Calgary should get its 'mojo' back in 2018, Nenshi says

Mayor Naheed Nenshi doesn't hesitate when asked to sum up 2017 in a single word: "Tumultuous."

'We really need to build up our confidence,' mayor says as he reflects on 'tumultuous' 2017

Naheed Nenshi celebrates his victory as Calgary's mayor in the Oct. 16 election. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Naheed Nenshi didn't hesitate when asked to sum up 2017 in a single word.

"Tumultuous," he said.

"How's that? That's a good word."

Reflecting on the past 51 weeks or so, the mayor told The Calgary Eyeopener he's eager to see the final week come and go.

"Really, it's been a roller-coaster of a year and I'm kind of happy to look forward to 2018."

What didn't he love about the year that's almost over?

A couple of things, in particular, that start with the letter "e."

The economy

For starters, Calgary didn't start the year on the greatest of footings.

"We were really in the depths of the economic downturn," Nenshi said.

"And, in 2017, we're starting to see an economic recovery, though it's still very fragile."

Toward the tail end of the year, a growing number of economic forecasts suggested Calgary's economy was in the midst of a rebound, but the upswing in GDP has yet to take a serious bite out of the city's persistently high unemployment rate.

Nenshi worries the recovery will remain vulnerable if people don't believe it's happening.

"There's still enough nervousness around in terms of investment and so on that we really need to build up our confidence," he said.

"As I keep saying, we need to sell Calgary not only to people outside of Calgary, but also sell Calgary to Calgarians and remind ourselves that we live — even at this time — in one of the most prosperous places on Earth."

The mayor also noted Calgary's workforce is one of the "best educated" in the world, which is something the city emphasized as it made its bid for Amazon's massive second headquarters earlier this year.

Even though Calgary is considered to be quite a long-shot at winning the coveted HQ2, Calgary Economic Development noted the high-profile pitch was aimed at more than just Amazon executives' eyes.

There's hope the buzz surrounding the city's unorthodox ad campaign will prompt other companies searching for a new corporate headquarters to give the city a look.

Calgary Economic Development's ads on sidewalks and in the Seattle Times caught a lot of attention in Washington state. Local radio station KIRO Radio 97.3 FM tweeted these images. (@KIRORadio/Twitter)

Big multinationals aside, Nenshi hopes local businesses will expand their operations in Calgary in the new year.

"We need to get our mojo in place," he said.

"There's never been a better time to start a small business — and 8,000 entrepreneurs started small businesses here in 2017."

He's also optimistic that the worst of the city's woes are now in the rear-view mirror.

"I feel good," Nenshi said.

"I feel like, sitting here next year, we'll be able to get rid of that word 'fragile' and really talk about the economic recovery."

And then he moved on to that other "e" word that, for him, defined 2017.

The election

"Of course, we had an election, which was not fun," the mayor said.

He described the campaign leading up to the Oct. 16 vote as "one of the most ugly, divisive public conversations I think we've ever had."

With cash-strapped news organizations doing less polling than in the past, the campaign was characterized by a handful of opinion surveys that were released publicly — and turned out to be widely off the mark.

Three consecutive polls carried out by Mainstreet Research and paid for by Postmedia, the company that owns the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun, suggested challenger Bill Smith enjoyed a comfortable lead over Nenshi, the incumbent.

The results surprised many observers — and raised questions among political scientists and polling experts.

They also raised the stakes of what had previously been expected to be a sleepy race.

Nenshi, for the first time in his incumbency, looked vulnerable.

"This election is going to be very, very tight," he said a week before the vote in a video that was posted to Facebook — and later removed — by a third party.

The video, itself, became a contentious part of the campaign's waning days, over his comments about there being "forces out there in the community that are supporting my opponents that really want us to go backward."

"And we know that they are using a lot of technology to get people who don't believe in diversity, to get people who might be racist, or haters, out to vote," Nenshi said in the video.

Smith was outraged at the assertion, according to a Calgary Sun columnist, who quoted the challenger as saying Nenshi should apologize for "throwing the race card into the mix." 

Naheed Nenshi and Bill Smith clashed throughout the municipal election campaign on a variety of issues, including Nenshi's decision to call out racism in a video that was posted to Facebook. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Nenshi was also booed during a late-campaign forum, as he explained his rationale for his comments in the video.

Election day, itself, was then marred by long voting lines at many polling stations and extended failures of the city's computer servers to deliver the results.

As vote counts trickled in, though, Nenshi emerged as the winner, as did every other incumbent.

Still, there are four new faces around the council table.

Councillors Jyoti Gondek, Jeromy Farkas, George Chahal and Jeff Davison were each elected in wards where no incumbent ran.

New council, new year

In its relatively brief tenure, the new council has approved the multi-billion-dollar budget for 2018, which includes a 3.8 per cent tax increase.

It has also tackled an issue that has stymied previous councils for years: secondary-suite reform.

Nenshi called the solution — which would see individual suite applications handled by city staff instead of city council — a "good enough" plan.

"It's not perfect," he said. "But it's so much better than what we've got now."

Naheed Nenshi celebrates his victory as Calgary's mayor in the early-morning hours of Tuesday, Oct. 17, following municipal elections in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The policy change still needs to be formally drafted into a bylaw and approved by council, which the mayor expects will happen early in the new year.

Overall, he said, his optimism for the new year is tied up with what he sees as a "so far, so good" start for the new council.

"In fact, so far, so great," he added.

"They've been terrific and I feel like we're getting a lot of work done."

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener.