Calgary needs a boost, a big one, and voting 'Yes' on the Olympic bid will do that

David Goldman/The Associated Press

EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of the Road Ahead series, we're offering this opinion piece from Leor Rotchild, who argues for a Calgary Olympic bid. On Tuesday we published an opinion piece by Jen Gerson, who is against the bid.

Voting "No" to Calgary's bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games will effectively end an important conversation about the future of our city.

Voting "Yes" is just the beginning.

A "Yes" would allow us to discuss how the Games might make our city better. It would continue moving us closer to our aspirations. When you consider that taxpayers paid $90 million last year for a new interchange on Glenmore Trail, a $3 billion investment from all levels of government to build and refurbish eight facilities, thousands of new affordable housing units, and focus the entire world on Calgary for nearly a month is an exciting opportunity.

What could we do with all that attention?

Voting "Yes" enables us to co-create a new narrative about Calgary and set a vision for the city we want.  That vision belongs to all of us — not any organizer, sponsor, politician, or entrepreneur.

I recently went to a meeting with what we refer to as the YesCalgary2026 group.

This group is grassroots. Just a ragtag bunch of passionate Calgarians spanning all different generations and political stripes who came together for a chance to invigorate Calgary for the next 30 years.

I became a "Yes" Ambassador with this group because I want the same. And because, full disclosure, as an environmentally focused entrepreneur I see a significant opportunity in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The new narrative

It is false to assume that the 1988 Games came to Calgary as a result of one person's vision laid out to citizens eight years prior. Remember, Calgary bid three times unsuccessfully before winning hosting rights in 1988. We were ultimately successful, in part, because we were open to change and embraced possibilities. We must do that again.

The Calgary 2026 bid is an incredible opportunity to showcase to the world a diverse economy, our environmental leadership and our ability to build effective partnerships.

Let's be honest. Despite spending millions each year on expos, trade missions and targeted advertising, Calgary is not a top destination for tourism and investment.

Our city is best known for petroleum, a rodeo and proximity to Banff.

Hosting the Olympics and Paralympics brings the world to us. When the international media descend onto Calgary for an entire month or more in 2026, they will seek stories beyond just who won Gold.

The Games would give Calgary a chance to showcase a more diverse economy, a city of local artists, social enterprises, clean-tech and AI innovators, craft breweries, and cannabis startups.

We may not have been shortlisted for Amazon's new headquarters, but their feedback has left us confident we can reposition Calgary to secure other exciting opportunities that create jobs of the future.

Calgary also faces a negative reputation as an environmental laggard. This is evidenced by the strained relationships with pipeline opponents. Getting the world and the rest of Canada to see us, actually see us as we are, could change that.

As an entrepreneur working in the environmental sector, I can see that Calgary has an incredible and largely untold environmental leadership story. One that includes leading energy companies converting carbon into valuable products like steel and concrete, and social enterprises working with restaurants, venues and major events to enable a circular lifecycle for materials that significantly reduce waste transported to landfills.

Paul Karchut/CBC

With all these local resources available, our city could host the world's first ever zero waste Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games. This is not just a feel good project. It would set a new standard for future global events. It would leave a lasting global legacy of Calgary as an environmental leader and help a growing sector of the economy.

It will build bridges.

The Chiefs of Treaty 7 recently endorsed Calgary's bid for the Games.

They have concerns about possible environmental impacts, but ultimately recognize the opportunity to host a Winter Games. Using the Games as a focal point to establish effective partnerships and commercial opportunities is a great opportunity to move further towards reconciliation.

We can do more than land acknowledgements at the Games. We can co-design the Games and utilize Indigenous knowledge while creating a template for more meaningful collaboration, respect for the land and storytelling than is taking place right now.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

And then there is the money.

In addition to repurposing infrastructure from the 1988 Olympics, there exists a once, or perhaps twice in a lifetime opportunity to leverage and accelerate the pace of funding from all levels of government to cover the costs of Calgary's long-standing priorities. This includes building affordable housing.

Leading up to the Vancouver Games in 2010, every $1 Vancouver taxpayers spent on Olympic infrastructure, B.C. and Ottawa topped up for a combined total of $12.

Given this opportunity to leverage funds, some may be surprised the Draft 2026 plan is not more ambitious when it comes to building infrastructure such as a new sports stadium.

However, this plan has rightly balanced the need for fiscal restraint, while remaining flexible to changes in city priorities from now until 2026. I firmly believe the same momentum that brings Indigenous, government and industry partners together can also create the space required for Flames owners and the city to reach an agreement that gets a new arena deal done, while keeping costs low for taxpayers.

Historic partnership

Voting "Yes" in the plebiscite on Nov. 13 is not a "Yes at all costs."

If the funds cannot be secured, Calgary will not host the 2026 Games. A "Yes" enables us to create a historic partnership with other levels of government and the possibility to secure even more funding from the International Olympic Committee.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Let's vote to keep the conversation going and create room for bold ideas. Let's prepare to showcase our business and environmental leadership to the world like only Calgary can.

Saying "Yes" opens far more doors than saying "No."

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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