One week ago, the debate over Calgary attempting to host the 2026 Winter Olympics kicked of in an online community forum with an interesting comment. Someone whom I don’t know personally shared a CBC article accompanied by the interesting observation that this person learns more from the comments posted to such articles. My immediate reaction was to respond with a cheeky statement of my own, that I learn more about by neighbours from the things they share in this online forum. I refrained from doing so, though it would have earned an approving assortment of likes and smiley faces we social media dwellers so desperately crave. In retrospect, I had no idea that my abstained impudence would prove so prescient.
In the days since, our community forum has witnessed a fever of posting, commentary, and debate regarding the potential Olympic bid and the upcoming city plebiscite on November 13th. Where bobcat sightings once garnered the bulk of interaction, this Olympics conversation is now front and centre, clogging up several scrolls worth of space thanks to passionate supporters from both sides who have no concept of how topic threads work. I have learned a lot!
If my neighbourhood reflects Calgary as a whole, and to some degree that’s true (though certainly not entirely) then it’s very clear to me that this city is in far more need of a psychiatrist than an Olympics bid. And it’s not just one side in need of this help, it’s both. I had no idea so many people here were this depressed, this delusional, and this self-pitying.
I first shared my own thoughts on Calgary hosting the Winter Olympics a second-time way back in March (the nostalgia mistake calgary is about to make). Rhetoric has exploded since then, but my stance remains the same. I’m against it. But as I read each impassioned plea from my neighbours I’m ever more alarmed at the state of mind many of my fellow citizens are in.
It coming from all corners. Born and raised Calgarians, sometimes multi-generationally so. New, recent, and decades old transplants to the city from other parts of the country. A multitude of voices on each side of the YES/NO question. Judging by their accounts, Calgary is practically a post-apocalyptic wasteland of despair, loathed by politicians, forgotten by our countrymen (betrayed even), and otherwise utterly unknown to the world. Thus, some think we need to spike our municipal punch with a little of the ole Olympic tequila to help turn all these frowns upside down.
Now, I’m not immune to the fact that Calgary, and Alberta as a whole, has endured a serious economic downturn these last few years. I’m acutely aware, in fact. Having not worked for ten years (I am obsolete), I have all but rendered myself unemployable in the oil patch that once sustained my livelihood. More so, there is a very real possibility that come January my wife and/or many of her coworkers, also employed in the oil patch, will lose their jobs. I’ve had friends, former colleagues, and acquaintances lose their jobs; some have found others, some have not. When I visit family outside the city, a two-hour drive away, I see the changes in every town we pass along the way. The economic engine of this province, of this city, has undoubtedly shrunk and struggled for nearly half a decade now and no dramatic return to prosperity appears imminent. I get it. My family has thus far been on the lucky side of the ledger, but I do get it.
Still, as I read the ever more insistent beseeching of my neighbours, I can’t help but cringe at the navel-gazing and near delusion of it all. We, as a city, need professional help. I, of course, am not a professional but I am fully versed in the ways of tough love, so here goes. Calgary, give your head a shake!
Look, there is no question that things have been bad here compared to where we were five years ago, but this reality needs to be viewed in proper context. Firstly, folks from places like Detroit or Cleveland might take umbrage with the level of despair many attach to the current state of this city. Never mind the dozens, if not hundreds, of small cities and towns across this land that have seen entire industries pack up and leave entirely. There are no abandoned industrial areas here. There are no boarded-up neighbourhoods emptied of people here. There are small pockets of struggle but nothing I would classify as outright decay here. Calgary remains a healthy and damned wealthy city by any measure.
Oh, but downtown vacancy rates are nearing 30%. Yes. That’ll happen when you overbuild to the extent Calgary did. If you’ve been living in this city for more than ten years, you can’t help but marvel at the changes to the downtown core. The number of new buildings erected is astounding. Honestly, did anyone think all these skyscrapers and structures were going to be fully filled upon completion even if oil had remained at $100? Boom or not, this strikes me as rather fanciful dreaming.
