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Mark Garner wants to bring ‘the go’ back to downtown Calgary

Mark Garner used a rock-and-roll analogy to describe the future of Calgary’s downtown.

He called it the fall and rise of downtown Calgary.  

“I steal that from Aerosmith, because Aerosmith started at the top of their career. Their first album goes gold, platinum status, they’re massive rock stars and they blow it all,” he said.

“They have to fight back to get to elevate themselves back to the level where they’re at. And I think Calgary has gone through sort of that bell curve moment.”

Garner, who comes to Calgary from Toronto, was named the Calgary Downtown Association’s (CDA) newest executive director in April. He was on the job May 9. He most recently served with the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (DYBIA), and with the Toronto BIA from 2013 to the present.

In Garner’s time with the DYBIA, he built a strategic plan based on data. The success he found there led to that group forming a consulting arm to help other BIAs with research and development.

He’s coming to Calgary at what he called an “iconic moment and key tipping point moment” for the future of Calgary.

That’s one of the things that attracted Garner to the city. Plus, the city’s focus on a Greater Downtown Strategy was key.

“I don’t think there’s any other city right now that I would want to be in or is really that focused,” he said.

He said Calgary’s plan is a good roadmap. Execution of it is critical.

“Vision is great. But if you don’t find a way to execute and deliver on that, and then measure your outcomes, I think that’s going to be the challenge,” he said.

Quality of life

One of the things Garner kept referring back to throughout the interview was the importance of quality of life.

Calgary has made recent announcements about the first office to residential conversions. There’s also the proposed 66-storey condo tower on Stephen Avenue block.

“When you start to build these vertical neighborhoods, you need to think about quality of life,” Garner said.

“Sometimes we get so excited about development and intensification, we don’t talk about quality of life.”

That includes green space. It includes daily and weekly routine things like the coffee shop, the drug store or grocery store or haircut.

“If you’re putting in a 60-some-odd storey tower on this corner, how does it get serviced? What are the operational best practices?  I think that’s what I’m going to bring to the table is of what worked in Toronto, and what didn’t work and make sure that voice is heard as part of the strategy for downtown Calgary,” Garner said.

Self-described data geek

In a downtown that’s lived inside the box so to speak for decades, a data focus seems antithetical to where Calgary needs to go.

It’s a downtown that needs a soul rather than more statistics.

But Garner said it’s about making informed decisions. He’s committed to data in rebuilding a vibrant downtown Calgary.

It comes in the form of asking people why they attended certain events. Garner also said they need to know why Calgarians are coming downtown, and what are they coming to do.

“It’s all about that third place, right? There’s a place where you work, there’s a place where you live and there’s a place where you go,” he said.

“I think we’ve got to bring the go back to downtown Calgary.”

Part of the data collection is also around the perception of safety in the downtown. He said after arriving in Calgary last week, he’s been talking to people about the downtown.

He’s heard, “oh, I don’t go downtown. It’s sketchy,” he said.

Add in information about where people in Calgary are coming from, how long they’re lingering and you can put together data that informs better decisions, Garner said.

Calgary’s downtown plan ticks a lot of boxes, but…

This is the area along 2 Street SW. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

In 2021, the City of Calgary delivered its Greater Downtown Strategy. City council devoted $200 million to fund initial work. More was added to bolster the downtown office conversions plan.

The province recently released its CORE working group report. It bears a striking resemblance to the city’s strategy.

Garner’s had the chance to read Calgary’s Greater Downtown Strategy.

“I think they’re ticking a lot of boxes, which is great,” he said.

One big focus of the strategies is officer conversions. Office conversions need to happen, but it’s only one aspect, Garner said.

“I think it is one component, the key component. I don’t think it’s the panacea that’s going to (create a downtown community) but it definitely needs to be done,” Garner said.

He said there was one glaring strategy omission in his mind – operations.

Things like, how are delivery trucks getting in, what technology will be deployed, when repairs are made to city infrastructure, is it made with these operational goals in mind. It lacked a plan for how things will all work together.

He pointed to a downtown location where a light pole had been severed for some reason. Instead of seeing the opportunity to rethink the area’s public realm, Garner said the city just poured new concrete around the pole.

“It wasn’t glaring to me that there was a lot of thought around the operational expectations for what you want to design,” Garner said.

‘We’re the activation expert’: Garner

Creating vibrancy in a downtown that faces challenges with keeping people in the core is a chicken and egg situation, Garner said.

He recalled his time in Kitchener-Waterloo when they had lots of downtown activations, but no one living in the downtown.

For Calgary, there are several things at play. There’s the Green Line construction, office conversions, the growth in active transportation, and, of course, safety.

Safety is the key to starting the path back to vibrancy, Garner said.

He wants to build a safe and inclusive strategy for the neighbourhood.

“It’s got to be safe and inclusive first as a priority before you do the activations because people have got to feel safe coming back downtown,” he said.

It’s a complex equation, Garner said. He thinks they can start with simple activations in the downtown – things like having buskers at places where people are likely to congregate or having “sweetheart tables” in non-private-patio areas in the public realm.

Then, as the vibrancy tide starts to turn, look at larger more sustained programming.

“It’s multi-pronged, but definitely activations have to be a key focus to get people back,” Garner said.

It’ll take more funding, too. The CDA did get $1 million of the $5 million promised to Calgary’s downtown in the last provincial budget.

The CORE working group report identified funding as a major component of driving activations in Calgary’s downtown.

Measuring success

Being a data person, Garner said he’s a measured outcome sort of guy.

So, how will he measure success in Calgary’s downtown?

“Success is basically seeing more people doing more things,” he said.

It’s foot traffic counts and occupancy rate increases. He said it’s the number of startups opening in the downtown and the number of tickets being sold in Calgary’s theatres.  It’s more heads in beds at hotels.

Data driven.

“I hope for you it’s like, ‘you know what, I don’t know what’s going on downtown but let’s go downtown tonight.’ That’s what I want to hear,” he said.

“Knowing that downtown is the place to go again.”