To win Amazon, a city needs art, economist says

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When he isn’t at work as the chief economist of ATB Financial, Todd Hirsch likes to travel the world. 

One day, he found himself wandering through the gift shop of the Danish Architecture Centre, in Copenhagen, when he found himself standing face to face with a gigantic, coffee table photography book with the Calgary Peace Bridge on it, staring back at him.

It turned out to be a book called Link It: Masterpieces of Bridge Design, featuring 100 of the world’s finest designs.

“I thought, ‘am I hallucinating?'” Hirsch said, in an interview with Daybreak Alberta, where he spoke about how a strong arts and culture community isn’t a nice-to-have option for a city hoping to attract the multi-billion dollar Amazon HQ2 project to it.

It’s an absolute necessity.

Attracting and retaining skilled talent

“There is a real economic imperative in paying attention to arts and culture,” said Hirsch.  “[In] a city like Calgary … we can’t treat the arts and culture like they’re superfluous or nice to have — because if you ignore your arts and culture, you’re going to end up with a city that isn’t going to be able to attract and retain people.

“As an economist, that’s one thing I’m really concerned about: how does a city like Calgary, in the long run, continue to attract the best and brightest in the world?”

“And if we offer nothing as a city, other than pavement and potholes that are filled — which is important too — but if we don’t offer anything more than infrastructure, it’s not going to be a city people want to stay in,” he said.

Todd Hirsch

Calgary economist Todd Hirsch says that a thriving, dynamic arts scene is not a luxury to be enjoyed when times are good for a city – it’s an essential for any city hoping to attract the attention of companies such as Amazon which needs to locate in cities where young, skilled workers want to live. (Todd Hirsch)

Outside U.S.? Not a problem

That said, Hirsch also feels that Calgary has a better shot at winning the competition for the Amazon HQ2 than we may even realize — because being located outside of the United States could very well be seen to be a huge plus, given that the company says it needs to hire 50,000 new people.

“I think they are also going to be looking at which country offers the best prospect long term to attract people from all around the world to work here,” he said.

“It’s not the U.S. at the moment,” he added.

“Where ever Amazon is looking at going, they will be recruiting to that city,” he said, “and we couldn’t even say [in defence of an American location], well, wait three years for Donald Trump to be out. That, for one thing, is not a certainty. And even if he was out, the U.S. is kind of in at a precarious spot with racial relations right now, whereas in Canada, we are entirely different in that way.

“There is a strong case to be made that, all other things being equal, Calgary would actually have the advantage [over an American city such as Denver].”

Becoming a destination city

But Hirsch added that the city also must find ways for it to be a destination spot for the sorts of young, skilled workers that Amazon employs.

A strong arts and culture scene is a large part of the mix that includes housing affordability, competitive tax rates, and our city’s easy access to things like skiing, hiking, fly fishing and rodeos, he said.

“We need to be adding to that [list] lots of other things too,” he said, “because we can’t get by on just hiking in the mountains and fly fishing to attract the best and brightest.”

Saddledome closeup, downtown Calgary

This shot of the Scotiabank Saddledome and downtown Calgary was captured by drone in March 2017. Economist Todd Hirsch favours a new arena, with a mix of public and private funding – although he’s not sure what the appropriate amount of public funding is. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

A new arena wouldn’t hurt, either

Hirsch also addressed the arena debate, saying that the Canadian funding model tends to be a combination of public and private financing, as opposed to in the U.S., where there is more corporate funding and even private family foundation funding to build public facilities like art galleries and hockey arenas.

“I don’t have a position on any specific project,  but I do think … if we really want to be this world class city that we aspire to be or that we think we are, we have got to have something better than a 35-year-old hockey arena that can’t handle large concerts.

 “I don’t think there’s a single person in Calgary that would say, no way do we need an arena — but it all comes down to what is the appropriate  number of tax dollars [for the city to put towards the project]? I don’t have an answer for that.”

‘Maybe it did cost more than an ugly footbridge would have cost’

For confirmation that sometimes spending a little public money to help promote the city’s brand can pay off, he pointed to that aha! moment in the gift shop of the Danish Museum of Architecture and the book with the Peace Bridge on the cover.

“That bridge was so controversial for so many people, and maybe it did cost more than an ugly footbridge would have cost, an ordinary bridge — but you can’t really buy that kind of publicity for Calgary,” he said.

“We wouldn’t be on the front cover of that global publication or that book if we had built an ugly footbridge or no bridge at all.

“Those are the intangible economic benefits of doing things that matter,” he said. “Things of significance — architectural, public art, art festivals and cultural festivals -— because if Calgary does want to become that city that is well-known, that is easy to recruit people from all over the world [we need a thriving arts and culture scene].

“We don’t want people to come here and say, ‘it’s an ugly city! There’s no way, not even to work for Amazon, am I going to move to Calgary,'” he said.

“We want people to come here and say well, there’s a job offer here. Let’s check it out.”


With files from Daybreak Alberta