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OPINION: Does Calgary need to be more like Austin, Texas?

Irfhan Rawji, CEO of the MobSquad and Chair of the Glenbow Museum, thinks so.

Recently, he was on the Danielle Smith show on NewsTalk 770 talking about how Calgary needs to be more like Austin, Texas if we’re to attract more young tech sector professionals to Calgary.  This to fill up the empty office spaces downtown and new residential buildings in the neighbouring communities. 

He pointed out Austin is the second most attractive city in the US for young tech professionals to work.  The show was in response to a CBC Calgary story by Robson Fletcher on “Why Calgary is losing its young adults.”

Rawji knows what he’s talking about.  MobSquad is a Calgary-based company that hires U.S. tech company’s highly-skilled foreign tech workers when their U.S. work visas haven’t been renewed, and moves them to Calgary.

In chatting with Smith, Rawji pointed out Austin has many similarities to Calgary – oil and gas, ranching, rodeo and population size – but Calgary isn’t viewed as a cool place to live, work and play by those in the tech sector. 

Big differences between the cities

What Rawji failed to mention are the two big differences between Calgary and Austin. 

First, Austin isn’t the Texas oil and gas epicentre that Houston and Dallas are. It doesn’t have the stigma of being the home of “dirty oil companies,” which is a big turn off for the climate change generation.

Second, Austin’s downtown is dominated by the robust 350-acre University of Texas campus and its 50,000 students and 21,000 faculty and staff.  The university gives the entire downtown a bohemian sense of place, with people coming and going at all times of the day and night.

Downtown Calgary is about the same size, but it’s still home to about 75,000 oil and gas workers, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers, who arrive by 7 or 8 a.m., leave by 6 p.m., five days a week.  It’s a corporate campus that’s conservative and sterile, which makes it much less appealing to recent tech grads looking for something less formal. 

There’s a third reason, too. Calgary’s cold winters (especially in the evening), with icy sidewalks and snow for almost six months of the year is a big turn-off.

Cultural investment in Calgary – or better marketing?

The Arts Commons expansion is one of the four projects approved for funding in March 2019. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Rawji, thinks Calgary needs more investment in culture to attract the tech and entrepreneurs. 

He points to Austin being known internationally as the Live Music Capital of the World and home to the huge SXSW festival that is a mash-up of music, art and new technology. 

In fact, Calgary has been doing just that for the past 10+ years.  The National Music Centre, Central Library, cSPACE, Contemporary Calgary, DJD dance studio and new mural programs are all examples of that investment. Not to mention Beakerhead, which is the literal blend of science and the arts.

The recent provincial announcement of $40M to the Glenbow Museum and plans for the Arts Commons transformation will keep the momentum going.

Perhaps, then, we need to hype our city’s arts scene more?

I find when I visit American cities, they often over-sell their attractions.  In many ways, our collection of music festivals like the Calgary International Folk Festival, Sled Island, Chasing Summer and Country Thunder – to name just four – offer as strong and diverse year-round music as other cities. But we don’t seem to leverage them effectively. 

Can we grow Beakerhead to become Calgary’s equivalent of Austin’s SXSW?

Maybe not so much as investment, but marketing these events to the world.

Fun, year-round Calgary streets

Fans are gearing up for Calgary Flames action at Trolley 5 pub on 17 Avenue. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

Calgary’s Inglewood, Kensington Village and 17Avenue  SW offer some fun street animation experiences, but they don’t have the density of live music and partying places that creates a vibrant night-life seven days a week.  

In Austin, Sixth Street between Lavaca Street and the Interstate 35 is considered the epicentre of the Live Music Capital of the World.  The street was in decline until the Pecan Festival in 1978, which combined local food and art vendors with live bands. It evolved into the street becoming a live music mecca.  In addition, Austin’s South Congress has turned into a hang-out street for locals, with restaurants, cafes, bars, patios, food trucks and shops.  Austin didn’t become cool overnight.

Nashville is another example of a city the size of Calgary where its downtown has evolved over the past 25 years from being downtrodden to being cool. Nashville’s Lower Broadway street is home to 20+ live music venues, as well as restaurants and souvenir shops. 

It’s packed with tourists and locals seven days a week. Nearby is the 2,362 seat Ryman Theatre, home of the Grand Old Opry from 1943 to 1974, after which it remained more or less dormant until 1993. In 1994, a newly renovated Ryman opened with live music seven days a weeks.

