Sunday, July 3, 2011

What Ottawa can learn from Calgary and Winnipeg

Ottawa, I feel a sense of urgency. More than ever I believe that our city needs a real vision for its future. The soon-to-be released economic development strategy seems like a great place to start, attracting investment to emerging industries that have great growth potential. The arts and culture also seem to be increasingly on the City's radar in this term of council. I'm actually impressed with what's been happening during the term of Mayor Watson; I'm seeing vision from different players in the city. Nevertheless I still wonder if Ottawa is maximizing its potential as a major national centre in Canada.

This morning I read an article from Friday's Globe & Mail about the $215-million expansion of Canada Olympic Park in Calgary which WinSport CEO, Dan O’Neill envisions as a “One-stop shop for our [Canada’s] athletes.” The plan includes four new arenas, a high-performance sports institute, a new office space for Hockey Canada, new homes for Alpine Canada and the National Sports School, and a new home for the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame which will be relocating from Toronto’s exhibition grounds. Lastly, dirt from the construction of Calgary’s latest LRT project will be used to turn a hill in the park into a 180-metre high mountain for slalom skiers. All this on top of their current facilities and attractions. The goal is to make Canada into a winter sport powerhouse on the international stage by providing our athletes with a state-of-the-art place to train together and share ideas. At the same time it will make Calgary Canada’s undisputed centre for national sport, diversifying its local economy which is known primarily for oil. This is good news for Calgary which in 2009 surpassed the Ottawa-Gatineau area as the fourth largest metropolitan area despite the fact that we Ottawans still call ourselves Canada’s fourth largest city.

Also in the prairies, Winnipeg is experiencing tremendous growth as $460 million is being invested to build CentrePort, a 20,000 acre inland port being marketed as "Canada's Centre for Global Trade" and "Canada's First Foreign Trade Zone", as a part of the Mid-Continental Trade Corridor and the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative (APGCI). Built next to Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, the site will include warehousing, distribution, and manufacturing facilities. The vision also includes a high-speed transportation corridor including a four-lane expressway to the site. Also of note, downtown Winnipeg will soon be graced with Canada’s first national museum outside of the National Capital Region with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Adding a new NHL franchise and gentrification of their downtown due to increased condo development and expansion of their university doesn’t hurt. With the growth of CentrePort, Winnipeg will soon be Canada's centre for shipping.

The level of vision being displayed here is tremendous. They aren't simply looking to diversify their local economies, they are carving out a niche for themselves in the Canadian economy, increasing their roles as national centres. 

This makes me wonder about the role that Ottawa plays in Canada. We are home to our country’s political, cultural, and legal institutions like Parliament, the National Arts Centre, national museums and the Supreme Court, but is that it? Is there a greater role for us to play? Having the largest rural area of any major city in Canada, is there potential to become Canada’s centre for agriculture?

Calgary and Winnipeg are carving out interesting and exciting niches for themselves with great vision and large investments by the Federal Government and lower levels of government, which will bring in millions to billions of dollars into their local economy and create thousands of jobs over the decades to come. In Ottawa the Federal Government spends millions of dollars beautifying our city, whether in upgrading buildings or maintaining public spaces, and providing thousands of jobs. Many people would say that the Federal Government has done enough for Ottawa in the form of job creation and security which isn’t exactly a false statement. But I can’t help but wonder if there are other areas in which we can become a national centre while diversifying our local economy.

I’ve never been a fan of single-function capitals like Washington DC which seem more powerful than vibrant. Multi-function European capitals like London and Paris just seem more interesting and alive. With a strong British and French influence, Ottawa seems to have much in common with European capitals and has much to learn from them. 

A lot has been said about diversifying Ottawa’s local economy but not much has been said about finding another national function for our city aside from housing our country's national institutions. Perhaps we can learn from Calgary and Winnipeg and kill two birds with one stone, or perhaps our current role is all we need.

Kevin Bourne

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