Why plans are percolating in the Stampede City to join a club with some strange bedfellows

Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are three cities with a reputation for wet weather, hipsters and progressive politics. Calgary, not so much. But Calgary Economic Development argues they should team up to leverage their commonalities.

Vancouver, Portland and Seattle teamed up to leverage their economic, research and creative heft

With Mount Rainier in the background right, morning fog clears from downtown Seattle as seen from the roof of the Space Needle on Nov. 8, 2019. The city teamed up a few years ago with Portland, Ore., and Vancouver to form the Cascadia Innovation Corridor (CIC) — and now Calgary hopes to join them. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are three cities with a reputation for wet weather, hipsters and progressive politics. Calgary, on the other hand, is known for none of these things.

But economic development can make for strange bedfellows, and plans are percolating in the Stampede City about joining the club known as the Cascadia Innovation Corridor — mustache wax be damned.

"The goals and objectives from Calgary in the new economy and where we want to go is so closely aligned with Vancouver and Seattle," says Court Ellingson, vice-president of strategy at Calgary Economic Development.

"Maybe the external perception is that we're on a different path. The truth is that we're on the same path."

Named after the geographic region in which the three cities are located, the Cascadia Innovation Corridor (CIC) began taking shape a few years ago as a way to leverage the cities' combined economic, research and creative heft.

Drop the silly stereotypes and the appeal is clear.

Cascadia is a player

In a world of economic megaregions, Cascadia is a player. On the U.S. side of the border alone, Cascadia has an economic output of $627 billion US.

The corridor packs a corporate punch as well, with the likes of Nike, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Lululemon and Boeing all having key operations in the region.

"By maximizing the Greater Pacific Northwest's competitive advantages and enhancing our position as a global hub of innovation and commerce, the vision of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor is to become one innovative economic zone that generates a shared sense of identity and belonging as its centrepiece," says its website.

CIC says its focus is on research, economic development and transportation. The aim is to improve connectivity, productivity, health outcomes and innovation — ticking off a lot of boxes in key growth industries.

From the east side of the Rocky Mountains, it looks like a good club to join. 

Seattle, Portland and Vancouver (pictured) are three cities with a reputation for wet weather, hipsters and progressive politics. Not so, Calgary. But economics makes for strange bedfellows. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Calgary has long been the white-collar capital of Canada's oil and gas sector, but as the oilpatch's struggles drag on, there have been efforts to grow and broaden the city's economic base.

That includes high tech, aerospace and logistics, life sciences and agribusiness.

"There's a real opportunity for Calgary to both contribute and gain from being a part of Cascadia," Ellingson says.

The Calgary Economic Development executive isn't the only — or the first — one to see merit in seeking an alliance.

Carlo Dade, a director at the Canada West Foundation, believes Calgary's membership in the CIC would broaden perceptions of the city and its economic goals.

"If you're in the conversation with the Innovation Corridor, you're in the conversation about technology-based businesses, you're in a conversation about competing in services and other businesses around the Pacific Rim instantly, without having to explain," Dade says.

"A picture is worth a thousand words. Being part of the Innovation Corridor does the same thing when you're thinking investment attraction for Calgary."

But there's a catch: the CIC would have to let Calgary in the club.

Each city in the CIC (including Portland, Ore., pictured) packs a corporate punch. They are home to the likes of Nike, Microsoft, Amazon, Lululemon, Boeing and Intel. (The Associated Press)

When CBC News reached out to Challenge Seattle, which sits on the CIC's steering committee, it deferred comment to the Business Council of British Columbia, which was unable to provide comment because of busy schedules.

Earlier this year, when Dade co-wrote an opinion piece on the idea in the Seattle Times, at least some of the newspaper's readers were dubious.

"Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland are globally known, desirable cities to live in with good tech schools, diverse economies, and thriving tech industries," one reader wrote.

"Calgary is a struggling oil town with a frigid climate, middling schools and at best a D-list tech scene."

Another reader added they'd be "hard pressed to name a Canadian city less Cascadian than Calgary." 

Calgary a perfect fit

But Dade sees Calgary as a perfect part of the mix. 

He says Calgary has technology-based businesses, the human capital and physical infrastructure required to be part of the CIC. Calgary also has inexpensive office space and, like Vancouver, can bring in foreign tech talent that's more difficult to bring into American cities, such as Portland or Seattle. Plus, Calgary is just a short flight away. 

"And we have the quality of life," he says. "You're not going to Spokane, you're not going to Topeka, and you can't afford to go to San Francisco. So we have a quality of life that the Pacific Northwest has that attracts young talent."

Still, nothing is going to happen overnight.

Ellingson says joining Cascadia is a discussion still in its early days, but it is a long-term goal. At this moment in time, he says, they're really still trying to foster connections and relationships in those cities.

"We're not yet at the stage to say, you know, sign us up," Ellingson says.

Regardless of timing — or the hurdles ahead — it's clear Calgary, as it contemplates its future, continues to look beyond the borders of the province and to new alliances to help grow its economy.


Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.