Then, in 1996, the Bridgestone Arena opened on Broadway and together they began the revitalization of Downtown Nashville into the international music center it is today. 

In the 1980s and early 1990s the epicentre for Calgary’s nightlife was Electric Avenue (11 Avenue SW) between 4and 6 Streets) with its numerous bars. Unfortunately, it became known more for raunchy drunkenness and a sports bar scene than live music scene. 

By the late 80s it was not uncommon to have 10,000 people flock to Electric Avenue to party on Flames game nights.  However, by the mid-90s, the partying turned into fighting, which ultimately led to the City refusing new bar licenses.  Electric Avenue died a quick death. 

Missed Opportunities

Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

By the late 90s, Stephen Avenue Walk showed signed of revitalization with new restaurants and patios opening along the pedestrian mall.  It would attract 10,000+ walkers over the noon hour, but evenings and weekends were still quiet. 

The Palace Theatre was renovated in 1998 and converted into a massive nightclub, but it struggled. In 2007, it was reborn as Flames Central, a sports bar which also struggled and then in 2017 it reverted to The Palace – a nightclub and live music venue. The Palace has never become Calgary’s equivalent to the Ryman, attracting both locals and tourists to come downtown almost every night.

And while Arts Commons at the east end of Stephen Avenue with its five performance spaces and 3,200 seats has the potential for making Stephen Avenue a lively night spot, most of its patrons just hop into their cars after a performance and head home.  It hasn’t been a catalyst for the development of bars, lounges and cafes pre- and post-performance.

Stephen Avenue eventually evolved to become an upscale restaurant row, home to dozens of restaurants catering to the corporate expense accounts of downtown oil and gas executives. These restaurants have struggled since 2014 with economic downturn.   

Fun streets are more bohemian than corporate.

In 2004, Calgary’s 17 Avenue received international status as a party street when it was dubbed “The Red Mile” as the result of the sea of red Calgary Flames jerseys that took over the street during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

However, by 2006 complaints about noise, traffic tie-ups, jaywalking and public drunkenness resulted in increased police enforcement that put a damper on the celebrations.  The Red Mile of 2004 hasn’t been rivalled. Today, it’s branded as “RED” which stands for Retail Entertainment District. There’s little to offer in the way of entertainment though. It’s mostly shopping and restaurants.

Coming Soon!

Artists rendition of a Stampede Trail around a new Calgary Event Centre. How do we ensure it actually resembles this? CITY OF CALGARY

Today, Calgary is putting its hopes and energy behind Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s Rivers District and Victoria Park Master plan for a new culture and entertainment district at Stampede Park. It’s to be our calling card to the world that we are fun cool place to live, work, play and visit. 

It will look very much like Nashville’s downtown with Lower Broadway as the main street, the Bridgestone Arena (1996) and the massive Music City Centre located a block away. 

While Calgary has attempted several times to create nightlife over the past 30+ years, they have ultimately failed due to the rowdy drunken behaviour that’s not tolerated by our pragmatic, conservative mindset.  Unfortunately, nightlife is synonymous with drunkenness and rowdiness be that Nashville, Austin or Berlin. 

In hanging with young techno musicians and coders in Berlin a few years ago, one of the most common things they said they loved about Berlin was the relaxed drinking laws where you can buy a 500 ml bottle of beer at any grocery store for about $1.50 CDN and open it there and drink it on the street, take it to the park or back to their co-work space. 

You can also drink on Nashville’s Broadway Street and Memphis’ Beale Street (another famous street of bars and live music). You can’t on Sixth Street in Austin (at least you aren’t supposed to). 

If Calgary wants to create a vibrant entertainment district it is going to have to become more tolerant of street drinking and the shenanigans that comes with being a party city. Calgary politicians, police and the public will have to live with the Stampede-like shenanigans year-round – not just for 10 days.

The Last Word

Irfhan Rawji made another very interesting point during his chat with Smith. Roughly 75 per cent of the software engineers applying for US visas are of Indian descent. 

If Calgary is serious about attracting the next generation of young tech talent to Calgary it would be wise to play up that our city is the third most ethnically diverse city in Canada.

It probably wouldn’t hurt if we profiled the Sunday cricket matches at Riley Park, Calgary’s Hindu Temple and our annual Nagar Kiran Sikh Parade in our marketing material.

Perhaps Calgary City planners need to focus more on how we can make living, working and playing in the NE cool, rather than always focusing on the City Centre?

It is always good to have a back-up plan.