amazing crews here in southern Alberta with more Emmy, Oscar and Globe nominations and awards than any other jurisdiction in the country,” she reveals.

Tourism is a relatively small sector for Calgary in comparison with some of its other more established enterprise industries and while it’s never been one of the major driving forces within the local economy, it continues to expand through specialized culinary experiences and the geographic natural assets to the west, primarily the breathtaking Rocky Mountains and the likes of Banff and Lake Louise. To the east it’s the Canadian Prairies.

“I come from the tourism industry and out here we have historically competed with our backyard but now we’re taking a much more regional approach to try and maximize the opportunities,” Moran says.

Calgary Economic Development is going through a destination asset inventory to see what else can be done in an effort to keep visitors in the city longer when they are in town for business. There is also a plan to capture more of the human traffic that uses Calgary as the fundamental gateway to the mountains.

“We’re looking at how we can work with the region to package everything rather than just selling Banff or just selling Calgary,” Moran says.

The city reaps widespread international attention with annual extravaganzas such as the Calgary Stampede and other popular events, including The Folk Music festival, which is held post Stampede in the latter part of July. The city boasts festivals not only in the realm of arts but also in worlds where science and the arts intersect. A newer festival that has quickly garnered critical acclaim is Beakerhead.

“This year tourism has had a record year and there are two reasons,” Moran offers. “We’ve been able to attract U.S. travellers because of the weak Canadian dollar, but also a lot of local people have chosen to have staycations as opposed to vacations and so they’ve invested back into the community.”

In addition to the regular annual events, the Year of Music is being celebrated in 2016. As it happens Calgary opens its brand new state of the art National Music Centre, located in the East Village, which is a fabulous urban living live-work-play community in the heart of downtown complete with restaurants, parks and a new public library as well as a train station that runs through it. The area boasts numerous mixed-use facilities, both residential and office space.

“It’s a most incredible building that is changing the face of Calgary,” Moran says. “There have been iconic buildings that helped us start to get out of our awkward adolescence stage and with the National Music Centre I would say we actually own a pair of designer jeans now.”


Aside from the oil industry the province of Alberta is also widely known for its deeply ingrained agricultural background. Recent estimates indicate about 6% to 7% of the entire Calgary workforce is a part of the agriculture industry in one form or another. Moran sees the sector as being a big part of the economic base moving forward.

Historically, Calgary and the province of Alberta has been very focused on shipping commodities out of this province. Now with both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) there is a more focused and detailed effort on diversification to augment numerous added-value propositions.

“This is one of the key opportunities and very much tied to transportation and logistics,” she says. “Should we ship less wheat, barley, pork, beef, lentil and canola to other parts of the world and then buy it back in a bag, a box or a can? Instead we can manufacture products here other than just growing them here. A prime example is the craft beer industry. With new policy from the provincial government there is more incentive to grow as opposed to companies coming to Calgary from Wisconsin, buying our barley and then us buying it back in a bottle on a shelf.”

High-tech Innovation

Ensconced by a sound, robust technology base, Calgary delves into enterprise tracts such as advanced manufacturing, communications and computer data systems. It’s a strengthening industry reputation that has drawn a young, educated, talented workforce. It’s not often easy for people on the outside to make a direct correlation between a natural resource-based economy and innovation, but it is a stark reality. It’s now a matter of getting that message out in larger volumes.

“Canadians are largely uneducated about the energy industry and it’s not their fault, it’s our fault,” Moran remarks. “There’s not a lot of discussion about energy and where we get it from. It’s hard for people to understand it, yet they are really dependent on it to advance their quality of life.”

The innovation development plan in Calgary has blossomed to the extent that its economic planners want it to be known as a significant innovation hub. While it could be about physical space, it’s really as much about a cultural phenomenon, if not more so.

“We’ve just done a competitive study that says compared to other jurisdictions in the world that we compete with, we have the highest educated and most diverse multicultural population. The reality is both of those are great ingredients for innovation,” Moran says.

Patently a well-educated workforce speaks for itself. About 26% of the population in Calgary speaks 140 languages, bringing with it an outstanding global perspective. Among the postsecondary institutions providing excellent higher learning education include: the University of Calgary, St. Mary’s University, Mount Royal University, Bow Valley College, SAIT Polytechnic, Alberta College of Art & Design and Ambrose University College – a private Christian liberal arts school.

