Downtown Revitalization Confrontation

The Alberta budget was released last week and, for the second year in a row, it's a balanced budget.

That's good news for everyone, but the budget still drew the usual criticism from the usual suspects.

The NDP somehow managed to complain both that the UCP wasn’t spending enough, but also that the surplus was too small - classic.

Municipalities, meanwhile, had the same complaint they have every year - namely that the Province didn’t fund literally every single thing on their wishlist.

Of course, Calgary did receive cash from the province - quite a lot actually.

Calgary is receiving almost $3 billion in capital funding in this budget, including increased funding for LRT construction, the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir Project, the Ring Road, Deerfoot Trail upgrades, and more.

Despite this though, the NDP, Mayor Jyoti Gondek, and even the Chamber of Commerce participated in what looked a lot like a coordinated attack on the budget, by focusing their attention on a claim that a request from Mayor Gondek for $100 million in “downtown revitalization” funding was not fulfilled.

Now, some might think it’s a bit petty (or perhaps electioneering?) to complain about not getting $100 million for one project when you just got $3 billion (that’s three thousand million!) for other projects.

But, putting that pettiness aside, the media coverage of Mayor Gondek’s complaint actually centred on whether the provincial government had even received the Mayor’s request or not.

For those who saw the coverage and were confused, or for those who just missed it entirely, here’s what happened:

  1. After Finance Minister Travis Toews released the provincial budget, Mayor Gondek complained to the media that the budget didn’t include any money for downtown revitalization.

  2. Seeing the Mayor’s complaint, the media asked Premier Danielle Smith why she hadn’t given Calgary money for downtown revitalization.

  3. (Note how the media automatically assume that the Mayor should get whatever she wants, and the Province is at fault for not giving it).

  4. Premier Smith responded that the City of Calgary hadn’t requested any money for downtown revitalization.

  5. The media then went back to Mayor Gondek, who said that she had actually asked for funding for downtown revitalization, and released a letter from November that supposedly did just that.

  6. The media were quick to side with the Mayor, reporting that a letter was indeed sent to Premier Smith, and claiming that this proves that the Premier is at fault.

Now, being somewhat skeptical of media claims as we are here at Common Sense Calgary, we decided we should check this out for ourselves.

We decided, therefore, to actually read the letter - a novel idea, I know!

It turns out that Mayor Gondek did indeed send a letter to the Province in November, that much is true.

The letter contains 7 requests of the Province.

Many of these requests were funded in the budget (as part of the $3 billion mentioned above).

But request number two is the contentious one.

In request number two, Mayor Gondek asks for $100 million for the City’s “Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program”.

The “Downtown Calgary Development Incentive Program” is a program where the City of Calgary gives massive subsidies - tens of millions of dollars - to large real estate corporations, many owned outside of Alberta, or even outside of Canada, to help them pay to convert their old empty office buildings into other uses.

The letter does talk about other things that the City is doing, some of which may even count as “downtown revitalization” - attracting new businesses to downtown, improving public spaces, redeveloping Olympic Plaza, etc.

But, those aren’t the things the City asked for money for.

The City asked for $100 million to give to large corporations to help pay for them to improve their buildings.

Why should taxpayers across Alberta pay higher taxes so that large corporations can get even more corporate welfare?

Premier Smith made the same point in a press conference:

“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.”

Premier Smith even said that Finance Minister Travis Toews had asked the City to provide a business case for why giving $100 million to real estate corporations makes sense, but no business case was ever provided by the City of Calgary to the Province.

So, long story short…

If you rely on the media for your news, here’s what you were told happened:

  • The City asked for money for revitalization.
  • The Province refused and claimed to have never received the request.
  • The Mayor proved that the Premier was wrong by releasing the letter she sent.

But, if you’re a supporter of Common Sense Calgary, where we actually investigate issues for ourselves, you know what actually happened was:

  • The City of Calgary asked the province to give them $100 million, so that they could give that $100 million to large corporations from outside Alberta.
  • The Province asked for a business case to show that was a good idea.
  • The City didn’t provide one, so the Province didn’t give them the money.
  • The Mayor complained, while misleading the media about what it actually was that she asked for.

If you know someone who’s only heard the first version of the story, please share this information with them!

You can do so by either forwarding this email to them or by clicking the link at the bottom of this email, which leads to an easy-to-share online version.

If you’d like to support the work we do here at Common Sense Calgary, so that we can continue to do real research and analysis that the media doesn’t bother doing anymore, please click here to make a donation to help us hire more researchers and help promote our work to more Calgarians!


Kristy and the Common Sense Calgary Team

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