Council committee votes to create agency to run $100M Economic Development Investment Fund

Nearly nine months after Calgary city council first voted to create a new and nimble economic development fund to help boost the city's economy, the fund is on the verge of getting a board and terms of reference.

Economic Development Investment Fund designed to create jobs, diversify economy and fill empty office space

The $100-million Economic Development Investment Fund was created to help create jobs and fill vacant office space downtown. (CBC)

Nearly nine months after city council first voted to create a new and nimble economic development fund to help boost Calgary's economy, the fund is on the verge of getting a board and terms of reference.

Council has put $100 million into the fund to help create jobs and fill vacant downtown office space.

The finance committee was asked Tuesday to approve creating a wholly owned subsidiary to oversee the Economic Development Investment Fund (EDIF).

The proposal included adding the mayor and a councillor to the current eight-member board and giving city council the final say on any single proposal to spend over $10 million.

Temporary setback for mayor?

The committee accepted most of the proposals but did vote 5-4 against adding Mayor Naheed Nenshi to the board. 

The head of Calgary Economic Development, Mary Moran, said it makes sense to have the mayor at the helm. 

She didn't seem worried by the fact that the committee rejected the idea as it still has to go to full city council later this month.

"Our competing cities have very active mayors in economic development," she said. "We'll see how it plays out in council."

Nenshi said he's not taking the vote against his membership on the board as any kind of rebuke.

"If I took everything personally, then this would be a very, very difficult job. Let's just say I'm not sure that everyone knew exactly what they were voting on," said the mayor.

Summit led to creation of special fund

Council approved $10 million last June to create the fund coming out of a downtown economic summit. It then added another $90 million in December.

One member of the EDIF's board, Barry Munro, said it's time to start putting this money to work.

Let us get going. We've been talking about this for nine months.- Barry Munro, EDIF board member

"Let us get going. We've been talking about this for nine months and it was an urgent top priority nine months ago so I know that this takes time. It is extraordinary to us in my world, where I come from, that nine months later we're still thinking about this stuff."

Nenshi countered by saying this effort should not be rushed.

"We only approved the money in December. This is the beginning of March. If it's 100 million bucks, yeah, let's get it right."

Another member of the EDIF board, businessman Jim Gray, said he's expecting more money will be needed for this initiative.

"The $100 million dollars is really a start. We can't change Calgary on 1.4 million people with $70 per person," said Gray. "In Kitchener-Waterloo, in today's dollars, they're pressing for $1000 [per person.]" 

One council skeptic remains opposed

Coun. Jeromy Farkas continues to be the lone voice in voting against the whole concept of the EDIF.

He told the committee he'd rather see city hall focus on lowering taxes and cutting spending instead of what he calls, "picking winners and losers in business" or giving handouts. 

"I would rather have this money being spent on specific infrastructure or social programs that could create a more dynamic city rather than trying to approach it from a carve-out or a subsidy standpoint," said the rookie Ward 11 councillor.

Sutherland rejects notion of hand-outs

Coun. Ward Sutherland, took exception to the line of argument from Farkas.

He suggested that Farkas needed to do some research to understand the value of this new vehicle for helping Calgary's economy recover from the downturn of the past few years.

"I really take offence to the fact we would even use the term 'oh, we're giving handouts' to businesses. That's actually insulting to the intelligence of business people," Sutherland told the committee.

With an anticipated approval from council later this month, Moran said the new agency will hold an official launch event in April and begin taking proposals from businesses and entrepreneurs.

Given its approvals process, which was presented to the committee, it's possible money could be flowing later this spring.

Board members say they anticipate a busy first year of operations.