Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith is tall and gregarious, quick with a smile and a firm handshake. Since 1995, the 66-year-old Smith, a onetime Edmonton Eskimos halfback, has quarterbacked Alberta’s capital city—taking what looked to be a struggling franchise and turning it into a real contender. By the mid-1990s, Edmonton had been battered by fickle oil prices and provincial government downsizing. Potential investors viewed the city warily and civic morale languished.
Worst of all, Edmonton had lost most bragging rights to its archrival 300 km to the south. “If people were talking about Alberta, it was all about Calgary,” recalls Smith.
“Edmonton was going nowhere.”
An age-old rivalry with Calgary is now tipping in favour of Edmonton
Smith, who in another previous career turned a small tire shop into a $50-million-a-year international tire chain, became a relentless salesman for his native city. He travelled across Canada, the United States and Europe repeating his mantra. “Edmonton,” he declared, “is the best city in the best province in the best country in the world.” Hyperbole aside, even Smith’s critics acknowledge he helped fashion a business-friendly image for the city and lifted community spirits. But he has also been lucky. As the
traditional service hub for the oilpatch, Edmonton is benefiting mightily from some $40 billion being pumped into developing the province’s massive oilsands deposits near Fort McMurray, 375 km northeast of the Alberta capital. The 1998 opening of a $500-million-a-year diamond mine in the Northwest Territories—with a second now under construction—is providing a similar spinoff bonanza to a city that has long prided itself on being Canada’s “Gateway to the North.” The city’s success was evident last month when the Ottawa-based Conference Board of Canada, in its thrice-annual survey of 12 major cities, predicted Edmonton’s gross domestic product will grow by 4.3 per cent in 2001—second only to Ottawa-Hull. Calgary finished fourth, with a projected growth rate of 3.8 per cent. It was the second consecutive time since the survey was first conducted in 1998 that Edmonton outpaced Calgary. In addition to high energy prices, the board credited Edmonton’s strong performance to its relatively low business costs and growth in areas such as transportation and communications.
All of which represents a dramatic turnaround. When Alberta Premier Ralph Klein embarked on his budget-slashing
crusade in 1993, it was Edmonton—the seat of government— that took the biggest hit. There are an estimated 12,000 fewer government jobs in the Edmonton region today than in 1992. Meanwhile,
Calgary took flight. Already home to the principal offices of most of the major oil and gas companies,
Calgary became a magnet for other sectors. Perhaps the biggest coup: in 1996, Canadian Pacific Ltd. moved its headquarters from Montreal, bringing with it about 1,300 employees. These days, Calgary boasts 204 corporate head offices, second only to Toronto.
Edmontonians viewed these developments with some chagrin.
They comforted themselves with the notion theirs was the more livable, cultured city. Edmonton had more urban parkland, a bigger university and—with the notable exception of the Calgary Stampede—outdid its southern rival every year by staging hugely successful musical, theatre and multicultural festivals. Edmonton stood out in other ways as well. While Calgary and rural Alberta continued a decadesold tradition of supporting the provincial Conservatives, in recent years Edmonton opted overwhelmingly to elect opposition MLAs, whether Liberal or NDP—earning the capital the nickname of “Redmonton.”
Still, many Edmontonians felt a nagging insecurity: if Alberta was prospering and Calgary booming, why wasn’t Edmonton enjoying a piece of the pie? Business and civic leaders decided to act. In 1993, four separate economic development agencies were rolled into one authority, Economic Development Edmonton, an arm’s-length, nonprofit organization charged with pinpointing and then promoting the city’s strengths. One obvious advantage was a lower cost of living: the price of an average resale house in Edmonton today is $127,000, compared with $176,000 in Calgary. The authority also identified several sectors where Edmonton stands to prosper, including export-driven manufacturing, biomedical research and information technology. But even more fundamental, says Economic Development Edmonton president Jim Edwards, is an attitudinal shift. “We’re more self-reliant and no longer see government as our life-jacket,” says Edwards, a former Conservative MP “I think our economy is now as entrepreneurial as any in the country.”
In fact, Kevin Gregor, who grew up in Edmonton and who has just completed a one-year term as president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, pays his native city what some Edmontonians might see as the ultimate compliment—and makes others cringe. “Edmonton,” he says, “is starting to become more like Calgary.”
Ironically, just as Edmonton scales the economic heights, many Calgarians are having sober second thoughts about the
consequences of unfettered growth. In a state-ofthe-city address delivered a year ago, Calgary Mayor AÍ Duerr called for a dialogue on how to foster what he called “the ethical city.” In words that would have once been heretical for a Calgary mayor, Duerr declared: “Growth for growth’s sake should not be the objective.” In a recent interview with Macleans, Duerr, a former city planner, elaborated. Over the past half-decade, Calgary has grown at a phenomenal rate, adding about 20,000 people every year. This occurred at the same time both provincial and federal governments dramatically cut funding for municipalities. In Calgary, the strain is showing in traffic snarls and a public transit system that can’t keep up with suburban sprawl. Duerr wants the higher levels of government to reinvest heavily in urban infrastructure. At the same time, he argues that Calgarians need to look to criteria other than strict economics to sustain a high quality of life. Among them: how clean is the city’s air and water, and how well does Calgary deal with its poor, homeless and mentally ill?
Asked if he is concerned about Edmonton pulling ahead of Calgary in the rate of economic growth, Duerr, who has been mayor since 1989, smiles broadly. “No, we have all the growth we need,” he replies. In fact, both Duerr and his Edmonton counterpart insist the rivalry between their cities—each now approaching the one-million mark in population—is more myth than reality. “A strong Edmonton,” says Duerr, “is good for Alberta and for Calgary, too.” Smith concurs: “The strength of Alberta is we have two absolutely great cities.” Elarmony has its limits, though. In September, Edmonton city council budgeted $127,000, including the cost of new street signs, to change the name of Calgary Trail Northbound—which includes that portion of Highway 2 leading into the city from the south—to Gateway Boulevard. “I’m thinking of the image of Edmonton here,” said Bernie Zolner, past-president of the South Edmonton Business Association, which pushed for the revision. “Why do we need to promote Calgary when people are coming into our city?” The rivalry is dead. Long live the rivalry. E3
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