Calgary’s slow but steady cycling plan

Photo by Josh Naud

Photo by Josh Naud

Calgary is the poster child for the poetic notion that things end not with a bang but a whisper. It’s the lead up to that silent, accepting conclusion that causes all the problems. Need proof? Look at the Peace Bridge, or the bike lanes on 10th Street N.W. Infrastructure changes don’t come easy to Calgary, but once they’re complete, so too are the complaints. Usually.

There are more changes to come.

After adopting the cycling strategy in 2011, the city is moving forward in its goal to make Calgary more amenable to two-wheeled transportation. Three staff have been hired — a planner, an engineer and an education co-ordinator — and new lanes have been set down, including the controversial separated bikes lanes opening soon on Seventh Street downtown — the first separated lanes in Calgary. The strategy covers everything from a public bike rental system, to showers and lockers at businesses, to paint and concrete on city streets.

Tom Thivener, the city cycling co-ordinator who’s responsible for overseeing the implementation of the strategy, says he’s pleased with the progress made so far despite the challenges associated with each project.

“Right now we don’t have a whole lot of Calgarians out bicycling — I mean, we do, we have thousands of cyclists, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall traffic situation,” he says. “As that increases, as we build more facilities and more people come out, it certainly will make it a lot easier to get these projects out.”

The project that has caused headaches for the city and for Thivener recently is the Seventh Street cycle track, a dual lane separated bikeway that leads from the Peace Bridge into downtown. Business owners have expressed concerns over access, some people complain that such a relatively small piece of cycling infrastructure costs around $1 million, while others see the lanes as unnecessary when busier and more dangerous routes need infrastructure.

“There’s some well-defined rules as to where you put physically separated, where you put a line, or where you put nothing,” says Gary Beaton, president of the Tour de Nuit cycling advocacy organization and no stranger to doling out harsh criticism. “And obviously, one of the roads where you do nothing is Seventh Street, where we’re blowing a million bucks on a useless bike lane.”

Beaton, who says the cycling strategy is merely a document “meant to pacify loudmouth cyclists,” would rather see the city investing in busier traffic routes along main arterial roads, including Macleod Trail, to better accommodate commuters and get more people on bikes. He laments the fact that the city passed over the opportunity to include bike lanes on Elbow Drive when it was recently redeveloped, and his group has been pressing for separated lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the downtown core for years.

On the other side of the debate in Calgary’s cycling community is Bike Calgary, another advocacy organization that is in frequent communication with the city. Kimberley Nelson, a board member with Bike Calgary, says her group is “definitely happy” with the progress in cycling in Calgary although they’d like to see things happen a bit faster — highlighting the fact that the Seventh Street lanes took almost two years to build.

“They look great, I’m really excited about them,” she says. “They open the first week of July, they’re on time and they’re on budget, so we’re excited about them, but there currently are no connections at the moment. They’re coming, but they probably won’t get done for another year and a half or two years because they’ll follow that same engagement process.”

According to Nelson, the city is looking at several options for those elusive east-west connectors downtown, including the Fifth and Sixth Avenue lanes that Beaton is so focused on. Thivener highlights the fact that the 10th Avenue South lanes aren’t working and that the city is looking at options south of the tracks as well. Nelson, however, is right to be worried about the length of the engagement process.

“The cycle track network is big news and a lot is going to be happening over the next few months,” says Thivener. “Lots of engagement.”

Leah Gardner, a commuter cyclist who works at The Bow building downtown, is excited for the coming changes, but like most she’s impatient. “I’m under the impression that we should just bike lane the whole thing overnight and let everyone cry for a couple of weeks and then get over it,” she says.

She, along with Nelson, point to the quickly subdued controversy over the Peace Bridge as an example of Calgarians needing to see the finished product in order to accept it. “Car2Go it,” says Gardner. “One day they weren’t here, the next day they were all here. It’s not like people are going to move, it’s not like people are going to leave the city if there are separated bike lanes.”

“Calgary is a show-me city,” says Nelson, adding that “once you give people the proper infrastructure and give them a way to utilize it properly and effectively, I think you’re going to reduce that animosity.

It’s easy to see why people are frustrated. Calgary has long been a dead zone when it comes to cycling infrastructure, lagging far behind Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Although there has been some positive progress, including the lanes on 10th Street N.W., there have been some failures, like the “floating lane” that’s only open during rush hour on 10th Avenue South, which even Thivener admits doesn’t work.

Although the change is likely to be slow for the foreseeable future, there is hope in terms of results.

“We have 17 projects going on so there’s lot of things in motion,” says Thivener. “A lot of it is clean-up work, honestly, from last year’s projects. Trying to make sure the projects are installed right and make sure if we’re putting down a bike lane that it’s a common-sense bike lane and not get too tricky with it. Have it be straightforward so that bicyclists can just pull up and understand what it is and how it should operate. Same from the motorist’s point of view.”

With so many pokers in the fire, the pressure is on for Thivener and the city. Outstanding issues include bike racks on city transit, co-ordination with parks on pathways connections, implementation of new lanes and, according to Beaton, a cultural shift in the city’s transportation department.

“The problem’s not council,” he says. “The problem’s the bureaucracy.”

Others are more optimistic. Nelson points out how much things have improved over two short years. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The level of engagement we have with the city, the fact that they’re inviting us to the open houses and actually actively seeking out our participation is just so much better than what it used to be.

“Even just two years ago when the 10th Street lanes went in and it was like, ‘surprise!’ That’s not happening anymore and that’s just leaps and bounds already ahead of what we used to do.”

GET INVOLVED

Do you want to get involved in cycling on a community level? Bike Calgary is looking for neighbourhood representatives to gather information on cycling issues and pass them along to the organization’s representative in each ward. It’s part of a strategy to cover issues in every corner of the city and relay those to bureaucrats and politicians. If you want to get involved, contact Bike Calgary at connect@bikecalgary.org .

If you want to follow the progress of the city’s bicycle program, like their Facebook page at facebook.com/CalgaryBicycleProgram for updates.

Alberta’s craft brewers in war of words with importers

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It could be labelled as an ideological battle, but that might be too exteme. Is it a story of the hometown hero versus the outsider? Is it about fairness? Selection? Consumer choice? Well, this battle of the beers is technically about all of those things.

Alberta’s small brewers are trying to pressure the provincial government to change the rules for beers imported from other jurisdictions, which can mean Belgium or B.C.

As it stands, small- and medium-sized brewers get a tax break in Alberta, whether they brew here or not. It can mean a difference of 78 cents per litre. The problem is, other provinces don’t offer the same incentives, meaning Alberta’s craft brewers are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

If a brewer from Alberta wants to enter the B.C. market, for example, they’re faced with a protectionist provincial system.

The latest salvo in the war of words in this debate is from craft beer importers and some liquor store owners. Vern Raincock, president of beer importer DeLancey Direct, doesn’t want to see the rules changed, at least not in Alberta. After all, it will affect his bottom line. He worries the increased costs will mean a reduction in Alberta’s excellent beer selection.

“I do understand the frustrations of the Alberta craft brewers, but I think that we’re going about it wrong,” says Raincock.

“What we need to do is work with the Alberta government, as well as the federal government, in closing down these barriers to trade within our own country.”

So, everyone wants the same thing. Sort of. The craft brewers and Raincock want a level playing field for brewers in Canada, but whereas the Alberta craft brewers want to add protections similar to those imposed on them in other provinces, Raincock wants those protections eliminated from the country entirely.

“Let’s get government out of the way of all brewers in Canada — not only the Alberta government, but all governments,” says Raincock. “Let’s have an excise tax rate like is done in the United States. Once the label is approved federally, we should have the ability to move it anywhere we damn well please and just pay one entity.”

As one would expect, there isn’t a lot of disagreement on this point, at least theoretically.

Jim Button, from Village Brewery, says Raincock’s suggestion is great as a long-term goal, but doesn’t address the disadvantage small brewers currently face in this province.

“Well, in a perfect world, that’s the way it should be, because if we go to any other province, we’re having the exact same situation that we’re suggesting they have,” he says in reference to changing Alberta’s tax structure.

“The last thing we want to do is block anybody, we just want to create an environment where it makes (craft brewing) actually viable.”

Button argues that it’s difficult to make a profit as a small brewer in Alberta, and if we want more breweries producing craft beer here, the rules have to change to ensure the brewers are competitive.

For Raincock, it goes beyond taxes; it’s also about enforcing rules and making sure the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) cracks down on alleged graft in pubs and restaurants.

“The other issue too is that we know that hockey tickets and other graft have been offered by major brewers within the province, and I don’t believe the AGLC is monitoring the situation where a small craft brewer enters a bar and is told, basically, that there’s no sense selling draft beer here because the lines are owned by somebody else,” says Raincock. “That’s commonplace in Alberta.”

The argument around tax incentives has picked up steam since August of last year, when 11 small Alberta brewers sent a letter to Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk asking for the rules to be changed. The government intially promised action, but has yet to deliver.

The craft brewers’ letter calling an end to the Alberta tax break was followed by another letter sent on behalf of Canada’s National Brewers, representing the big producers in the Canadian beer market, which essentially supported the craft brewers. The letter said Alberta’s system was set up to encourage the growth of craft brewers, create a strong craft beer sector and offest economies of scale. “Over time, the Alberta tax subsidy has grown from a program that achieves these three objectives to one that unfortunately achieves none of them,” reads the letter.

Although surprising at first blush that the big boys are supporting the little Alberta competitors, it comes down to what this fight is all about and who the real competitors are — the cheap beer producers.

“You can imagine, that’s where all this started,” says Button.

Government closes program, blames Mount Royal College

Fred-bio-pic

According to an email circulated to Mount Royal University staff by president David Docherty, and obtained by Fast Forward Weekly, the university was forced to close two centres that evaluated internationally educated nurses in Edmonton and Calgary, despite recent claims by minister of health Fred Horne.

In an interview with the CBC, Horne said the decision to close the program was made by the university. In the email from Docherty, however, he writes: “This statement obscures the true nature and depth of our discussion on this issue with ministry officials dating back as early as July 2012.”

Docherty goes on to explain that the provincial government would not commit to long-term funding of the program despite the need to renew multi-year leases on the required spaces.

“We felt it would be fiscally irresponsible to commit to new multi-year leases without a written commitment from the program funder,” writes Docherty. “We informed the government that without their funding commitment we were unable to accept the risk of signing multi-year leases for space for an unfunded program, and for which Mount Royal would be wholly responsible.

“On March 11, the government replied that they accepted Mount Royal’s notice to close the two centres though such notice was never submitted nor desired by our institution. The government further requested a detailed budget for winding down the program, which was due March 18.”

Docherty writes that the university agreed to host the program as “a service to Albertans based on a funding grant from Alberta Health.”

The loss of the program will make it more difficult for immigrants with nursing credentials to work in Alberta.

Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, could not offer any information on the closing of the program or whether program funding will be reinstated. He reiterated the statement that Alberta Health accepted the closing of the centres “in light of their inability to reach a lease agreement that aligns with the long-term goals.”

May says it’s not the result of a program funding cut and that Alberta Health is looking at alternatives for the program down the road, but he couldn’t confirm whether or not funding exists for the program at this time or will in the future.

“There’s an effort going forward to look at what an alternative might look like, but it’s too early to talk about a timeline for that…. It’s premature at this point.”

The elimination of the program is outside the recent budget cuts imposed on post-secondaries in Alberta. Mount Royal’s overall funding will be reduced by 7.3 per cent.

We need beer here

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Bob Sartor, president and CEO of Big Rock. Photo by Drew Anderson

Did you know that beer sales in Alberta in 2012 were almost $1 billion? Let that sink in for a moment. That’s right, sit back, sip that brew and let that number settle — $1 billion. Now think about how many microbreweries we have in the province, or better yet, consider that Calgary, a city of 1.1 million thirsty souls, has only three microbreweries (plus some brewpubs). With those numbers alone, it’s probably safe to say that we need more local brews.

While the market share of microbreweries in our province hasn’t been pinned down by an august organization like Statistics Canada, it hovers around three per cent, according to those who work at the breweries, leaving an astonishingly large market share to lure. In the States — far ahead of Canada in terms of embracing microbreweries and innovative beers — some markets report a craft brew take of 10 to 40 per cent. Calgary needs more beer. And those that are already brewing? They say bring it on.

“Competition, I suppose, is one word for it, but overall I think a better beer scene with more brewers benefits everybody involved at this level,” says Brian Smith, the operations manager at Wildrose Brewery.

Wildrose is currently working on a new facility that will allow it to at least double its capacity right off the bat, and ramp up to approximately seven times its current level in the future. “We’ll be able to meet demand,” says Smith, sitting in the brewery’s Tap Room. “Right now we’re just doing all we can to get enough beer out the door. It will be nice to have enough space and actually be able to get ahead of things a bit, get our sales guys out there firing on all cylinders.”

In other words, one of three craft breweries in Calgary is struggling just to meet demand, and it’s not even the big guy on the block.

Out in the sprawling, wide-lane expanse that is the Foothills Industrial Park, the green metal roofs of Big Rock’s complex offer a respite from gravel, dust and car parts. Surprisingly, Bob Sartor, the president and CEO who faced the impossible task of taking over from the larger-than-life Ed McNally, agrees with Smith on the need for more faces in the local beer scene.

Sartor is a businessman whose last job was CEO of Forzani Group Ltd. Unlike Smith, who has 15 years of brewing experience under his belt, including time at Edmonton’s Alley Kat brewery and at Wildwood brewpub on Fourth Street S.W., Sartor rose through the ranks selling consumer goods, or at least managing the operations that did. “When I was in the sports business, once we turned Forzani around and got it fixed, then it was ‘Okay, who can we gobble up? How big can we get? And who’s not going to make the cut?’ It’s very different in craft beer. Craft beer is by its very nature collaborative.”

Okay, so everyone plays nice. But what does that have to do with the need for more small breweries in the city? It doesn’t matter if a bunch of beer lovers get together to talk over the mash tun, what matters is the effect it has on the city, in a general sense and in an economic sense, right?

At a recent webinar presented by Calgary Economic Development and appropriately hosted at Village Brewery, Scott Metzger, an economist and the owner of Freetail Brewing Company in San Antonio, broke it down. Although his numbers related to the U.S. market, they’re just as applicable here.

“One of the big things to highlight is the jobs that these breweries create,” says Metzger to a small crowd at the Calgary gathering. “One of the things I really want to emphasize is the relative inefficiency of craft breweries.”

Er?

That may seem like a bad argument to make, particularly to a crowd at a Calgary Economic Development event, but let’s hear him out.

“The beer market as a whole doesn’t necessarily have to grow in order for the economic impact of the beer industry to grow,” he says. “That’s because as the activity shifts away from large, multinational producers to small brewers, by default more jobs will be created, more economic activity will be created. So that labour inefficiency, although it’s not something that a business owner or manager is necessarily usually proud of, it’s that inefficiency that’s driving all of the economic growth.”

According to Metzger’s numbers, a large multinational like Anheuser-Busch employs approximately 116,000 people worldwide in its massive operations. It sells approximately 335 million barrels of beer, or about 3,000 per employee. In the U.S., craft brewers employ approximately 3,000 people and sell about 112 barrels per employee. It’s a symptom of small breweries that could offset the 20 per cent decline in brewing industry employment in Canada between 1999 and 2009 according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

More jobs means more money. That’s a pretty basic economic truth, one that even beer drinkers and writers can understand. But that’s not the only benefit to a city, a province or a country when more craft beer hits the market.

Metzger says that craft brewing has a disproportionate effect on community revitalization and tourism than other retail industries — opening brewpubs, offering local fare for diners and drinkers, and supporting the local community.

It’s something that Jim Button of Village Brewery understands well. At the same gathering, Button highlighted community as the driving force of Calgary’s newest craft brewer. The company decided to eschew the regular route of having a few large investors and opted to reach out into the community to bring more people on board. It was, as Button says, a challenge, but one that reflects the intent of the fledgling operation. “Everybody had different answers, but the one thread that went through all of them was to be a big part of the community,” he says of the people behind the brand. “So when we started building the brewery, we had that at the forefront all the way through.”

It’s a theme that runs through all of Calgary’s craft brewers, including the relatively large Big Rock. “Every craft brewer that I know wants to give back to the people who have honoured it with the purchase and consumption of their beer,” says Sartor. “So what I see is way more thriving music and arts scenes, theatre scenes, in those areas where craft beer is very prevalent to where it’s not.”

And there’s certainly room for more product. In 2010, the most recent year numbers are available, Canada was the sixth largest importer of beer in the world. Most of that comes from the Netherlands, the U.S. and Mexico. Our local shelves are bursting with options, but there is limited local variety, and a lot of those imports reflect the desire of consumers to have options beyond the mass-produced Canadian fare of the past.

If you go to a store in B.C. there are sections stocked with an abundance of local products from Vancouver, Victoria, the Interior and down the coast from the beer meccas of Portland and Seattle.

“I think we’re under-represented for sure,” says Smith. “Again, hopefully that will rectify itself in the future. I mean, you look at places like Vancouver, it’s still growing — I think there are eight or nine breweries that are supposed to be opening there this year.”

There are challenges, including a lack of investor interest in breweries. Regulations in Alberta also mean that you can’t start off really small and work your way up. You have to demonstrate the ability to produce at least 5,000 hectalitres the day you open, blocking the rise of nanobreweries (yes, that’s a trend) and preventing small entrepreneurs from entering the market. Although Alberta offers tax incentives to small brewers, not many have taken the plunge.

Amidst the dearth of local breweries, awareness about good, craft beer is growing exponentially. National, Craft Beer Market, Beer Revolution, Bottlescrew Bills and other pubs offer a dizzying array of beer styles and breweries on their taps. There are beer dinners, introducing throngs of Calgarians to the joys of beer and food pairings. If you walk into most liquor stores, the shelves are bursting with craft offerings that would have been unheard of a few short years ago.

Wildrose and Big Rock both plan on experimenting more and offering different styles of beer, and Village is now going full-tilt, so things are getting better here. What we really need, and what can only help our beer/arts/dining/tourist scene, is more local beer to feed a thirsty population.

Looking back on Calgary’s year as Cultural Capital

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Cover design by Josh Naud

Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning. Calgary 2012, as in the people who form the organization, had an impossible task. How do you organize, create, fund and promote Calgary’s year as a cultural capital of Canada and please everybody? Well, you don’t. It’s one of the flaws of the now discontinued federal program. People expect mana from heaven, but that was never going to happen, nor was it intended.