“We have great relationships with all the universities. It’s important that the private sector and postsecondary institutions work together to create a culture of innovation along with politicians,” Moran says.

Why Do Business in Calgary?

With the downturn in the energy sector Moran believes there are tremendous countercyclical opportunities from a real estate perspective. Despite the oil slump there has been no mass exodus of talent from the city largely because its economic diversity has flourished so much more than it had in the past. There are so many other reasons to stay and grow the community like never before.

“We’ve got this great pool of talent that is working on ideas and concepts. If anybody is considering Calgary, now is a very good time because you’re not going to find a better community. There’s a spirit here and an energy that people bring and I would say that Calgary is a city that tells you what you can do – not what you can’t do,” Moran says.

WestJet and Brookfield are examples of Calgary-based companies that are in highly competitive industries, who have not only survived but have proven to be extremely successful, and even through immense growth, still call Calgary their home base. It’s a city that notably prides itself on being a meritocracy, which can be attributed in large part to its highly energetic and charismatic mayor. In fact, the World Mayor Project awarded Mayor Nenshi the 2014 World Mayor Prize as the best mayor in the world. The well-known organization is an international urban research institute.

“He is my marketing weapon,” Moran admits. “We know from doing perception research across the country at the end of 2014 that 40% of Canadians impression of Calgary had improved and he was one of the main reasons.”

There is also a noticeable burgeoning in healthcare employment opportunities, which has a lot to do with more than 300,000 people migrating to Calgary in less than eight years, leaving healthcare and education to organically expand at a rapid pace. The city has a world-class cancer facility and there’s now an infrastructure project to invest in a second cancer centre due to the immense population explosion.

“We’ve got brilliant talent at the Foothills Hospital and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and now they’re building a separate cancer centre. There’s an opportunity for us to start to diversify that economy,” Moran remarks.
The universities are doing a sizable amount of research pertaining to life sciences and now with the upward population swing, it leaves Moran believing there’s a prime opportunity for the city to set up a western life-sciences cluster.

Another exciting project that could be coming down the pike is called CalgaryNEXT and is being spearheaded by the Calgary sports entertainment group that owns the NHL’s Calgary Flames and the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. The location being proposed is on the northwest section of the downtown core. Preliminary plans for the space include seating for 19,000 to 20,000 people for hockey games, concerts and other events. It would also be able to host large conferences and provide flexible spaces for everything from annual shareholder meetings to conventions with break-out spaces.

“There’s a lot of due diligence that needs to be done. The land was once owned by Domtar so there could be environmental issues there. There are creosote stained railway ties but the land is underutilized. It really is important that we take a holistic view of the downtown core and ensure we’ve got anchors at one end and anchors at the other end to allow people to walk through the downtown,” Moran notes.

10-Year Strategy

Moran and her team at Calgary Economic Development have been working on what has become known as a 10-Year Economic Strategy. There are several key points of that plan that Moran wants to see achieved, including the ability to continue to develop collaboration. In the world of economic development the private and public sectors and many civic agencies all need to toil together to ensure a mutual focus is being pursued and new ideas are being cultivated.

“It’s important that we provide a succinct and unified voice to the rest of the world,” she says. “It’s very helpful from a brand-building perspective.”

Another key ingredient for success is diversification, but it centres on specific purposeful diversification.
“I don’t want to become, for example, the sporting goods apparel centre or the biomechanical engineering centre of Canada but rather leverage our people and infrastructure assets to ensure we diversify in a meaningful way,” Moran continues.

The city is doing its utmost to successfully revise the narrative on a long-held belief that Calgary is a one-horse town. As energy evolves, Calgary remains at the forefront and will take a lead role on all things energy: climate change, renewables and ensuring the city secures its space in renewable energy. It’s a very holistic view of economic development, and the planned course is proving to be very effective. It’s about shared prosperity and helping marginalized workers get into the workforce; new immigrants, Aboriginals, the disabled, seniors and new graduates. It’s very important for the city to get that right.

“We want people to be able to live, work and play in the areas they want to be and also making sure they have access to arts and culture, sports and recreation. We really do take a holistic view of economic development and take good people and the community piece as serious as we do the conventional economic development piece,” Moran says.