Smith says Calgary didn’t request dollars for downtown; Gondek sent letter in November

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Smith says Calgary didn’t request dollars for downtown; Gondek sent letter in November
WATCH: Alberta Premier Danielle Smith answered questions Monday about why there was no funding for Calgary's downtown revitalization efforts in this year's budget. Adam MacVicar reports. – Mar 6, 2023

The question of why provincial funds for Calgary’s downtown were left off the latest budget has been answered by Alberta’s premier.

But documents from the city refute her reasoning.

“It just so happens that we didn’t receive our priority list from the City of Calgary,” Premier Danielle Smith said at an unrelated news conference Monday.

On Thursday at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Finance Minister Travis Toews said there was no “business case” presented to the province for funding to go to the downtown of the province’s largest city.

“I’m meeting tomorrow with (Edmonton) Mayor (Amarjeet) Sohi. Mayor Sohi did write me a letter and told me what his priorities are for Edmonton,” Smith added Monday. “And so I’m looking forward to meeting with (Calgary) Mayor (Jyoti) Gondek to find out what her priorities are and I hope we’ll be able to come to a conclusion on that.”

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But three and a half months ago, Gondek sent a seven-page budget submission for the province to consider ahead of the 2023-24 budget that was released last week.

Gondek’s Nov. 14, 2022, letter highlighted seven recommendations: “broad” municipal finance reform, enhancing Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) funding, committing to a Bow River reservoir options study, contribution to a multisport fieldhouse, committing funds to income supports and the low-income transit pass, improving access to affordable housing, and a request to match the city’s $100-million investment in the downtown revitalization plan.

Click to play video: 'Checking in with Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek on reaction to Alberta budget, arena deal talks'
Checking in with Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek on reaction to Alberta budget, arena deal talks

That letter was addressed to Toews and CCed to Smith.

“It is a little complicated for me to explain why I would give $100 million to a Toronto-based REIT (real estate investment trust) so that they can renovate their building,” Smith said midday Monday. “I accept that that’s a bit of a complicated argument to be made. And all the minister said is, show me the business case for that.”

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The city’s revitalization framework caps funding for any project. For example, a trio of downtown towers got $31.7 million in April 2022 for office-to-residential conversions.

Monday evening, Smith’s office said the province received the city’s budget submission and addressed many of the asks, like increased FCSS funding, increased Municipality Sustainability Initiative funding, and continued funding for LRT projects and the Springbank off-stream reservoir.

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“As it relates to the Downtown Revitalization Program, the premier and the minister of municipal affairs are looking forward to having discussions with Mayor Gondek on the specifics of the city’s plan and the province’s proposed involvement in it,” Becca Polak, the premier’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Calgary Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Deborah Yedlin characterised the city’s downtown as a “hub for innovation, talent, and investment, and requires an all-hands-on-deck approach by all levels of government – particularly as the headquarters of Alberta’s corporate community.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta launches 3-month pilot bringing sheriffs into downtown Calgary'
Alberta launches 3-month pilot bringing sheriffs into downtown Calgary

She said the chamber has already been working with the province on matters like Stephen Avenue, the Culture and Entertainment District, presence of post-secondaries, public transit and safety in the core.

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“We know great cities have great downtowns and look forward to continuing to work with all levels of government to advance impactful and prudent investments that will spur talent and investment attraction,” Yedlin said in a statement.

The Calgary Downtown Association (CDA), a business improvement area that represents more than 2,500 businesses in a 120-block area, said there’s a very strong economic reason to invest in Calgary’s core.

“Downtowns are the key economic drivers for this city and for this province, and we need to make sure that the investments are equal to what they provide to the overall GDP of this province,” CDA executive director Mark Garner said.

Garner said the CDA has been in conversations with the province last year about the needs of downtown.

“I don’t think it was specifically to just overall safety and inclusivity. I think there are other needs,” he said.

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“Obviously with the amount of money that the municipality has put towards downtown revitalization to try and build consumer and community confidence, there’s still a need.

“It’s about a bigger economic recovery and continuing going forward. So for us, it’s data and sitting down with (the government) at an advocacy level, and talking about the data in a very informed way and make sure that they understand it – put that data into context and then put the money to where it needs to go.”

In the previous budget, the city got just $5 million when it made a similar request. In the latest budget, no money was allocated to encourage private reinvestment in otherwise vacant buildings in the city’s downtown, which has lost billions in property value and the resulting taxes.

The province’s May 2022 report from the Calgary Office Revitalization and Expansion working group, co-chaired by Calgary-Currie MLA Nick Milliken — now the minister of mental health and addiction — listed “provide incentives to develop real estate” as the top priority.

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“The City’s proposed $450 million investment in office conversion is expected to generate a $600 million return in property tax revenue and $142 million in provincial tax revenues over a 10-year cycle,” the report reads.

That mirrored the strategy the city completed on the need for downtown revitalization.

“We’ve been incredibly intentional and clear on what it is that we need,” Gondek told Global News Mornings on Friday. “We have a business plan that was approved two years ago. The provincial government themselves, under Minister (Doug) Schweitzer at the time, did a full review and agreed.

“But we will continue to work with the ministers that we speak with regularly and identify opportunities.”

Gondek’s office said she wasn’t available to comment on Monday.

Monday morning, Smith pointed to the public safety task force that has a dozen Alberta sheriffs added to downtown patrols.

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She also raised the possibility of extra-provincial post-secondary institutions setting up a satellite campus in downtown Calgary.

The University of Calgary, Athabasca University and Bow Valley College already have campuses in the city’s core, with SAIT sitting just north of the Bow River.

“If you’ve got a lot of students that are in downtown Calgary, Edmonton, that then helps with retail and shopping and restaurants,” Smith said.

“So we think that there’s a lot of opportunity there, but we can only respond to requests and we can only respond with actual proposals on the table. And at the moment we don’t have any of those.”

In April 2022, the Alberta NDP promised $155 million for downtown redevelopment, if elected in the spring.


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