Like many Calgarians, I was disappointed by the delays and the political drama that has led to the current funding formula for hosting the Games. The last-minute compromise, combined with the general skepticism of recession-weary Calgarians, has created a sense of frustration with the whole process.
However, now that City Council has voted NOT to rescind the plebiscite, on November 13th we must put the political drama behind us and make an important decision on whether to bid on the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games. To this point, the discussion has dwelled on “who” is going to pay for the Games and “how”, with less time spent on “why” we should bid on the Games in the first place.
In thinking about “why”, it is important to reflect on what we can achieve if we host the 2026 Olympic Games by addressing the city’s strategic priorities as well as overcoming the challenging economic environment we find ourselves in. A couple of things that I have learned as an Economic Developer is that there are no quick fixes for solving our economic challenges. The building of pipelines to tidewater is going to take years, if ever, and diversifying our economy will be measured in decades. The other thing I know with some degree of certainty is that there are few opportunities outside of hosting the Olympics where a Canadian city can secure significant levels of funding to realize a broad base of municipal infrastructure priorities.
While the Olympics will not be a cure-all for the economic woes that are presently faced by Calgary, the $5.11 billion forecasted budget, which includes the revitalization of our existing Olympic facilities, construction of a much-desired field house and the addition of affordable housing units generated from the building of a athletes village, cannot be dismissed. While it is a subject of debate, some economists are projecting $4 billion of economic impact over the next seven years should we succeed in landing the Games.
So, let’s take a step back from the financial deal between the three levels of government and consider what the Olympics can do for Calgary. How can the Olympics enhance our future economic prospects building off what defines and differentiates our city? Three characteristics that define and differentiate Calgary include our strong commitment to volunteering and civic-mindedness, which I would argue is synonymous with the Calgary Stampede. The second is our position as the “centre of Canada’s energy industry” and lastly, Calgary’s close association with high-performance sports, building off the legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.
I believe the 1988 Olympics illustrated to the world Calgary’s commitment to volunteering, which is a tradition that has carried forward for more than 100 years at The Calgary Stampede. However, I believe the challenges of a severe economic recession, the increased ethnic diversity, and the doubling of our population since the 1988 Olympics, creates the need for a unifying project that can bring Calgarians together. The Olympics did this before and can do this again for a new generation of Calgarians. The Calgary Stampede demonstrates that volunteering is in our DNA. We CAN DO this! The value in strengthening Calgary’s community spirit is immeasurable and you can expect that reinvigorated community spirit fostered by hosting the 2026 Olympics will drive new civic aspirations for years to follow.
An important driver for the Calgary Stampede is to better connect our communities and create year-round celebrations. Proposed investments in support of that include an expanded BMO Centre and a new event centre/arena along with the creation of an entertainment district in Victoria Park area. All of these projects can be kickstarted with the hosting of the 2026 Olympics. While a new full-size arena isn’t identified as an Olympic project, it is perhaps the most compelling opportunity to get a new event centre/arena built and incorporated into a revised Olympic facility plan should the games come to Calgary.
Calgary is Canada’s undisputed energy centre. Unfortunately, our energy industry is witnessing what happens when investment in infrastructure (in the form of pipelines) does not keep pace with demand. The end result for Calgary has been tens of thousands of people laid off resulting in an alarmingly high office vacancy rate in our downtown. For this reason, many Calgarians are concerned about our ability to afford the Olympics at this time. But, what the Olympics can provide is a direct injection of capital projects to offset some our energy sector losses and further support our City’s economic diversification. The Olympics also provides access to a global audience to shine a light on the high environmental standards achieved by our energy industry as well as our leadership in addressing climate change and diversifying our energy mix.
While it may be difficult to point to the 2010 Olympics as being responsible for the rise of Vancouver’s technology industry, outcomes from a collaborative economic development marketing program initiated by all levels of government in advance of those Olympic Games has contributed to the appeal of Vancouver as a destination for foreign direct investment, particularly by the technology industry. It is not unusual for business investment decisions to take five years or more to come to fruition. As a result, it will be incumbent upon our economic development, tourism and convention organizations to leverage the exposure and awareness generated by the Olympics as a means to enhance our prospects for foreign direct investment and increased tourism spending leading up to, and following, the Olympic Games. I think they are up for that challenge.
Calgary has retained the enviable position as being “Canada’s centre for performance sport”, building off the legacy assets of the 1988 Olympics. More high-performance athletes, trainers and sport-focused specialists are based in Calgary than anywhere else in Canada. What does that mean for Calgary’s brand? I think it bodes well for positioning Calgary as a high-performance city.
Every two years a global spotlight shines on the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. It will be a reminder to Calgarians of the legacy that the Olympics means to our City. A revitalization of our Olympic assets provides community benefits and will reinforce Calgary’s position as Canada’s home for performance sports, not to mention an inspiration for our next generation of athletes. To retain its centre for performance sports status, reinvestment in our Olympic assets will be required. That investment can be far more effectively achieved by hosting an Olympic Games than going cap in hand to government and corporate sponsors as our facilities depreciate.
Of course, there are risks associated with hosting the 2026 Olympic Games. I have no doubt that what has been agreed upon in terms of a financial arrangement between governments and what gets delivered in 2026 will evolve, and evolve for the better. It is important to remember that this is not just Calgary’s Olympics, it is Canada’s opportunity to host the world. Should Calgary be successful in winning the 2026 Olympic bid, the pride of Calgary, Alberta, and Canada will be on the line.
It is important that Calgarians understand how hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games can support our longer-term community development aspirations and that the time frame for achieving those community aspirations can be accelerated by hosting the 2026 Games. However, to host the Olympics we need to produce a successful bid and demonstrate that Calgarians are fully engaged in this decision. It is now every Calgarian’s responsibility to reflect on what the Olympics can do for our city and vote on November 13th.
Inaugural President & CEO, Calgary Economic Development