Stephen Avenue Mall makeover. Nenshi’s latest boondoggle in the making.

Calgary’s city council and administration (its harder and harder to distinguish between them) were pissed off before they went to their summer break this year. They entered the summer in dealing with a full blown tax revolt from businesses who have been enjoying tax hikes up to 400% and then spent months in squabbling over who was at fault for the fiscal disaster and how they may possibly fix it.

City council cobbled together a rather flaccid spending reduction proposal calling for a reduction of $60 million in spending. $60 million is a drop in the bucket for a city that spends nearly $4 billion per year. That however was the best that the cowardly council could come up with.

They then dumped it on city administration to figure out where to make these relatively miniscule cuts. City administration is utterly beholden to civil service unions so they promptly ensured to cut in areas where they knew that citizens actually wanted their tax dollars expended. Rather than find efficiencies in administration or cut unnecessary programs (they are myriad), they made sure to cut things such as emergency services and low income transit passes. City administration wanted to make sure that these small cuts hurt as much as humanly possible in hopes that taxpayers would never dare question how their money was spent as possible.

Taxpayers remain unconvinced in the efforts of city hall to say the least. Its hard to convince people that the city is working at peak efficiency when it takes ten city workers to paint a small green box on a city street.

Council and city administration were not happy with those damned uppity taxpayer ingrates during this summer of discontent.

These people plan on getting tax funded legacies and dammit they won’t be deterred.

Having learned from the Olympic bid fiasco last fall, council and administration made very sure that the new Flames arena deal would never go before those unwashed taxpayers for scrutiny much less debate or a vote. They dumped the deal in front of us with scant days to look at it, enshrined the expenditure of hundreds of millions and then retreated for their summer break. They sure can suddenly become efficient when working together to pull one over on the taxpayers.

The arena deal was not enough however. Despite Calgary city hall still remaining in fiscal crisis, the powers that be have decided to lob yet another turd into the taxpayer’s punch bowl for the summer. This one involves Stephen Avenue Mall.

At what is still an unknown cost, the city has hired a firm from Denmark to redesign Stephen Avenue. As with their purchases of ghastly, overpriced public art, apparently it was impossible to find a Canadian company capable of doing this job much less a Calgarian one. Denmark knows what is best for Calgarians in this case.

There is little doubt that Stephen Avenue Mall is not living up to its potential. What the mall needs though is a thriving business sector not a costly, tax funded foreign makeover.

Through over a decade of overspending and inept management, Calgary city hall has decimated downtown businesses. Massive tax hikes, outrageously high parking costs and a terrible regulatory regime have taken their toll on the sensitive retail and hospitality businesses on Stephen Avenue. Who wants to go down there to walk past shuttered stores and closed restaurants?

Stephen Avenue does not have natural scenery. It is right in the middle of a downtown loaded with skyscrapers. That means people have to be drawn to visit the area and that means we need lively, vibrant enterprise.

Lets face it, we are a seasonal city. The “world class” cities that Nenshi and others claim to want to emulate all have milder climates than ours. Businesses on Stephen Avenue have to make the bulk of their revenue during the 5 nice months of the year and tighten their belts during the other 7. Bike lanes haven’t, don’t, won’t and will never bring a large influx of spenders. A strip of interesting stores, bars and restaurants would but they can’t afford to operate in Calgary right now.

When I hear Nenshi and city planners dreamily talking of their planned wonderland downtown all I can think of is how the Mayor and city planners sounded at the start of the 1990s when they said that Eau Claire Market was going to transform the neighborhood and turn into a social hub which will be enjoyed for generations.

The Eau Claire district has advantages over Stephen Avenue right off the bat. It is right next to the river and a beautiful park. There is plentiful parking in the area though the prices are still ridiculous. It has a lot more residential traffic as well as there are many large condos in the area.

Despite all that, the whole Eau Claire concept was a catastrophic failure. The mall was opened with great fanfare and anchors such as the Hard Rock Cafe were drawn in. Paths were constructed from all directions and the mall was marketed heavily within and outside of Calgary. Despite all that, within a few years the mall was already losing most of its retail tenants and people shied away from the area. Today the mall simply looks pathetic.

We have to be realistic (a tall order for city hall). Calgary has no Granville Island and it never will. We have a rough climate and a population that would rather go to the mountains for a day trip than walk around some city planned mall. Lets work within these constraints.

Stephen Avenue is historic and has a good base. All it needs is thriving enterprise and all enterprise needs is to be left the hell alone by city hall. It will take a mass turnover of city council in the next election in order to do this however. Until that changes, city hall will continue to try to micromanage business development at the expense of taxpayers and they will invariably fail.

I am annoyed to say the least that the city is giving scarce tax dollars to a foreign firm to make plans that we don’t need. I shudder to think of how many wasted millions will be poured into these plans once they work to bring them to fruition.

Sadly, most of Calgary’s city council and administration doesn’t give a damn about the taxpayers who have to foot the bill for these vanity projects. All they care about is legacies built on the backs of others and until taxpayers rise up and kick them out it won’t change.

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