Whenever you create a cultural event, you’re going to have people who find it lacking. Annual festivals have the benefit of learning lessons and making changes year over year. Calgary 2012 has no such luxury. Here’s your millions of dollars, go make something happen. Quick. Oh, and by the way, here are some guidelines you have to follow.

When Terry Rock, a Calgary 2012 board member and the president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development (CADA), one of five organizations that created the winning bid for Calgary, is asked whether Calgary 2012 faced an impossible task, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering. “Yes. We’ll never satisfy everyone, but I guess the questions I’d ask is do you not want to try for cultural capital of Canada? Look at the momentum that we have. So what should we do now? Should we just say that was done? Let’s take advantage of the momentum and try to do something more audacious next time.”

From Rock’s perspective, and for many others, the year was a total success. Millions of dollars ($5.83 million to be exact) poured into the city’s arts and culture scene in the form of grants, artist fees, legacy programs, marketing and promotion, production, administration and community engagement; individual artists received funds for projects that would likely never have happened otherwise; Nuit Blanche took over Olympic Plaza for a night; a new comedy festival, YYC Comedy Fest, got its feet with funding; Invest YYC, a new crowdsourced funding site for local projects, was created; and now, CADA is in the third phase of engagement for crafting a new arts plan for the city to be presented to council on June 5. These are just a few examples. Oh, and there was that lip dub video to the tune of “Sweet City Woman.”

“I guess I’m still unclear of how Sweet City Woman Lip Dub was really making us a cultural icon,” says local artist Sharon Stevens.

It’s something echoed by another artist, Eric Moschopedis. “At the end of a 12-month period of time, there’s nothing clear to show what happened except for a really ridiculous and embarrassing video.”

Okay, so there’s the video, where a gaggle of Calgarians, including burlesque performers, community groups, dancers, Dan the One Man Band, hell, even my two little nieces, danced around Olympic Plaza while the Stampeders’ song played. But let’s leave that alone. Suffice it to say it was a divisive decision.

Both Moschopedis and Stevens benefited from Calgary 2012 and mix the positive with the negative when discussing it. Stevens had a great experience as an artist-in-residence with the International Avenue BRZ, where she has been hired on as a sort of artistic liaison. Moschopedis says he and his partner Mia Rushton were able to do projects they wouldn’t otherwise have done, including a residency at the Calgary airport.

“I think lots of individual artists actually had some positive experiences out of it,” says Moschopedis. “Mia and I were certainly able to do a lot of different projects under the banner of 2012, or the funding of 2012 and whatnot, but I think ultimately, outside of that, I don’t think it had that much of an impact on the city or the arts community.”

According to numbers provided by Calgary 2012, 70 per cent of the grants it provided went to individual artists, cultural organizations and heritage organizations that are not currently supported by a municipal grant program.

Karen Ball, executive director of Calgary 2012, doesn’t shy away from discussing the issues some in the arts community have raised. “I think that the criticism that was borne on the cultural capital, and maybe still exists, I think still exists, is probably most strongly rooted in a bigger issue, which is how are our individual artists supported and recognized by the city,” she says. “A cultural capital has to be all things to all people. Therefore it’s not able to get to the sharpest end of the stick, which is how are we supporting our professional artists and creators.”

When the cultural year was just getting started, Moschopedis worried about the boosterism and the philosophy of creative cities that underlied Calgary’s efforts, but in the end, he says, it didn’t much matter. “So if there’s good news, I don’t think 2012 did that very well,” he says now in reference to marketing efforts. “So I think we’re okay on this end. We kind of came out of it unscathed in a lot of ways.”

For Rock, the year succeeded in large part because it brought communities together and engaged disparate individuals, organizations and groups. “The theme ‘creative, connected, communities’ came out really clearly throughout all of that work [leading up to the bid], so we put a bid together that had those flavours in it. And then what Karen and her team did really took that to another level and really actually achieved widespread engagement across the city.”

Part of that engagement is ongoing. As mentioned before, CADA is now in the third phase of drafting a comprehensive arts plan for the city. After community consultation, a citizen’s panel funded in part by Calgary 2012, and now a stakeholder process with members and supporters of Calgary’s arts community, the intention is to guide the city towards better funding, long-term planning and giving the city’s arts and culture more stability.

“In a role like mine, you have to have a really long-term perspective,” says Rock. “So I can understand people wondering ‘what did we get for this?’ right now, and wanting to see it paid off, but I think the reality is, what we got from this was a lot of momentum, a lot of really broad-based engagement in culture in our city that maybe was there before, but it wasn’t so visible.

“I just say that this is the biggest opportunity that this sector has had to walk in and say ‘okay, here’s where we want to go now.’”

So what is the legacy of 2012? For Ball it’s the barriers that were broken down between communities; Invest YYC crowdsourced funding; the Cultural Leaders Legacy Awards, which will be handed out yearly for the next four years; a three-year performance creation project celebrating the area’s native heritage called Making Treaty 7; publication of a book looking at the year; and the arts plan, though she’s cautious about stealing too much credit for that last one.

Stevens, despite some criticism of the event both before and now at the tail end of the year, remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future, citing developments outside the purview of Calgary 2012 including the Calatrava bridge, Jaume Plensa’s statue in front of The Bow, and Ron Moppet’s East Village mural as signs that Calgarians are starting to get it.

And Moschopedis? He still sees hope as well. “If we were to frame it in a certain way, there were a lot of small seeds planted this year and maybe they’ll blossom into something,” he says.

In the end, that’s where we’re at. There are no solid answers. Will Calgary 2012 prove to be the catalyst for a cultural awakening in the city? Will nascent events like Nuit Blanche and YYC Comedy Fest continue without the money from the cultural capital? Will Making Treaty 7 improve our understanding of the area’s native inhabitants?

“I think what will be written about what we get from this, we won’t know, unfortunately,” says Rock. “I mean there’s a lot of great experiences and a lot of learning from the year that we can point to right now about how strong culture is through all parts of Calgary, but it will be whether we can capitalize on the momentum that we’ve got now and turn it into something that has broad-based backing from community leaders, political leaders and people who aren’t normally considered part of the formal culture sector.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

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.’”