Consider just Encana. In 2006, Encana was a behemoth of an oil and gas exploration and production company created by the merging of AEC and PanCanadian. As is the wont of oil patch egos, Encana set about building the tallest office tower in Calgary; The Bow. Everyone was excited by this, especially those who couldn’t handle the tallest existing tower belonging to Petro Canada and all the Trudeau baggage that went with it.
The Bow is a massive office building. Beautiful and unique and a lovely addition to Calgary’s skyline. Ah, but Encana was not done. By 2009, having been denied the ability to turn itself into a royalty trust, Encana decided the best way to fully monetize its inherent value was to split into to separate entities. Encana would retain the name and become a natural gas company and the oil assets would be spun off into a new venture called Cenovus.
Cenovus, not to be outdone with phallic symbology, eventually agreed to be the anchor tenant in a newer, even taller new office tower; Brookfield Place. Essentially, one single corporation was responsible/inspiration for building the two tallest buildings in Calgary all within the last decade. Now include the millions of additional square footage added in all the other new structures, many significantly tall in their own right, and Calgary simply went a little off the deep end.
Then again, oil booms will do that. Or in the case of Calgary, a natural gas boom immediately followed by an oil boom. This is the part so many Calgarians (and Albertans) seem to forget. Aside from the protracted dip during the 2008 global economic panic, or whatever it’s called, the oil patch benefited from a nearly unprecedented boom. Natural gas would make a multi-year run up into the double digits sparking serious discussion of once again building a pipeline to the Mackenzie delta. The accompanying drilling bonanza eventually lead to an oversupply and inevitable crash from which prices have yet to recover.
Ah, but fear not, an oil boom awaited, and we were soon rolling in the bounty that comes with oil prices spiking well above $100 per barrel. This too would eventually correct, as it always does, leaving more than a few Albertans without a chair in which to sit.
These sequential booms lasted about fifteen years total, if memory serves me. That’s incredible. And, oooo baby, was Calgary loving every minute of it. We built those office towers as if the entire corporate community of Canada was going to set up shop here. We also built homes, expanding the city like a suburban lava flow in all directions. We renovated homes, bought luxury cars, and accumulated toys with the zeal of Vicodin addicts who had broken into a pharmaceutical warehouse. And why not, the money was practically raining down upon the city and people were coming in droves. Tens of thousands of people, year in and year out, flooded this city, nearly every one of them gaining employment seemingly as soon as they crossed city lines and shouted their first YeeHaw!
Such boom times never last, though, even if fifteen years gave the impression that this time may be different. It wasn’t. The exuberance is gone and that fountain of ever-expanding wealth has a few clogged spouts. Calgary seems to ignore how unsustainable, and in many respects unhealthy, that boom was. We went a little crazy. Our restraint and prudence ebbed with each shot of hydrocarbon we downed at the bar. And now that it’s dissipated, we seem to have misplaced our humility a bit.
We aren’t in a desperate economic depression or recession. We came off an epic binge the likes of which would make Vegas proud. In fact, we’re growing again. Alberta led Canada in growth in 2017 and is on track to do so again in 2018. It won’t be the rip-roaring growth from the glory days, but it is hardly the deteriorating pustule of contraction many seem to believe.
There are those that also argue we need a pick-me-up. That an injection of ours and other people’s tax dollars to upgrade sporting facilities and infrastructure will do wonders to the city. Meanwhile, no matter which direction I drive from my home I am confronted with major road construction. These aren’t little pothole jobs or revamping of turn lanes. These are multi-million to multi-billion dollar megaprojects literally changing the way Calgarians get around the city. From the Southwest Ring Road to the SW BRT to the 17th Avenue BRT to the Crowchild Trail Bridge upgrades, the city is in the midst of a major makeover. Not to mention the amazing new Central Library and many other new facilities all over the city. And there’s more coming, namely the Green Line LRT project that will cost 4.65 billion dollars for phase 1 alone.
