‘Emerge cautiously yet confidently’: Calgary Economic Development looks past COVID-19

Calgary Economic Development CEO and president Mary Moran presents the annual report to the community on April 15, 2021. Global News

There’s cautious optimism for 2021 from Calgary Economic Development (CED) following a tough 2020.

Technology and innovation will continue to be areas of the greatest growth, the CED’s annual report said Thursday.

“As a city, we faced a harsh new reality; low oil prices, a plunge in foreign direct investment, the biggest drop in GDP in the country, businesses struggling to survive and our unemployment rate that doubled within six months,” CED president and CEO Mary Moran told a virtual audience.

Read more: ‘We just can’t keep pace’: Does Calgary have a shortage of tech talent?

“Even with all the forces against us, we attracted and retained 54 companies and secured 5,500 jobs last year,” Moran said, representing about half the jobs CED attracted in 2019.

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The CED CEO said the ongoing vaccination during the third wave of the pandemic will ultimately be positive for the city’s future, saying it’s an “exciting time to be in Calgary.”

“In fact, it feels like it’s finally our time: our time to emerge cautiously yet confidently,” Moran told the virtual audience. “Our time to emerge stronger and more diversified. Our time to emerge together and with a shared vision.”

Read more: Calgary job retraining program seeks more funds to help laid-off workers

According to the report, a record $353 million in venture capital flowed into the city in 2020 — double 2019’s amount.

Sixteen trade deals were also secured in 2020, a record for the economic development agency since starting its trade accelerator program.

The value of film and TV productions fell by more than half in 2020 due to the pandemic.

But the CED report said Calgary was one of the first North American cities to restart production with public health measures, and the province still saw $90 million in productions last year, supporting 1,649 direct jobs at 78 productions.

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The Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF), a $100-million business investment fund established by Calgary city council in 2018, has committed $43 million for 14 projects since its inception. CED said that has resulted in $636 million of OCIF, private and other government funds going into the economy — a 15-to-1 investment result.

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OCIF funds are gated by milestones and “with COVID-19, and many of the agreements extended over three-to-five-year time frames, $50,000 was disbursed in 2020,” the report reads.

SAIT’s DX (digital transformation) Talent Hub was the main OCIF benefactor in 2020 and funds aided the work done by the Life Sciences Innovation Hub at the University of Calgary.

Read more: Calgary reducing late property tax fines for a 2nd year

Despite a year that saw increased mergers and acquisitions in the province’s energy industry, Moran noted that more “non-traditional” players leveraged digital technologies to become leaders in areas like ESG, low-carbon fossil fuels and carbon capture and storage.

“It points to the changing energy future in Calgary’s undeniable — undeniable — opportunity to become the centre of global climate action and clean tech.”

In a pre-recorded message, Premier Jason Kenney said 2020 was a record year for new businesses and corporations in the province. He also pointed to projections from major banks and think tanks saying Alberta would lead the country in economic and jobs growth.

“I believe 2021 is really going to be Calgary’s year,” the premier said.

COVID supports for business

Since the start of the pandemic, CED put in a three-part strategy to support business, including connecting companies to health and financial assistance, supporting reopening efforts, and moving towards the long-term strategy “Calgary in the New Economy.”

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“Calgarians are undeniably problem solvers,” Moran said.

“And as the strategy says, smart people in this city are applying innovation and technology to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges — cleaner energy, safe and secure food, improved transportation of people and goods and better health solutions.”

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Mayor Naheed Nenshi, speaking at his final CED report to the community as mayor, said city council has done what it could to help businesses in the city, via mechanisms like fee and levy relief and deferrals.

“One of the things that we have learned is that if businesses close during a crisis, 40 per cent of them never open again,” Nenshi said. “And we needed to make sure that didn’t happen.

“It didn’t happen after the flood, and we needed to make sure that that didn’t happen this time either.”

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Downtown blues

Addressing downtown vacancies is a problem Moran and CED are actively working on, with Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan being approved by a city committee a week ago.

Nenshi said that plan will be coming to council “with a pretty significant financial ask” on April 26.

“It really matters because building the heart of our city back up will, in a cold-hearted way, help us solve some of our structural taxation problems,” Nenshi said. “But in a much more important and thoughtful way, it will help us bring back that vibrancy that attracts and retains that great talent.”

Read more: City council to decide on Calgary’s greater downtown plan after vacancy hits 32%

When asked by reporters, Moran declined to share details.

“The ask is going to be a healthy ask but it’s also going to see a healthy return.”

Moran wasn’t bothered by the delays in Green Line and Event Centre construction, saying they are both “long games.”

“Those are enhancements to the downtown strategy, so we want to see them done,” Moran said.

“We do believe that the opportunity for growing tourism, in particular with investment in the arena, is quite critical.

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“The province has an ambitious goal of growing tourism by double what it is today and so you can’t do that without investments into infrastructure, including the arena or the city centre.”

Moran said downtown development is “a place where government has to play is to spur that investment and to spur that change,” saying other orders of government can be “enablers.”

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The CED president said Calgary’s 2021 GDP is forecast to beat 2014 numbers and even with record-high unemployment during the pandemic, more people are working today than in the past.

“We just have to adjust our expectations with respect to what a healthy economy looks like, and we have to adjust our expectations to know that it’s just not going to come back the way it did in the past in the sense of energy won’t be the mega job creator and office space occupier that it has been in the past,” she said.


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