Questions continue to dog Art Gallery of Calgary

The Art Gallery of Calgary holds its AGM today amidst futher allegations of mismanagement. This time the allegations aren’t directed at former president and CEO Valerie Cooper, who is alleged to have defrauded the gallery and facing both a civil suit and a criminal trial, but at the board of directors in relation to Art Divas Inc., an investment group tied to the AGC.

The Art Divas invested money to buy four test plates of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party Plates” and one “Toby Head” scultpure by the same artist. The investors were offered to buy shares in a plate or plates at various levels of investment, with some portion of the money going to the gallery as a donation. The gallery is responsible for maintenance, insurance and appraisal of the work.

Wendy Lyons, an Art Diva and a friend of Cooper, is frustrated by a lack of communication, saying she has been unable to get any information about her investment from Brian Hearst, the managing director of the gallery and the board treasurer. Lyons paid $5,000 for her share in one plate, with $2,500 going to the AGC.

After Cooper was fired put on administrative leave and later tendered her resignation from the gallery after the allegations of fraud first surfaced, Lyons grew concerned about her investment (she owns one share) and started seeking information. After not hearing back, she figured the gallery had enough to deal with and put off her inquiries over the summer.

“Then when I started asking again in the fall, I still didn’t get any responses,” says Lyons.

Lyons finally received an email sent out to inform members that the AGM was coming up, but instead of being able to buy memberships up until the day of the meeting, as was the custom in the past, members were informed the board had changed the rules. As a result, the deadline for purchasing memberships had already passed by the time Lyons was notified. Hearst’s response to her about the change was: “Regarding the AGC membership you have had all year to get one.”

He also addressed her investment queries. “Please contact the art divas directly with your questions. I am not their representative”

Hearst says the rules changed this year to allow members to vote in person, by mail or by email. “This was well received,” he says over email. “The minor catch, which is common to corporate AGMs, is that the memberships must have been valid at the date of notice. Memberships expire on March 31 each year, so interested members have had over six months up to the Notice of AGM to renew for $30.” (note: a membership costs $35)

He also says “The group of owners (approx. 40 individuals) formed Art Divas Inc. to act as legal trustees of their art investments, managed by themselves, not AGC.” Hearst, who says he is at home fighting the flu, has not replied to a message asking him about the gallery’s stated responsibilities for the work and its relationship with the investment group. His wife, Linda Hearst, is an investor.

Lyons grew more concerned when the gallery said it was unable to provide a refund owed to the Divas, particularly because the group’s money was supposed to be kept separate from gallery accounts, she says.

A source familiar with the matter, who wishes to remain anonymous, alleges that the investment money isn’t there and has been spent on gallery operations. The same source goes on to say that the artwork in question was grossly inflated in price when the investors were brought on board and that the work was not imported into the country under the proper procedures — it was imported for exhibition purposes only — calling into question the legal status of the investment.Fast Forward Weekly has been unable to corroborate these allegations at this time.

The intent of the Art Divas investment was to buy into work that would, hopefully, appreciate in value, and to tour the pieces to other venues.

Lyons says she hasn’t seen an appraisal of the work since it was first purchased a few years ago, but was recently forwarded an email indicating that the value is indeed up. The gallery is tasked with appraising the value of the work “not less than annually,” and she’s concerned about the work being insured as intended and what the value of the work is.

Her questions, and the fact that she refused to pay $500 for a new crate for the work and a catalogue so that the pieces can tour, have gotten her “blacklisted,” she says. She didn’t pay her fee because she wasn’t getting any answers to her questions. She speculates that it might also have something to do with her relationship to Cooper.

“So that’s when they decided that I didn’t get a vote or couldn’t receive minutes because I hadn’t paid, but I haven’t received anything from them asking me for the money, or any information, so I don’t know if I want to continue with the investment to begin with,” she says.

For Lyons, it’s not about the money. She says her concern is with the management of the gallery and the investment. “You know what? Any other investment I would have, if this was the management level that I got, I would have sold it a long time ago,” she says.

The AGM, scheduled for 5 p.m. tonight, will deal with the appointment of directors, appointment of auditors and approving bylaws. Many familiar faces are up for re-election to the board, including Brian Hearst, Fran Esler, Donale Gandossi, Donald House, Gwen Randall and David Rehn. Also up for election are four new faces: Royce Chwin, Mark Lindley, Matthew Pollock and Charles Robinson.

Although not mentioned in the annual report, or listed on the schedule for the AGM, Calgary Arts Development CEO Terry Rock confirms that the municipal entity has frozen its funding, “until we finalize due diligence around restoration of it. To date we have not provided them a grant for 2012.”

There are currently 102 members on a membership list, which was acquired by Fast Forward Weekly along with the gallery’s bylaws, but after accounting for duplications, there are 92 members eligible to vote in the AGM. Lyons is still listed, so it’s not clear whether this is the most up-to-date document.

What is most evident is that the AGC has created steep divisions. Hearst warns that information from some people in the investment group should be approached with caution — “According to Art Divas management group, there are very few ‘angry’ art divas. (Note the ex-president of AGC is a member of the group),” he writes. Lyons, meanwhile, cautions against talking to former staff because they have it out for Cooper.

Mention of the Art Divas has been removed from the AGC website. It is not known when this change occurred.

We will bring you more information as it becomes available.

** This story was updated to indicate the correct cost of a membership and to indicate that the cost per share for the Divas was not necessarily the same for everyone.

Staunching the flow: As Alberta reviews its pipelines, critics cry foul

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.

On Thursday, June 7, approximately 475,000 litres of oil started pouring into the Red Deer River from a ruptured pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada. By the next day, Premier Alison Redford was on scene, eager to show she cares.

Just over a month later, a coalition of 54 groups penned an open letter to the premier demanding more than a well-timed photo op. The groups wanted the Redford government to initiate an “immediate independent provincewide review of pipeline safety in Alberta, similar to the one which was recently conducted for the auditor general of Saskatchewan’s 2012 report.”

The letter was signed by a wide array of groups including the Alberta Surface Rights Group, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Greenpeace Canada, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 and more. By July 20, the groups had gotten their wish. Sort of. Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced that the government would conduct a pipeline review, but the signatories are upset that they have been left out of the conversation while the government consults with players in the energy sector, and they have raised concerns about the review’s effectiveness and impartiality.

