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Arts Commons mayor forum: Calgary’s downtown, the arts and… Farkas?

Five Calgary mayoral candidates came for a forum on the arts and downtown revitalization, but one participant was targeted as a bad political actor by the others.

Mayoral candidates Jan Damery, Brad Field, Jeromy Farkas, Jyoti Gondek and Jeff Davison took part in the Arts Commons / Vibrant YYC forum at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

Those five were selected as the leading mayoral candidates from a ThinkHQ Sept. 22 poll.

Candidates responded to questions in three areas: People, Place and Activation.

The questions largely focused on downtown revitalization and funding for Calgary’s creative industries.

“I think the great thing about downtown is while it’s our biggest challenge right now, it’s our biggest opportunity,” said Jeff Davison.  Davison said it’s important to bring people downtown, and why he’s focused on the entertainment and cultural district.

Jeromy Farkas said that one of his main issues to help revitalize the downtown is to reintroduce a downtown police station.

“Our downtown police station was closed at around the same time as the supervised consumption sites opened, which has compounded a lot of issues that we’ve seen in our crime rates, security and vacancy,” he said.

Jan Damery said she wants to work with post-secondary to build downtown campuses.

“So we actually have students, young people, living and working downtown. It brings faculty, which also then drives our local economy,” she said.

Jyoti Gondek said it’s important to capture that “buzz in the air” as it will drive city council and citizens to make the right decisions on downtown. She said that’s why the city invested $200 million on the downtown strategy.

“Remember, we were getting no attention from investors for a very long time. And as soon as we made the investment in ourselves, the capital followed,” she said.

DT safety / Racism in Calgary

Candidates were asked further about safety in the downtown, with most reiterating their desire to create a vibrant area to increase the perception and feeling of safety in the area.

Field said we must attract business back into the downtown core. That brings all of these things together – the vibrancy, the people and ultimately the safety.

“We’ve got to make sure that our actions back up our words right now,” Field said.

Damery said that more investment needs to go to our social service agencies. Getting a handle on mental health and addictions will help curb some of the ills in downtown Calgary.

On the question of racism, treatment of minorities by police and how candidates would continue to address it, Farkas said he wants all people to have equal access and no barriers. He said a blanket statement that police are racist is polarizing.

“I supported measures to be able to improve diversity and accountability for police service, but I reject the premise that the foundation policing is racist,” he said.

Field said he’s learned a lot from talking openly with people about racism in Calgary. He said he’s a better person than he was three years ago.

“When it comes to true inclusion, we have to be open to having tough conversations, sometimes get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations,” he said.

Gondek said it was important to remember that the people in these systems aren’t racist – it’s deeply embedded in the system itself.

“I think we have all learned that racism is in fact alive and well and if we are not all collectively committed to being an anti-racist city, we won’t be able to fix this problem,” she said.

Damery said the city she believes in where everyone feels welcome isn’t happening on the street.

Investment in public spaces and amenities

Field said the city needs to get a handle on its finances first. Focus on repopulating the downtown.

“If we can do all that, I think there’ll be money left over for future infrastructure projects,” he said.

Damery said if we want a city that really grows, we can’t look at tax cuts like some of the other candidates have suggested.

“We already have people challenged with the services; they are not getting the quality,” Damery said.

Davison said that the city needs to stop investing money without a consistent focus from all groups. It should be targeted towards a sense of place and creating an environment that attracts talent and business.

“What is the outcome we desire. We all desire to have a vibrant downtown – that’s for the good of everyone in our society,” he said.

Jeromy Farkas said he would push for a four-year property tax freeze. He said residents faced a 7.5 per cent tax increase last year. Many are unable to pay their bills.

“That, combined with increases in growth, as well as reserves, allows us to continue to spend money on the right things,” Farkas said.


When asked if the city had the right mix of transit priorities, most candidates said no. They generally shared a desire to make the city more accessible.

“I think what we’ve done is we’ve prioritized our roads for personal vehicles,” said Gondek.

“I think the point that we missed is that you can use your roads for more than one type of mobility option.”

Damery said she’s talked with folks in northeast Calgary that have been waiting “decades” for transit service. We need to think about this holistically, she said, with climate change in mind as well.

Davison said that it’s not just access to transportation, but access to opportunity.

“It’s access to get home with the kids, it’s access to the doctor, to school,” he said.

“We’ve got to stop thinking of the train lines as one line. They’re an arterial piece of an overall transit infrastructure that is helping our citizens each and every day, get to where they need to be, wherever that might be.”

Farkas said he would immediately push for better traffic light synchronization in Calgary. It would reduce traffic frustration and improve flow.

“I think right now at City Hall we’re seeing very much an anti-automobile mentality,” he said.

“That’s just not realistic year round.”

The sparring begins

Both Davison and Gondek took turns taking shots at Farkas during the debate.

After Farkas spoke on being against defunding police, Gondek rebutted and said there was an opportunity to talk with members of the defund to fund movement.

“They don’t want to remove the police service they wanted them to strike more partnerships, do you fund in order to fund partnerships is what it meant,” she said.

Davison took Farkas to task after talking about a tax freeze.

“Interesting that last year Jeromy Farkas’s plan was to cut 15 per cent and this year it’s a freeze. He tends to flip flop on a lot of his decisions,” he said.

“You can’t just change the debate based on what you think tomorrow’s headline in (Calgary Sun columnist) Rick Bell’s column will be.”

Gondek even took it a step further near the end of the debate. She took issue with a handful of Farkas’s campaign points.

“We’re not selling city parks. We’re not defunding police. We are not increasing our taxing ability. These are lies,” she said.

To which Farkas responded: “All I’m going to say is these candidates on the stage they can run but they can’t hide from their own records,” he said.

After party spillover

In talking with the media afterward, Gondek doubled down on the alleged lies.

“I meant exactly what I said,” Gondek remarked.

“Jeromy Farkas is lying to Calgarians.”

Gondek said she believes all candidates running are tired of running with someone who is telling the lies.

Davison said he finds it funny that Farkas said they can’t hide from their voting record.

“I don’t think he can hide from saying no to absolutely everything in our city,” Davison said.

But the two other non-councillor candidates said these exchanges demonstrate how broken city hall is.   

“This is a perfect example of why nothing’s got done in the last four years,” said Field.

“The utter dysfunction within city council – it says it all.”

Damery said just watching what’s happening in front of you to see some of the problems.

“This is a dynamic that we have witnessed in how they operate with council,” she said.