Calgary’s downtown core, once a magnet of corporate head offices, is in crisis following the downsizing of the oil and gas sector and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 30-per-cent office vacancy rate has shrunk the city’s tax base and slashed traffic that supported restaurants, bars and retail.
The debate on how to best revitalize the downtown core is multifaceted. Should taxpayers, businesses or government shoulder the burden to reverse the core’s decline? How much should be spent on building vibrancy in an effort to retain and attract young talent? Is this the wrong time for Calgary to be spending more than it can afford?
Council approved in April, 2021, the Greater Downtown Plan. With an initial investment of $200 million, the goal is to achieve a more balanced mix of residential, office, retail, entertainment, tourism and culture, and reduce reliance on the energy industry as a major source of city revenue. City officials say the downtown will ultimately require $1 billion of investment from both public and private sector partners over the next decade. The Alberta government has also pledged to help with some funding.
Supporters say the city has no choice but to lead the downtown revitalization effort because it will not go back to the way it was given the transition to clean energy. But critics worry the burden of rescuing the downtown is once again falling on taxpayers, rather than those who bet on continuous oil patch growth and overbuilt commercial space.
How should we revitalize downtown?