Specific concerns are that the provincial regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, was put in charge of hiring a third party to conduct the review, the scope of the review is too narrow, and the month-and-a-half timeline for finishing the report is far too fast for any meaningful examination.

“There have been other reviews done, both nationally and provincially,” says Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. “Most recently by the province of Saskatchewan, and their review was done by their provincial auditor. It was a very expansive review and looked at most of the sort of wide-breadth of Saskatchewan’s pipeline infrastructure, and what came out of it was several different places that the Saskatchewan government was failing communities and their environment when it comes to pipeline safety, and then a lot of suggestions for improvement.”

Hudema doesn’t hold out much hope for the same kind of result emerging from Alberta’s review. “Unfortunately we have a lot of questions about the review process and that’s, again, one of the reasons why we wanted to meet with the premier,” he says.

To that end, the 54 groups have initiated a petition to try and force Redford and Hughes to meet with them. In just over a week the petition collected over 5,000 signatures, but the response from the government has been silence.

Don Bester, of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents concerned landowners, doesn’t think that silence will be broken any time soon. “There’s a push,” he says, “but there isn’t much response.”

JUST THE FACTS

Albertans have reason to be concerned. Although most oil, gas and energy byproducts reach their destination safely, the ERCB’s latest figures still highlight the dangers.

In its 2010 Field Surveillance and Operations Branch provincial summary, the regulator says there were 687 incidents spread over Alberta’s more than 400,000 kilometres of pipeline in 2010, which resulted in 1,175 recorded “liquid releases.” In total, approximately 25 million litres of produced water (an oily byproduct of extraction) and three million litres of liquid hydrocarbons were released into the Alberta landscape.

The ERCB directed 30 pipeline operations to suspend activities in 2010. Of those shutdowns, 47.3 per cent were due to internal pipeline corrosion, followed by external corrosion at 11.2 per cent.

Of course, most Albertans don’t hear of these “incidents.” Many happen far away from urban centres and the watchful eye of media. But there were three high-profile spills this year that brought the problem to public attention and forced the government’s hand. Earlier this year, 230,000 litres of heavy crude spilled onto farmland northeast of Edmonton and 800,000 litres of oil gushed near the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Including the spill in Red Deer, these three “liquid releases” alone have let loose 1.5 million litres of oil in 2012.

Bester thinks things can be done better. The farmer, whose group includes landowners affected by the most recent Red Deer spill, says technology must be improved, particularly when it comes to river crossings. “We have people that own land right there and they’re telling us that Plains Midstream knew that this pipe was exposed and floating in the river well before the break even happened,” he says. “It was reported to them and they did nothing.”

Bester wants the current practice of lowering pipelines into river beds and fixing them in place with gravel to be replaced with new technology, including horizontal drilling far below the river bed. “I mean, they can drill a horizontal well a mile-and-a-half, you can drill your pipelines just the same as you do highway crossings,” he says. “You don’t rip up number 2 every time you want to put a pipeline across Highway 2.”

JUST THE POLITICS

Of course, the recent publicity around oil pipelines in Alberta has as much to do with pipelines that haven’t been built as it does with oil clogging up rivers and muskeg. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the States and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway that will transport oilsands bitumen to the West Coast are both high-profile fights that have galvanized public opinion and focused attention on Alberta.

“The world’s watching us and we need to make sure that people know that the regulations, the standards and the processes in place are, first and foremost, meeting Albertans’ expectations, but now also national and international scrutiny,” says Mike Deising, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy. “So we want our regulator to take a look at it and we also want them to bring in an independent third party. It just makes sense.”

MLA Laurie Blakeman, who, among several other portfolios acts as the energy critic for the Alberta Liberals, agrees that pipelines are inevitable. “I’m going forward with, if it’s going to happen, how do we make it the least damaging,” she says. “How do we take steps to make sure that if something goes wrong, it’s the least amount of something going wrong; there’s the most protection for the environment and the people that are around it. That’s my point of view.”

Her other point of view is that the government isn’t fulfilling its role when it refuses to listen to all sides of a story. In this case, the 54 groups representing a broad swath of dissenting Alberta voices.

“We all live here, we all breathe this air, we all have children that we want to be able to drink the water. So, having the government divide and conquer is not helpful,” says Blakeman from her office in Edmonton.

“There’s a lot of smart people in Alberta and some of them work in these organizations. And to completely go, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to a whole bunch of smart people that have things to tell me that would be helpful’ is kind of stupid, I think.”

Nobody thinks that the government should be ignoring the oil and gas industry, at this time or any other, but it’s a familiar complaint in the province that the government’s ear is a little too attuned to the messages put out by the royalty-gushing industry.

“I do think that the public deserves some degree of input,” says Hudema. “There’s definitely, when we’re talking about pipeline spills, the environmental impacts are a huge issue…. Also, when you look at the members of the 54 groups, a lot of them are landowner groups and landowner associations, so they have first-hand experience with what a spill means to a local farmer or a local rancher, what it’s done to their property, what some of their concerns are. I think the government should hear some of those voices.”

It doesn’t appear, however, that the government will be discussing pipelines with any of these groups any time soon. The premier’s office directed all questions to Hughes’ office, and Deising says it’s now out of their hands. “With respect to the review, now it’s in the hands of the regulator and the independent party to look at the three aspects that the minister wanted to see completed as part of the review. Taking that aside, because really we’re talking about the technical expertise of water crossings, spill response and pipeline integrity, that is a specific technical expertise that is required to look at those things…. With respect to broader stakeholder discussions, we’re open to always hearing from Albertans and their perspectives.”

THE OUTCOME

The signatories of the open letter to Redford aren’t happy about the ERCB playing a role in any pipeline review, insisting that it’s too close to the industry that it oversees. The process for the review allows the regulator to not only choose the third party that will review pipelines in Alberta, but also to review that third-party report and submit its own report to the energy minister with any recommendations it thinks are necessary.

According to Hudema, “they are part of Alberta’s pipeline problem and really shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”

On September 10, the ERCB announced that it selected Group 10 Engineering of Calgary to conduct the review, citing their technical competency. In total four organizations were vying for the job, but the ERCB won’t comment on who else was in the running.

Group 10’s engineering managers, Theo Abels and Daryl Foley, both have years of experience working in the oilpatch, from regulatory compliance to technical inspections. Of course, hiring an organization with so much experience is a double-edged sword, bringing expertise on one hand, and cries of bias on the other.

