Pennies for culture: Transformation Calgary wants to build a better city

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

George Brookman isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be advocating for a sales tax. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, the typical Calgary businessman who’s, well, all business. Down-to-earth and direct, he realizes that he and his organization, Transformation Calgary, have a lot of selling to do in order to win over this city’s tax-averse citizens.

Transformation Calgary wants to see one per cent added to the GST within Calgary in order to develop and fund new recreational and cultural facilities, or fix up the ones that are crumbling in our midst. The group estimates that in four years, the city could collect $1 billion to help create the kind of city that attracts and retains what Brookman constantly refers to as the “best and brightest.”

In other words, it’s not quite as improbable as it seems that Brookman, along with Brian Felesky, the vice-chair of Credit Suisse Canada, are pushing for a new tax. It’s not fair to say it’s all about business, but that certainly plays a role. Both men understand that you need to have strong quality of life in a city if you want to grow.

“That’s always been the thing with me,” says Brookman. “You really want to build community here, and community involves a lot of things. You’ve got to cater to little kids, you’ve got to cater to old guys, you’ve got to cater to young guys, you’ve got to cater to people who want hard bodies, you’ve got to cater to people who want to sit and listen to the philharmonic. You’ve got to cater to everybody and you’ve got to invest in that on a regular basis.”

There is also a lack of vision around what we can accomplish. Brookman points to past projects — the Jubilee Auditorium, the Centre Street bridge and old city hall — and says we have lost our foresight and innovation. We build with small budgets and no thought to the future. “This is going to be a city of two million people not that long from now,” says Brookman.

The idea for a one per cent bump in the GST came after Brookman attended a dinner at the Epcor Centre three years ago. The management was unveiling its plans for a $600-million retrofit and Brookman realized there were a few high-profile projects on people’s wish lists — a new central library, the National Music Centre, a new building for the Glenbow, to name a few — and that the same bunch of wealthy Calgarians were always asked to contribute. There was no planning. No priority list. There was no direction and very little in the way of citizen input. “Everybody has the same 25 people on their list,” he says of local fundraising activities.

He and Felesky started talking with Casey Vander Ploeg from the Canada West Foundation and started looking at Oklahoma City, which implemented a one per cent sales tax that transformed the ailing city. Transformation Calgary was born.

Ron Norick, the former mayor of Oklahoma City — a self-described conservative Republican — had managed to convince his own tax-averse citizens that they should vote in favour of the tax because it was the only way the city was going to be able to build a place that would appeal to tourists and locals alike. They needed investment and they needed to keep young people from moving away.

The first Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) tax was narrowly approved in a plebiscite with 53.9 per cent approval. It had a lifespan of five years. The city accumulated the funds and laid the groundwork for development before earning enough money to start building. The first round of tax, which built a new ballpark, a new library and revitalized the river, among other projects, was so successful, and popular, that a second tax used to fix the area’s schools garnered about 70 per cent approval. A third tax term was approved by almost 80 per cent of voters.

“When people could see their dollars at work, they did not miss that penny,” says Norick during a recent trip here at the invite of Transformation Calgary.

For Brookman, the idea is a no-brainer. The city doesn’t have enough money and doesn’t have any stable funding from either the province or the federal government. When it does have money, it has to make tough decisions between competing infrastructure needs. Culture falls by the wayside. Or, even worse, according to Brookman, we are forced to borrow to pay the costs. “The city is borrowing $250 million to build these four rec centres,” he says. “Well I really believe we want the rec centres, but I really don’t want the city to borrow that money.”

If Transformation Calgary has its way, the money would be there without the need to borrow, and there would be a certain percentage set aside for operational funds as well.

While Brookman described the task ahead as “pushing water uphill with a rake,” he’s positive that Calgarians will see the wisdom in self-financing a great city, with minimal cost to taxpayers. Now he just has to get the politicians on board.

So is there political will for something like this?

“The answer is no. And yes,” he says. “Essentially what our political masters are saying to us is we can’t start this, but if you can get a parade going, we’ll join you.”

Brookman realizes the challenges — public perception, political will and the hatred people have for the words tax and sales tax — but returns to Norick as a source of inspiration.

“I loved Norick when he says to me, ‘You think you guys are tax averse here? We got people in Oklahoma City that say we don’t need a fire department.’”

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