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Premier Smith says: Show me a proposal for Calgary’s Downtown

City's request for downtown conversion matching funds, and cash for post-secondary conversions is include in November city documents.

Premier Danielle Smith said they can only respond to proposals on the table for Calgary’s downtown, and they currently don’t have any of those from the city.

The provincial government has been criticized for not providing any money in Budget 2023 to help with Calgary’s downtown revitalization. While downtown Calgary vacancy rates have seen some slight improvement, there are still economic factors dogging Alberta and keeping the rate stubbornly high – around 30 per cent.

The province gave $5 million in the last budget for a series of activations and programs in Budget 2022.

On Monday, during a media conference on expanding funding for youth mental health treatments, Premier Smith said they’ve provided hundreds of millions in other areas for the city: LRT, Deerfoot Trail upgrades, the Springbank dam project, Repsol Centre, the Glenbow Museum upgrade and being a bridge between parties for the proposed Event Centre.

“If there are other things that they would like us to do, we’re open-minded about that,” Premier Smith said.

In the work her government has done with downtown groups in both Calgary and Edmonton, Premier Smith said the focus has been on public safety and social disorder.

“That’s what we heard was the priority. It just so happens that we didn’t receive the top priority lists from the City of Calgary,” Smith said.

In the Calgary Office and Revitalization and Expansion Working Group (CORE) report done in May 2022, and co-chaired by Calgary Currie MLA Nick Milliken, the number one identified priority was to incentive real estate development. (Safety was the fourth priority.)

Further, in the November four-year budget approval, Calgary was to explore a $20 million funding source and engage with the province on matching funds for post-secondary conversions in the downtown.

Matching funds requested

In her post-provincial-budget scrum with media earlier this month, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said they were frustrated that the province didn’t hear their call for requests on downtown funding.

This was in the City of Calgary’s November budget submission to the provincial government.

“The City is unable to fully fund the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program on its own,” the letter read.

“The City requests financial support from the Government of Alberta to continue the Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program and to continue to leverage private investment in Calgary’s downtown.”

The mayor said they were hoping for these matching funds. The City has committed more than $100 million to the program. Conversion projects came in and the cash was almost immediately subscribed.

“We had asked for money for post-secondary institutions as part of the conversion project. We had also asked if they could potentially consider matching or conversion funding,” the mayor said.  

“None of that seems to have taken place in this budget.”

Post-secondary conversions ideal, said Premier Smith

On Monday, Premier Smith said it would be complicated for her to explain to Albertans why she would give money to Toronto-based real estate investment trusts (REITs) to convert buildings. She said there are examples of others doing building renovations without government funding.

She said the idea of downtown campus conversions was a good one – a perfect idea, in fact. It’s “more in our lane,” Smith said, though she hasn’t seen a firm proposal.

“I think if we indicate a willingness to look at those kinds of proposals, those proposals will come in. But we haven’t seen any proposals,” Premier Smith said.

“We can only respond with the actual proposals on the table and at the moment, we don’t have any of those.”

Premier Smith also said that downtown public safety cash will spur downtown investments. She said business deals in Edmonton fell apart because of public safety issues on downtown streets – though she recognized Calgary wasn’t quite as bad.

“If we don’t have safe streets… all the money in the world is not going to be able to attract more people to come into our cores,” the premier said.

Mayor Gondek said she appreciated the important investment in public safety and mental health and addictions support.

“However, we have a very clear downtown revitalization strategy that is endorsed not only by the city and council, but by the private sector,” she said.  

“So, I really expected that the province would have stepped up to match some of that funding because we do need it.”

The Alberta NDP’s Joe Ceci took the opportunity for a few swipes at the UCP, saying others – including the Calgary Chamber CEO Deborah Yedlin – have called it insulting.

“Twenty-one UCP MLAs in Calgary and they couldn’t deliver one cent to help with the critical work of revitalizing Calgary’s downtown,” Ceci said.