By Carlo Dade
Published in the Calgary Herald

December 15, 2020

Calgary’s competitiveness challenge is best seen looking down on the Earth under a night sky.

To the west, east and a bit more distant south are large clusters of light that dwarf the comparatively lonely dots that are Calgary and Edmonton. These clusters represent mega-regions, collections of nearby urban centres and their adjacent smaller cities, towns and suburbs. Just as the lights from these different centres merge so to are the economic, educational, production and creative assets in these areas merging.

For example, Calgary’s challenge to its west is not Vancouver or Seattle or Portland; it is the combined assets of all three jurisdictions and the towns that lie between them that have come together in the Cascadia Innovation corridor. Led by the private sector, this mega-region has its own global identity, governance structure, investment attraction and planning mechanisms.

In a world where succeeding means going big or falling behind, these urban centres have figured out — even at the political level — that it makes more sense to fight others for investment rather than to fight amongst themselves. This is happening to Calgary’s east in the Golden Horseshoe, the Buffalo-Niagara partnership, the Ottawa-Kanata-Gatineau region and to the south in the Denver-centred Front Range corridor that runs from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Colorado Springs, Colo., offering most of what Calgary has in quality of life.

And as mega-regions go, these are small for North America, let alone for Asia or Europe.

How does Calgary compete in a world where regions are offering, within a one- to two-hour drive, not one or two universities but half a dozen top-ranked, globally recognized, universities, airports, research centres, skilled workers and everything else on the standard business wish list?

Amazon’s choice of locations for its new headquarters makes the challenge clear. The company did not locate to two cities as much as to two mega-regions. Its northern Virginia location, for example, puts it within a two-hour drive of three state university flagship campuses and a subway ride from a dozen universities in Washington, D.C. To locate in northern Virginia and Brooklyn, the company signed on for two of the highest tax jurisdictions in North America. For this type of company, as opposed to a commodity producer or traditional manufacturer, the assets that make a total value proposition appear to have trumped tax cuts.

While mega-regions have an abundance of assets, these often come with an abundance of problems like congestion, high real estate costs and tight labour markets. But these problems are not as structural as they appear. In the Cascadia corridor, plans for high-speed rail and purpose-built new hub cities will turn these problems into opportunities to improve attractiveness and competitiveness.

There are no good, let alone easy or simple solutions for Calgary. This is partially because the nature of the challenge it faces has not been front and centre. With time, attention and thought, responses can be found.

There are a couple of exploratory actions that could be done in the meantime.

First, even though the 3½-hour driving distance and lack of mega-region assets between Edmonton and Calgary prevent the two cities from forming a traditional mega-region, the two cities have to find more ways to accelerate and deepen nascent co-operation. This also applies to regional areas. In Edmonton, 15 municipalities have combined forces to create a unified investment attraction and economic development presence. In light of the challenges Calgary faces from mega-regions in Canada, North America and globally, the first step is working together instead of fighting apart.

Second, Calgary needs to approach the Cascadia Innovation corridor, the closest mega-region, to see if an alliance or some means of working together is possible. The difficulty here, besides distance, is lack of shared culture and values from the Cascadia perspective. But Calgary does have things other than cheap rent to offer the corridor, most notably a booming agricultural tech sector, something the Cascadia corridor wants to grow.

The key to all of this is to move thinking about investment attraction and competitiveness from city-to-city comparisons to find a value proposition that stands up to the mega-region challenge.

Carlo Dade is the director of the Trade and Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation