'Great city' costs money, business leaders say
Appears in the September 27th issue of the Calgary Herald in the Business section.
Many business leaders say they are looking for more than a one-trick pony for the city's next mayor, bucking a perception that Calgary entrepreneurs care only for lower taxes and curtailed spending.
"People want to be proud of this city. We need a vibrant arts community and we need great parks. And you don't get that by squeezing down taxes and squeezing every nickel out of the system," said businessman George Brookman, CEO of West Canadian and chairman of Tourism Calgary.
"We have a very high standard of living. So we have to pay the price of prosperity."
Brookman said thinking of the $24.5-million Peace Bridge still makes him wince, because he doesn't believe that was a good use of money. But speaking from his own personal standpoint, he said crime and traffi c are key issues, and downtown Calgary -- with its old library building, and "tired" Glenbow Museum -- needs some sprucing up.
"You can either have a cheap city or you can have a great city, but you can't have both," Brookman said.
Others business leaders expressed a similar sentiment.
"This issue of who can be the greater fiscal hawk, I think, is missing the point," said Ken King, president and CEO of the Calgary Flames.
"What's more important is understanding what needs to be done, and understanding there are lots of ways to be right, and lots of ways to go about doing that."
King and other Flames brass hope to break ground on a new arena within three to five years and have suggested they want some help from the public purse -- be it infrastructure, direct funding or some other support. King declined to comment on the details.
However, for many in the business community, lowering taxes and controlling spending at City Hall is, by far, the priority.
"We need to start at Square 1, which is the finances," said Richard Truscott, Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "Then we can have a discussion about the vision for the city, and an arts policy and parking and all these other things."
Truscott said many small businesses have been just "scraping" through the recession. The first question on the federation's questionnaire to municipal candidates asks whether the tax burden can be shifted away from businesses, which pay a business tax on top of property taxes.
Truscott added that small business owners are looking for a mayor who understands how difficult it is to run a small business, something "that's been absent for the last few years."
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce says tax increases over real economic and population growth are not sustainable over the long run. However, Adam Legge -- the newly minted president and CEO of the chamber -- said Calgary has a different model for taxing businesses compared with other cities, "but ultimately, it is not necessarily more expensive."
But in all, the views of the business community are as diverse as all voters.
Kevin Halliday, the owner of Spindle, Stairs and Railings -- a Calgary manufacturer of custom spindles and staircases -- said the Peace Bridge is a work of art, and he doesn't mind that the city spent what it did to create such an unusual public structure.
"You know what, it's going to show we're moving forward," said Halliday. "It's about our culture."
At the same time, he doesn't want any candidate to stop the city from growing outward. He said consumers should be able to decide if they want a new house in the suburbs, or not.
"They need to stop the social engineering," he said of plans to focus development in the inner city.
As for the mayoral candidates, Ric McIver -- who leads the polls -- has been nicknamed Dr. No for his reputation as a fiscal conservative. This month he said he would eventually like to phase the business tax out.
His chief rival, Barb Higgins, has differentiated herself by warning that McIver's plan to shave next year's tax increase to four per cent will worsen an already fragile budget plan.
Council has preset next year's property tax increase at 6.7 per cent to allow planned growth in services such as transit and libraries. But bad economic numbers mean city hall must find around $60 million in trims to balance the budget.
© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald
Spindle, Stairs & Railings is the largest stair manufacturer that produces and supplies its own wood in addition to custom milling, manufacturing and installing. Spindle, Stairs & Railings owns it's own tree farm and trains installers through its inhouse school.