Report Finds the Rivers District Revitalization Results in Positive Economic Impact

Today the Event Centre Assessment Committee heard the results of a report done by Ernst and Young. The Economic Impact Assessment of the Rivers District Revitalization in Calgary looked at the buildout of the Rivers District as a whole, with three anchor projects – the event centre, the expansion of the BMO Centre into a tier 1 convention centre, and the expansion of Arts Commons. It found that, taken together, these projects result in a positive economic impact for Calgary, both during the construction phases and the operation phase. The quantitative study did not account induced impacts or tourism impacts, but during their presentation, EY noted that there would be positive impacts. They also looked at some jurisdictions that have built or are in the process of building a similar cultural and entertainment district and found that significant private follower investment occurred after the initial catalyst investment. They found that this resulted in an increase in employment, wages, public outdoor spaces and property tax revenue for the city.

EY was very careful in their report and stated several times that this was the most conservative approach they could have taken and was therefore very low risk. They concluded that there will be a positive economic benefit for Calgary and stated several times that there will be additional positive benefits that their report did not include.

During the meeting, I brought up a few points – the Rivers District and these catalyst investments are about continuing to build a great city. It’s by no coincidence that Calgary is the most livable city in North America and the fourth most livable city in the world. We need to take a holistic view of the City. From the beginning, I have always stated that I will be a fierce advocate for Ward 12, but I don’t want to do it at the detriment of the entire city. Take a look here:

There are a few points I want to make here though. The first is, we are looking to revitalize an area, rather than simply building a hockey arena. I hear from both sides all the time – the pro arena folks who want to get this done at a reasonable cost to the City, and the people who don’t want to spend any public money on it. It’s very important to note that the feedback I am receiving is evenly split, which is consistent with a survey conducted by the University of Calgary. I’m often told to listen to my constituents and I assure you, I do. But there are differing positions on every topic throughout the ward. But this is not just about a hockey rink – I know not everyone is a hockey fan or a sports fan. What we want is an event centre that can hold as many varieties of events as possible – from hockey and lacrosse to concerts to e-entertainment and e-sports to visits from world leaders to rodeo and monster trucks, and everything in between. We want something that will provide an opportunity and benefit for everyone in the city. As my colleague Ward Sutherland often says, we want the outside of the building and surrounding area to be as important as the inside.

I’ve heard from others that this is too expensive, we can’t afford it, and the City should be focusing on fixing the economy. To that first point, as I mentioned in the video above, the entire burden of the cost of these projects is not on the City. Funding will come from other orders of government, from private investment and from other funding mechanisms. To the point of fixing the economy, the revitalization of the Rivers District and the buildout of a cultural and entertainment district can work toward that goal. As EY found in their report, significant private investment followed the buildout of these cultural and entertainment districts in Edmonton, Denver, Nashville and Columbus. This really is not about an event centre, or an arena as many want to simply call it, it’s about building a cultural and entertainment district. It’s about revitalizing an underutilized area of the city. It’s about place making.

I know there are countless reports out there suggesting that there is little, if any, economic benefit for municipalities to get involved in stadium deals. Rather than looking at this as a potential investment in an arena, we again need to look at it as revitalization and place making. An article, titled Placemaking as an Economic Development Strategy for Small and Midsized Cities, published in Urban Affairs Review looked at the impact of quality of place on small cities (between 250,000 and 500,000 people) and medium sized cities (500,000 to 2,500,000 people). It found that quality of place plays a larger role in medium-sized cities, which Calgary falls squarely into. More specifically, the study found that medium-sized cities significantly benefit from more entertainment options and higher density in attracting young, college educated people – the type of people you want to help improve and diversify the economy. The study found that amenities make the real difference in attracting young talent to cities, beyond the big name cities (such as Toronto and Vancouver here in Canada). The Rivers District, and specifically a cultural and entertainment district, would help achieve creating the amenities and density that attracts young talent.

A separate study showed that quality of place factors matter for a person’s happiness at all age levels, but found a significantly larger impact for people aged 25 to 34 and 35 to 49. The study specifically stated, and I’ll quote, that “the happiness of younger residents is a function of having easy access to cultural, shopping, transport, parks and sport amenities and the attractiveness of their cities.” Now, obviously I want to ensure happiness among every age group, but we also want Calgary to remain a healthy, vibrant city, and for that, growth is required. Talent attraction and retention is required, and studies show that quality of place achieves those goals.

One other study I’ll mention found that fast-growing companies prefer vibrant parts of cities and suburbs. The study noted that high-growth firms look to locate in dense, mixed-use, transit accessible areas in both urban and suburban areas. I think we have done a great job of that in our Ward 12 communities, with varying types of homes, great pathway systems, nearby business parks, and an ever-improving transit system. Now while the Rivers District is well outside of Ward 12, our ward has the capacity to continue attracting new businesses to the area. We will have easy access to the cultural and entertainment district once the Green Line is in place. Council has heard time and time again that companies look for amenities when thinking about where to locate. Calgary already has a number of phenomenal amenities to offer, which I think is demonstrated in our livability ranking, but a cultural and entertainment district has the opportunity to attract more businesses to the city.

Today we heard that the Rivers District revitalization will have a positive economic benefit for the city. We were also told a number of factors such as tourism and induced impacts were not included, but they would exist and could only be positive. This is not to say that I am decided on what we as Council should do. There is still a lot of work to be done and I’m not about to write a blank cheque. We absolutely need to figure out what the funding model is, which projects can and should be supported, and how they may be phased. But we need to continue building a highly livable city. We need to continue making Calgary a great place. We need to consider everything holistically. We need to make sure that any investment the City makes is exactly that – an investment.

As always, please feel free to contact me with your thoughts.