Rejuvenating and re-imagining downtown Calgary

Marco De Iaco, executive director of Downtown Calgary, is energized to find a creative new path for the city's core

Marco De Iaco is executive director of Downtown Calgary.

Marco De Iaco

What’s your overall sense of the mood of downtown businesses and the downtown these days?

De Iaco: Far less optimistic. Lower energy and less swagger than what we’re used to. Justifiably so I suppose. Major impediments to the energy sector, huge vacancy rates, increasing unemployment and an incremental increase in social disorder, we have significant challenges – and they’ve sustained for some time.

So we’re feeling the ripple effects on other sectors of the economy and community. That wears on the collective confidence and spirit.

But we’re not the only city to go through something like this. So we need to learn from others. We need to think differently and be courageous about reinventing our identity. Collaborate at new levels and in non-traditional partnerships and simply have a defiant attitude.

That will be our mindset in 2019. We’re on a mission to rejuvenate downtown and re-imagine what it could be. Then we’ll work with the right people and like-minded leaders to get it done.

What is your vision for the future direction of downtown Calgary and its purpose and vision?

De Iaco: We’re in the midst of an organizational transformation at the moment and are beginning to set our sights on a path and a vision to rejuvenate downtown. We want to be a stronger leader in the community and one that’s grounded and informed by the best intelligence when it comes to building great cities or iconic downtown centres. We also have to think differently about place branding and the interconnectivity of downtown as a place to live, do business and visit.

Right now, our focus is on social disorder in the core. We’re proposing something called Suite Street. A new summit on mental illness and addiction in the city of Calgary and the impacts on public safety, economy and local business. From the C-Suite to the Street is a concept about identifying solutions and definitive actions as it relates to social disorder in the core. We want to bring together Calgary’s most influential leaders in business, crime prevention, government and social services at one time and in one place to create an intelligence gathering and solution incubator for this challenge.

Second, I’m passionate about those opportunities that can attract and retain the creative class: Professionals in science, technology, engineering and entertainment. What can we do to shape a downtown that appeals to this audience? There’s a strong argument that suggests that this is a path to economic diversification. These are the people who can tackle issues, identify solutions and essentially diversify the economy. What are we doing as a city and as a downtown to attract and retain the best talent?

Lastly, I am a big believer that we might need to do less better. In other words, invest our time, energy and resources into less, more impactful and/or iconic initiatives. We won’t be able to enjoy another Stampede or create a TIFF in our lifetime if we don’t invest and focus resources into those opportunities that have potential to become iconic, annual or hallmark in status. To get there, we have to have the resolve to consider what we need to stop doing, so we can focus more resources into ideas that have real growth potential.

The stopping part will be the challenge and will require some decisive leadership. And, there’s a good argument that suggests a sustainable competitive advantage is often less about well-roundedness and more about lopsidedness. So let’s do less better and achieve more.

What initiatives would you like to see taken to make Calgary’s downtown a more vibrant destination for people?

De Iaco: Without question, we need our post secondary institutions to have a much bigger footprint and presence in downtown Calgary than they already do.

Imagine for a moment what that could mean. A new energy and spirit, youthful consumer preferences, increased nightlife, evolving culture and more people. There’s some excellent case studies from cities in the U.S. that have been successful in reshaping or revitalizing the character of their downtown through a purposeful movement towards increasing a downtown University presence.

The U of C’s recent announcement about activating the former central library with the Faculty of Environmental Design is exactly the type of progressive thinking we need. This is an idea we’ll investigate further and look forward to having constructive discussions with U of C, Mount Royal, SAIT and others about the concept. This could be a massive legacy opportunity for these institutions to give back to this community when it needs it the most.

Is there a solution to the elevated amount of vacant space in Calgary’s downtown office market other than waiting for the oil sector to rebound?  

De Iaco: There’s always a solution and as Steven Jobs said, we might need to bend reality to get there. I’m not sure anyone has uncovered a silver bullet and I definitely don’t have the answer. Repurposing the space for residential is always a consideration for some buildings but not a material fix per se.

I was reading something interesting from a guy named Shane Parrish of the Knowledge Project recently, in regards to different approaches to problem solving. He suggests that that there are two ways to approach any problem: linear and lateral.

Linear thinking is the default for most people. We see a problem, we identify the primary cause and address the symptoms. Waiting for the oil sector to rebound is a linear solution in my view, and I’m not convinced that a rebound will necessarily increase occupancy in the short or mid term. Historical absorption rates during boom times tell that us that it will take many, many years to fill that space.

Lateral thinking is about being able to make connections that aren’t obvious. This is essentially innovation. Parrish quoted someone who said, “innovation is about seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

Maybe what we need is Calgary’s best minds, most creative thinkers and most unencumbered innovators and entrepreneurs to convene some form of summit or think-tank to tackle this problem and identify a best path forward.

Why did you take on this position at such a challenging time for Calgary’s downtown core?

De Iaco: I love this city and have always been motivated by the collective attitude and spirit. I’ve also spent a number of years working to build a better city through sports and major events. I believe in the power of sports to shape brand, stimulate economic activity and improve quality of life. So I’ve built up a sense of place and pride, especially because of the competitive nature of bidding against other cities.

More importantly, I’ve been greatly influenced and mentored by so many incredible community leaders and builders from the former board of the Calgary Sport Tourism Authority. People like Ken King, Doug Mitchell and others. They instilled a sense of responsibility and aspiration in me to help shape the future of our city in whatever profession I pursued. I owe them a lot of gratitude for that.

Today, we’re at a significant crossroads in our history and especially in the downtown core. Impediments and challenges that we’ve never faced before. And I’m actually energized by that challenge and excited to work with like-minded people and institutions that can think differently, challenge the status quo and get things done in the face of a very significant head wind.

– Mario Toneguzzi

downtown calgary

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