Olympics can again take us faster, higher and stronger

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - DON BRAID

Cal­gary can rise up and move on, or lie down and fade away.

Those are the stakes for a city that won the Olympics once be­fore, in eco­nomic times ev­ery bit as bleak.

Cal­gary today is in­creas­ingly de­pressed and di­rec­tion­less. The re­cent pipe­line re­jec­tion landed like a lead pipe on the civic psy­che.

Al­berta’s econ­omy is sup­posed to do quite well this year. Un­em­ploy­ment is down.

Ex­cept in Cal­gary. This is ground zero for a re­ces­sion that never seems to end. We’re not ex­actly sink­ing, but cer­tainly slip­ping, and the speed could es­ca­late.

“Aban­doned, that’s how I feel,” said the sharp sales­per­son in one store along 4th Street S.W.

“Peo­ple aren’t happy. It’s a very hard time out there for a great many, and no­body else seems to care about Cal­gary and Al­berta.”

A few years ago, if you asked al­most any Canadian to name the coun­try’s ur­ban pow­er­houses, Toronto would ob­vi­ously be first. Mon­treal would come next. Then it was a toss-up be­tween Van­cou­ver and Cal­gary.

Where are we now? Slid­ing down, I’d say. Even some Cal­gar­i­ans re­acted with bleak chuck­les when the Econ­o­mist Mag­a­zine called Cal­gary the fourth mostliv­able city in the world.

Ed­mon­ton is more con­fi­dent these days, a puls­ing me­trop­o­lis with a vastly up­graded down­town.

They’re open­ing yet an­other big down­town at­trac­tion, the Royal Al­berta Mu­seum, to go with the Art Gallery of Al­berta, Rogers Place and im­prove­ments to the down­town cam­pus of MacEwan Univer­sity.

Cal­gary is get­ting mas­sive spend­ing, too, on the new can­cer cen­tre and the Tsuut’ina ring road.

But those are es­sen­tial ser­vices, not com­mu­nity builders. We’ve all trav­elled great free­ways with­out feel­ing in­spired. The hospi­tal is about two decades over­due.

Yes, this is a wor­ried city in a deep funk — just as it was a gen­er­a­tion ago, early in 1981, at the start of a decade-long re­ces­sion.

But on Sept 30 that year, the 1988 Win­ter Olympics were awarded to Cal­gary at an IOC meet­ing in Baden Baden, West Ger­many.

Cal­gary was a most un­likely win­ner. The city’s or­ga­niz­ers, in­clud­ing the late Frank King, were a shrewd crew who played on the city’s disad­van­tages.

“Un­like the other bid cities, we didn’t have a sin­gle fa­cil­ity,” King said. “Even our NHL team was still play­ing at the Stam­pede Cor­ral. But we con­vinced them we would build ev­ery­thing, it would all be new and to the best world stan­dards, as op­posed to the ag­ing fa­cil­i­ties that other cities al­ready had.”

Cal­gary went wild at the news, in spite of the grim econ­omy.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als had brought in the Na­tional En­ergy Pro­gram in 1980. That stripped out jobs just as high in­ter­est rates cost many peo­ple their homes.

In 1982, a con­ven­tional mort­gage car­ried 18.5 per cent in­ter­est. Rates rarely dipped be­low 10 per cent for the en­tire decade. Worse came in 1986-87 with a sharp col­lapse of oil prices.

Through it all, the Olympics be­came a kind of beacon that fo­cused Cal­gary on the fu­ture. There was so much to do, such ex­cite­ment, so lit­tle time for Cal­gar­i­ans to feel sorry for them­selves.

The Games were a huge suc­cess.

Af­ter­ward, the city emerged strong and proud into an era of pros­per­ity that lasted, with some set­backs, for nearly 30 years.

Today, the job ac­tu­ally looks eas­ier. There’s not nearly so much to be built. The IOC pays the city money, in­stead of graft­ing stacks of pub­lic cash back to Europe.

I was skep­ti­cal about this project at the start. It seemed far too se­cre­tive and city-hall cen­tric.

That’s changed now, largely be­cause of the pro­vin­cial de­mand for a ref­er­en­dum. All the num­bers must be on the ta­ble by Oct. 13, a month be­fore the vot­ing, for the pub­lic to ex­am­ine and de­bate.

If the facts seem du­bi­ous, im­prac­ti­cal or torqued to hide ex­penses, it’s all over.

Cal­gar­i­ans will vote down the Games.

It has to be a good deal, of course. It has to be right for the city.

But if the con­di­tions are right this will be an ex­is­ten­tial choice for Cal­gar­i­ans, just as it was 30 years ago.

Can we rise up one more time?

LEAH HENNEL

Even some Cal­gar­i­ans re­acted with bleak chuck­les when the Econ­o­mist Mag­a­zine called Cal­gary the fourth most-liv­able city in the world.

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