'You're still the envy of the nation': What opportunities lie ahead in post-recession Calgary

While oil prices aren't likely to bounce back to the heights at which they once soared, Calgary's economy is nevertheless surging and ripe for new industries to be fostered, says Glen Hodgson, an economist and senior fellow with the Conference Board of Canada.

Conference Board economist sees 'good signs' in city's income levels, retail spending and educated workforce

Calgarians go about their daily commute in the city's downtown core. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Oil prices aren't likely to bounce back to the heights at which they once soared, but Calgary's economy is nevertheless surging and ripe for new industries to be fostered, says Glen Hodgson, an economist and senior fellow with the Conference Board of Canada.

"It's a chance to diversify, to think other thoughts about how to create wealth here, how to really maintain that dynamism in the local economy." Hodgson told the The Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.

"Now is maybe a time to sort of broaden your horizons and think about other things your city can do."

Calgarians' persistently high incomes and increased consumer spending are helping drive a rebound in the local economy, according to the board's latest calculations, which now project Calgary's economy will grow by 4.6 per cent in 2017.

That's the fastest rate of growth among 13 major cities across Canada that the non-profit economic think tank studied.

"We see 2017 as a real bounce-back year, led by the consumer," Hodgson said.

After consumer spending dipped in the wake of the 2014 oil-price crash, the board now expects retail sales in Calgary to grow by an astounding nine per cent in 2017, followed by two per cent growth in 2018.

Provincewide, retail sales have grown by 8.2 per cent over the past 12 months on record.

Employment is also expected to grow this year, but at a slower pace.

The board expects job growth of 2.7 per cent in the city this year, followed by 1.1 per cent in 2018.

"I think next year will be more modest growth but hopefully more balanced growth, as well," Hodgson said of the city's economy, as a whole.

Meanwhile, Calgary's unemployment rate — which was recently the highest among major Canadian cities — has come down from its late-2016 peak but remains significantly higher than Canada's unemployment rate, as a whole.

The board expects the city's unemployment rate to continue to fall in 2018 but remain higher than the national average.

Wages across Alberta took a dip during the recession, too, but remained well above the national average.

And Calgarians, in particular, still make significantly more money than Canadians in other major centres, Hodgson noted.

"You're still the envy of the nation in terms of income," he said.

"I mean, incomes in Calgary are 20 per cent to a third higher than Toronto, certainly than Montreal, or Ottawa, where I live. So it's still the most affluent community in the country."

Hodgson said Calgary has had an "incredible run" of economic growth in the past, driven mainly by oil and gas, but in the future it will have to seize opportunities to attract and grow other industries.

"I don't think oil prices are bouncing back to $100 a barrel any time soon," he said.

Diversifying the economy is "easy to say" but "very, very hard to do," he added.

Still, he said Alberta has a "strong educational foundation" in its increasingly mature post-secondary institutions and "that gives you the chance to use your brain power as a driver for wealth creation, going forward."

Calgary has been increasingly targeting tech companies and has seen some success on that front, to date, but Hodgson said there are plenty of opportunities across a range of industries.

"I would say tech is one of many answers," he said.

In general, he said opportunities tend to lie in "high value-added activities" that require a skilled and educated workforce.

​"I do see good signs for Calgary," he said.