According to Hudema, it’s another indication that the government isn’t serious about the review. “I think what most Albertans were expecting was a very balanced review process that would not just look at things from an industry perspective, but really from an independent perspective, and would hopefully include some of those other voices in the process,” he says.

The ERCB, by necessity a thick skinned organization, isn’t fazed.

“Someone’s going to be upset with this, no matter what we do, usually, when we make a decision, so this is no different from any other time we make a decision,” says Bob Curran, an ERCB spokesperson. “We make thousands of those every year. For us, it’s business as usual.”

Of course, business as usual is what many of the critics are, well, criticizing. They view the government, the regulator and the industry with suspicion — a closed loop bent on extracting and shipping oil and gas despite the consequences. For Bester, this review is merely window dressing and he’s not surprised. “They do not want to know. Put it that way. As long as the royalty dollars can keep flowing, they have no concerns, everything is just swept under the table.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

The AGC vs Valerie Cooper

NEWS-AGCValerie Cooper, the former president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Calgary (AGC), who left her post suddenly without explanation in March, is being sued by the gallery in order to retrieve $500,000 it alleges Cooper stole from the non-profit in the form of falsified expenses starting in 2006.

The civil suit against Cooper, outlined in court documents obtained by Fast Forward Weekly , alleges she charged the gallery for a litany of expenses, from massages and parking, to $12,126 worth of artwork that, according to an affidavit by board chair Gwen Randall, ended up on Cooper’s condo walls, $185,129 of “fictitious framing,” $66,978 of unauthorized travel, $89,250 towards rent on her downtown condo, and non-existent loan repayments to the tune of $124,000.

The allegations were first brought to the attention of AGC board member David Rehn by the Calgary Police Service. “On March 13th, 2012, Mr. Rehn reported to a meeting of the Board of Directors for the AGC that at a meeting with the Calgary Police Service, he had been shown a series of invoices on the letterhead of Masters Gallery, which is a commercial gallery and framing service in the City of Calgary. The invoices totalled $106,515.11. The invoices were handwritten and described numerous framing assignments and the purchase of pieces of original art. Each of the invoices in question was marked paid,” reads the affidavit by AGC board chair Gwen Randall.

The statement goes on to say that Rehn was then shown information from Cooper’s personal bank account, accessed through a court order, that shows cheques from the AGC for those amounts were deposited into Cooper’s account.

When contacted by Fast Forward Weekly , a staff member at Masters Gallery said no one would comment on the matter, and that everyone was busy and would be for some time.

Former staff members of the AGC who were contacted by Fast Forward Weekly would not speak on the record, fearing legal repercussions. None of those contacted said they were surprised by the allegations, and some had left the gallery due to ethical concerns.

The AGC has been tight-lipped on Cooper’s departure. The gallery didn’t even acknowledge the vacancy until the end of March when the statement of claim against Cooper was filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, despite the fact she was put on administrative leave on March 13.

Brian Hearst, who was the board treasurer and is currently the managing director of the gallery, wouldn’t comment on Cooper’s departure when contacted at the beginning of April.

Fast Forward Weekly has repeatedly attempted to contact Hearst since acquiring the documents, as well as board members Randall and Rehn. According to Nisha Sridhar, manager of communications and marketing at the AGC, the board was travelling in Russia on an art tour and members were unavailable.

There are questions around the “non-approved travel” expenses listed in a “funds recoverable analysis” conducted by Hearst, who is a chartered accountant, after the allegations were first brought to the board by the police. In March 2008, Cooper travelled to Jerusalem for a World Federation of Friends of Museums congress, where she spoke on a panel with Donale Gandossi, a current AGC board member who was board chair at the time. The trip was highlighted by Gandossi in the gallery’s 2008 annual report. It’s unclear why $1,364 of expenses for that trip are included as non-approved travel when the chair was with Cooper at the time.

There are other questions related to board oversight. How was Cooper allegedly able to reimburse herself for $124,000 of loans that never existed? If the allegations are true, how was she able to submit handwritten invoices totalling over $100,000 without raising a red flag?

According to Randall’s affidavit, the reason was misplaced trust. “From the time of the commencement of her employment, the Defendant cultivated personal relationships with a number of the members of the Board of Directors of the AGC, including this deponent,” reads the document. “Because of a personal relationship between the Defendant and members of the Board of Directors, and because of the complete trust imposed by the Board of Directors upon the Defendant to manage the affairs of the AGC, neither I, nor other members of the Board, to my knowledge, had any reason to suspect that the Defendant was converting AGC funds to her personal use.”

The statement of claim filed with the court says that the board received constant reports on the gallery’s “dire financial straits” from Cooper, and that “from time to time other members of the Board did in fact make personal loans, without interest, to the Plaintiff [AGC] to cover operating expenses pending receipt of grant funds.”

Although there were rumours in the arts community about financial irregularities at the gallery, there was never any evidence to back up those claims. Perusing the online comments on a 2008 Fast Forward Weekly story on problems at the gallery shows a number of people concerned about the gallery’s finances.

In that same story, issues including employee intimidation, damage to artwork, a focus on fundraising over programming and the high turnover of staff, particularly in curators, were highlighted. Considering the amount of evidence that something was amiss in the gallery’s management, how was it that Cooper maintained the trust of the board?

In addition to the allegations that Cooper made off with a sizable chunk of money, Randall’s affidavit also says that the AGC security cameras caught Cooper returning to the gallery after she was suspended and recorded her departure five hours later. “The video tape clearly shows the Defendant leaving the AGC with two cardboard boxes,” reads the statement. “AGC has been unable to locate its payables file for the year 2012. Certain personnel files of employees of AGC also cannot be located.”

The gallery has requested the return of the materials, but has yet to see the documents.

Const. Tanya Bertulli of the Economic Crimes Unit of the Calgary Police Service would only say that there is an active investigation into the allegations against Cooper. No criminal charges have been laid and the allegations against Cooper laid out in the civil suit by the Art Gallery of Calgary have yet to be proven in court.

When reached by telephone, Cooper curtly declined to comment on the matter.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Questioning Calgary’s arts party

Cover-2012-story-img

Design by Josh Naud

The federal government kicked in $1.6 million, the city one-upped them with $2 million and the province gave $250,000, with another $500,000 set aside to match corporate donations. It’s a tidy sum of money, all earmarked for arts and culture after Calgary was named the cultural capital of Canada (okay, one of the cultural capitals; we’re sharing it with Niagara because they hosted a war in 1812). So, what are we doing with it?

