Looking back at the first year of her term as Calgary’s mayor, Jyoti Gondek feels there is a growing sense of optimism in the city.
“We’ve seen so many amazing things happen. We’ve had festivals return, people are excited about Calgary,” Gondek told Global News. “We’re just seeing a lot of optimism and it’s nice to be part of that.”
On Oct 18, 2021, more than 393,000 Calgarians lined up to cast their ballot in a municipal election that would see a historic turnover of Calgary’s city council.
Gondek emerged victorious over 26 other candidates with 45 per cent of the vote, and became the first woman elected to the mayor’s office in the city’s history.
“My biggest highlight has been getting to know members of council, and accomplishing some pretty big things together,” she said.
But several of those early initiatives drew some criticism of the new mayor and council, including a budget adjustment with a tax increase and funding boosts across most city services, and the declaration of a climate emergency which caught many off-guard.
Some Calgarians, like Bryan Derkson, didn’t see eye-to-eye with the declaration.
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“We hear a lot about the urgency of the climate, and I feel it heightens anxiety and tension, and doesn’t resolve things,” Derkson said.
A final-hour collapse of a deal with Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation to build a new event centre, and the quiet departure Stephen Carter from the mayor’s office also contributed to an early approval rating of just 38 per cent for Gondek.
Gondek said she accepted that’s how people felt at the time, but added the poll was a snapshot in time. Meantime, the political and economic environment at that stage of the pandemic had a good chunk of frustration directed at her and city council, which also didn’t make way for an easy transtition.
“I would say that Mayor Gondek got off to a little bit of a shaky start,” Mount Royal University associate professor of policy studies, Lori Williams, said. “A few things were sort of in flux that perhaps she wound up wearing, whether or not they were, in fact, her fault.”
However, Gondek said she feels “incredibly blessed,” that Calgarians have shared her vision on a commitment to revitalize the city’s downtown core, end polarization and to “stay true” to seeking capital investments on climate initiatives.
“I think our mayor is doing a good job,” Calgarian, Fraser Stewart said. “A lot of challenges coming out of COVID-19 and trying to get the city dynamic again.”
According to Gondek, some of those early investments are starting to pay off, with the private sector partnering to convert 770,000 square feet of office space to residential homes in the downtown core.
The city, partnering with police and The Alex Community Health Centre, also announced a pilot project for a new alternative response model for mental health crisis calls, funded by the Community Safety Investment Framework.
City council also committed funding for financial support to address affordable housing and homelessness in the city and approved a strategy to map out how the city can meet net-zero targets by 2050.
Gondek’s first year in the mayor’s office has also featured a slew of announcements from corporations setting up shop in Calgary to a new hub for energy transition in the city’s downtown core.
Reflecting on the first year, Gondek said “building relationships” has been a focus for city council with renewed partnerships with the provincial and federal governments. Most recently, the federal government announced $15 million for Calgary to help fund a program for residents to make net-zero investments to their homes.
“She’s fairly low-key, and has done a lot of work behind the scenes and taking trips to other places to try to drum up interest and investment in our city,” Williams added. “That hasn’t gotten the kind of attention that some of these more negative stories have gotten, and so it’s hard to offset those initial impressions.”
According to the mayor, those relationships with other levels of government are set to play a factor in the upcoming four-year budget with requests for match funding for transit and support for homelessness.
“You will see a lot of elements of our local budget that is seeking match dollars because that’s the only way that we’re going to solve the wicked problems that we’re seeing,” Gondek said. “When we look to our federal and provincial counterparts, it’s because all three parties, including ourselves, have a role to play in delivering a great quality of life; and I think we’ve forgotten about that sometimes.”
City council will begin budget talks on November 21 to debate and build a budget that Gondek said will take both financial constraints due to inflation and population growth into account.
“I’m happy to be doing this work with 14 other colleagues that believe in this city so strongly, and a business community that is as optimistic as we are,” Gondek said.