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Mayor, Minister express appetite for post-secondary expansion in downtown Calgary

Mayor Jyoti Gondek and Minister for Jobs, Economy, and Innovation Doug Schweitzer talked Friday about the role they see post-secondaries playing in the redevelopment of the downtown.

Speaking at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce panel, they both expressed a greater desire to see institutions like the University of Calgary play a greater role in returning vibrancy to the core.

Mayor Gondek and Minister Schweitzer both spoke about how having post secondaries downtown allowed for more ideas and connections to be made between the so-called town and gown.

“The connectivity between pieces of downtown are significant, especially when you’re looking at the post secondary place,” said Mayor Gondek.

Provincially, the Alberta Government has placed a renewed emphasis on post-secondary institutions as a vehicle for job training. In the recent budget, the province earmarked $600 million for skill development and upgrading.

Minister Schweitzer talked about the need to have conversations with the city and with institutions to determine what a greater post-secondary presence downtown could look like in a flexible environment.

The Minister spoke hypothetically about what a law faculty downtown would look like, given his background as a lawyer. He highlighted how it would better connect law students to firms and to the courts.

“It would make sense to bring faculty like that downtown potentially. You talk about 400 or 500 students, staff goes along with it—that without a significant amount of vibrancy into a downtown community and would also potentially provide a better experience for the students as well,” he said.

The comments followed the provincial release of the Calgary Office Revitalization and Expansion (CORE) Working Group report earlier this week.

The University of Calgary said that they believe strongly in the role the university plays in Calgary’s success, including their already existing schools and continuing education programs in the downtown core.

“We are very open to exploring new opportunities to expand and deepen the University’s presence downtown,” said UCalgary.

CORE report identified policy options for the province

The report noted the already significant contributions that Calgary’s post-secondaries make to the downtown. These include the downtown campus for Bow Valley College, the University of Calgary architectural and satellite schools, SAIT’s Digitial School of Technology.

The report highlighted three benefits to greater post-secondary presence as part of the revitalization plans for the downtown:

  • Provide talent to the business community
  • Increase student housing and lead to greater business, restaurant, service and entertainment opportunities and increased vibrancy
  • Increase the number of young people in the downtown core, leading to improved activity and a continuous presence in the area, which often leads to increases in overall safety

Financial and tax-incentives were among the policy positions put forward to the Alberta Government to encourage expansion or relocation of faculties to the downtown.

Mayor Gondek said she didn’t believe that bringing additional university and polytechnic faculties downtown would detract from efforts being made elsewhere in the city—including the University District.

“I don’t think bringing post secondaries downtown is going to water down any of the other initiatives that we have going on,” she said.

“The University District is strong, it is located near a hospital, the main campus is right there, and there’s all kinds of reasons for its success. The same thing can be replicated downtown if we get the housing and education component right.”

Chamber of Commerce CEO Deborah Yedlin pointed to Minister Schweitzer’s hypothetical of the law faculty moving to downtown Calgary as a way of getting that educational component right.

“We have specialists from law firms who teach in the Faculty of Law. Why not bring everybody together where there’s activity, where things are happening, where the issues are being raised and can be solved,” she said.

“So I think this is a no-brainer from my perspective, bringing post-secondary, increasing that presence is low hanging fruit.”

No appetite for new tax levers at the provincial level

Minister Schweitzer rejected the idea of giving the City of Calgary extra latitude to raise revenue through different tax mechanisms for downtown revitalization.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite at this point in time at the provincial level to explore that type of policy,” he said.

“I don’t think new taxing mechanism is going to be on the table.”

On the question of increased budget funding as a result of the CORE report, he said that the report was being examined by provincial ministries. The government would be looking at policy options to complement municipal initiatives across the province.

“Many of them would likely fit within what the City of Calgary is looking to do as well,” he said.

Significant financial benefits to downtown post-secondaries

Mayor Gondek said we should view what universities draw to the downtown, and not as a direct tax contributor.

“If government were a business, you would also understand that some things are loss leaders, and others are revenue generators,” she said.

“And if it draws in more business activity, if it draws in more people living there, that’s what builds your property tax base.”

Mark Garner, executive director for the Calgary Downtown Association said that the involvement of institutions is a key component of the overall revitalization of downtown. Garner, who previously was the executive director for the Downtown Yonge BIA in Toronto, spoke to that city’s experience with Ryerson—now Metropolitan Toronto University.

“Having that university, those students generate $30 million of economic impact annually in the area, so when you look at students and faculty, it brings the vibrancy,” he said.

“There’s not a single downtown that’s not wanting or desiring a university.