It’s an important and complicated question. The celebration will channel funds to artists and cultural organizations for projects throughout the year, but the intent of the festivities is to involve all Calgarians. How do you run a year of arts and culture activities and celebrations without watering down the creative spirit? Who is 2012 for? The artists and organizations that create culture? The audience? And what of our aboriginal heritage?

Local artist Eric Moschopedis does have good things to say about the organization and the idea of a year focused on arts and culture, but he worries that the ideological underpinnings of the event, namely the theory of creative cities, is flawed.

“Essentially it sets up, it commodifies what artists have been doing for ages anyhow,” says Moschopedis. “It finds a way to exploit, basically, what we’re doing for the purposes of market gain as opposed to cultural development and those sorts of things.”

The premise of the creative cities movement is that creative industries and the arts are an economic engine and help to improve quality of life in a city, thereby attracting business. Moschopedis worries that during 2012, artists will be used as a tool in “branding the city as a place to do business,” and promoting a quality of life that artists are rarely privy to.

He thinks there is a moral imperative to creating art and that it exists outside any economic arguments, so to focus on the economic aspect of arts and culture is a mistake.

Karen Ball, the executive director of Calgary 2012, the non-profit organization tasked with programming and funding the year’s celebrations, understands the misgivings but says that the nature of the cultural capital bid and ensuing events means reaching out to a broad audience and trying to balance the dichotomy between practitioner and ordinary Calgarian. “The farther you go out from that (arts) community, the more difference you see in how people interpret culture and how they want to celebrate it,” says Ball.

This tension between artist and audience, between differing views on what it means to celebrate arts and culture, also raises the question of dissent. In a city and a province where that word has long been viewed with suspicion, it remains a fundamental part of the creative process.

Some are concerned that the year-long celebration might focus on pure boosterism, thereby ignoring important questions and work. Moschopedis thinks that if it’s to be successful, there has to be room for criticism of the city, of the event itself and maybe even of some of the organizations that are celebrating 100 years in Calgary. “I think that there’s still room to critique these things, and by critique I don’t necessarily mean ‘say things are shit,’ but I mean to ask questions of them. I think that’s really important,” he says.

Ball insists there will be room for critical engagement. To that end, the organization has been designed as a two-pronged beast. Ball takes care of the administrative side of things, while curator and artistic director Michael Green, probably best known for his role as curator of the High Performance Rodeo, handles the creative side. “There’s zero influence from us around which project gets funded in terms of how it reflects that dialogue,” she says.

The projects will be chosen by a jury of peers in an arm’s-length process, with larger events overseen by Green. The details of those large projects aren’t clear at this time. There will be an opening ceremony of sorts, a large “mass participation” event (rumour has it that it might involve the song “Sweet City Woman”), an artist-in-residence program, a cultural exchange program, the creation of a municipal cultural plan, and a closing symposium. But some worry that it’s all party, without any thought to the hangover.

“My fear is that I can’t see any legacy,” says local artist Sharon Stevens, who worked briefly for Calgary 2012 in a clerical role. “I can’t see how the arts community is going to be stronger and healthier and more productive because of being declared a cultural capital.”

Stevens would have liked to see more thought put into improving the lives of those who suffer for their art, examining efforts by groups like Elephant Artist Relief, which works to provide health benefits and a better quality of life for artists.

There will be some small, tangible leftovers from 2012, including a micro-financing portal that allows anyone to help donate to artists through Calgary Arts Development, but for Ball it’s more about the intangible benefits. She hopes to see an increase in the number of people taking in shows and exhibitions. “What I would like to see come out of this year is when you ask anybody from Calgary to list the Top 5 things about their city, culture, or some definition of culture, is in there.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Terrance Houle, though he’d like to see the cultural focus shifted a touch. “In our present, I always feel like First Nations and Treaty 7 and stuff like that have always been sort of put on the back burner, or it’s always sort of the Indian Village, or things like that,” he says.

Canadian Heritage stipulates engaging four groups throughout a cultural capital year, including youth, francophone, culturally diverse communities, and First Nations.

“When the bid came up, I was going to these events and they were talking about arts and culture, and for me it’s like ‘well, why can’t you start at the beginning and move through it?’”

Houle, of Blackfoot descent, was on the 2012 aboriginal advisory committee for a time, but dropped off due to his busy schedule. It was the first committee struck by 2012 and, according to Ball, is the most active and engaged.

“I think that we talk a lot about 100-year anniversaries and we probably don’t talk as much about the 400 years before the last 100 years of Calgary, and when you look at the 600-year history of this area, you can see pretty clearly that our aboriginal heritage and roots are a really important part of how we need to reflect as a community at this point in time,” says Ball.

But it isn’t all criticism, not even from Houle, Moschopedis and Stevens, who all believe that critical discourse around Calgary 2012 is important, and who alternate between cautious optimism and dismay with the organization and events.

Simon Mallet, the artistic director of Downstage, a local theatre company that produces socially and politically engaged work, thinks of Calgary 2012 as a beginning. “I don’t think that what happens in 2012 is going to be the cumulative impact of Calgary 2012,” he says.

He’s hopeful that the year’s festivities will bring more attention to Calgary’s arts and culture — locally, provincially and nationally. Downstage applied for a grant to bring its production (B)ust— a show that examines the role of personal behaviour and the accumulation of societal debt — to neighbourhoods around the city, and hopefully engage a new audience. It’s not the easiest of topics, but Mallet isn’t worried about being shut out of funding because of that.

“Our position and our history with granting in this city has been one that has very much encouraged artistic risk and engaging with topics that might be challenging,” he says.

And maybe that’s the point. Calgary 2012 isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s a multimillion-dollar initiative that, if anything, is meant to challenge us and to start raising questions that are long overdue. It’s not going to solve anything, it’s certainly not going to make everyone happy, but it is going to help shape our cultural future for years to come, making it an important issue.

“We want this city to be the city that we want to live in,” says Moschopedis. “I think the only way to make it that city is to be vocal. If we’re not then we’ll just be hand delivered something that isn’t necessarily what we wanted.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.