And for those who hold bitter political grudges, all these projects were made possible thanks to contributions from all three levels of government. It’s important to point this out since several of my neighbours are eager to share their dislike of our mayor and our premier and our prime minister. None of these three public servants are conservatives and that irritates the hell out of many Calgarians. They say as much, with self-pitying laments included in their pro and anti Olympic contributions. It’s as if they think every single member of the community voted exactly like them but somehow these imposters still managed to gain power and are specifically targeting Calgary for retribution. It’s all so obnoxious and childish but sadly, unsurprising. I hate to break it to these people, but far more of your neighbours voted for the sitting leaders than you’d like to believe, and your petty rants aren’t going to help you win them over to your side of the plebiscite.
In addition to the construction boost, many citizens decry that Calgary needs to be put on the map. Oddly enough, this is what the first Olympics was supposed to do, and did, for Calgary back in 1988. I don’t recall the city falling off many maps in the time since. Canada certainly hasn’t forgotten Calgary. People still come here looking for a new start and a brighter future. The numbers may not be as overwhelming as during the boom, but they remain in the positive. This despite the supposed tragedy that Calgary is enduring, the city remains a beacon to many Canadians.
I’m not sure how the rest of the world sees Calgary. Mostly as a gateway to Banff and Jasper, I suspect. Will the inside of a short-track speedskating rink incite a mass tourism influx to see the gleaming, empty office tours of the city core? Doubtful. I’m middle-aged and seen many iterations of winter and summer Olympics. None have inspired me to visit any of the host cities. Mind you, I’m sure more than a few environmental (cough, cough, pipelines and climate change) protestors are salivating at the opportunity to protest a major oil city on an international stage. I trust the security budget is funded accordingly?
What they won’t be doing is moving en masse to Cowtown. I’ve seen it said that real estate prices grew leading into and immediately after the ’88 Olympics and so, the theory goes, they will once again rise should we host the Olympics again. That’s a mildly interesting coincidence. I’ve lived here twenty years and housing prices have gone up plenty, thank you very much. The fact that they have currently leveled off or even, bless us all, pulled back slightly is a good thing. Housing has not collapsed here. Again, the incredible gains in housing values during the boom was no more sustainable than it was healthy.
And finally, to those Calgarians who so obviously love this city but seem obsessed with it being somehow special and better than any other city. I honestly don’t know if this is a lack of self-confidence or simply a runaway ego wreaking havoc with your sensibilities, but please stop. Calgary is plenty special already. As is every other city and town in the country. Everywhere I’ve lived, everywhere I’ve visited, has something that makes it unique and itself. None are better or worse than the other. It isn’t a competition.
Calgary has a neurosis about being viewed as the greatest city in the province, the country, or the world. We must be better than Edmonton or, gasp, Toronto. Just quit it! Calgary is a great city. It was in 1988. It was in 2005. It was in 2012. And it remains so today. It has nothing to prove to anyone, certainly not itself. Wanting to host the Olympics in some attempt to make Calgary “the best” looks as desperate as the girl standing on the dance club speaker flashing her breasts.
Calgary is my adopted home. My children are Calgarians. This city is so blessed with wealth and good fortune, beauty, and pride (the good kind, mostly). Have things gone a little sideways? Sure. It’s been difficult for some and definitely a reality check for others. My own future feels more precarious today than it has since I was laid off ten months after moving to Calgary and buying a house. That was scary, I can assure you. But I recovered and survived. As did Calgary. As it will again and continue to do so.
Calgary doesn’t need a reason to be upbeat. Calgary doesn’t need something to look forward to. Calgary already has all that. Maybe take a moment to look around a bit. Forget what has been “lost” and embrace all that remains here, vibrant as it has ever been. Calgarians fancy themselves as hard-working, innovative, and positive people. Those kinds of people look to the future. To new and fascinating challenges and opportunities. They don’t longingly look in the rear-view mirror try to recreate the past.