Take a stroll through downtown with the Calgary Eyeopener and hear what key players are saying

Spanning from the west end of downtown along Stephen Avenue to the city's core, Calgary Eyeopener hosts David Gray and Angela Knight explored the struggles, triumphs and future of this unique area of Calgary.

CBC Radio's Calgary Eyeopener takes the pulse of downtown Calgary on a walking show

Calgary Eyeopener hosts David Gray and Angela Knight made their way through downtown Calgary Wednesday to talk to business owners and Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Madelaine Lapointe/CBC)

There is no doubt Calgary's downtown is in a period of transition.

There's an economic downturn to contend with, along with the very real effects of a global pandemic on various small businesses.

As well, the city's cultural landscape is also shifting as it adapts to new ideas and fresh voices.

Those plugged in to downtown Calgary's challenges, triumphs and future opportunities talked to the Calgary Eyeopener as hosts David Gray and Angela Knight they took a walk along Eighth Avenue for its radio show on Wednesday.

Gray and Knight made their way from Calgary's downtown west end to the city core and had numerous conversations with Calgarians along the way.

On today's show: it's an Eyeopener Walking Show on Stephen Avenue! We chat with Mayor Nenshi at City Hall about the state of the city; downtown was, of course, largely built with oil money. We talk about the state of the energy sector with the CEO of MEG energy, Derek Evans; perhaps no industry relies on us all getting together as much as the arts. Without an audience, how can our theatres survive? We ask two local companies; Downtown West is one of the most densely populated parts of the city. We speak with the community association about living in the core. 27:32

Contemporary Calgary, Alberta Ballet & Alberta Theatre Projects

In Calgary's downtown west end, the first stop of the tour was the Contemporary Calgary Art Gallery — which was forced to close due to COVID-19 lockdown rules after initially opening in January.

The gallery will reopen next Thursday with exhibits featuring works by Yoko Ono and Senegalese painter Omar Ba.

"What we wanted was a place to bring international artists, national artists, local artists who are exploring contemporary art," said David Leinster, CEO of Contemporary Calgary, while walking with Gray.

David Leinster, CEO of Contemporary Calgary, told the Calgary Eyeopener that the gallery was set to open on Thursday. ( Madelaine Lapointe/CBC)

The gallery is housed at the former Centennial Planetarium, an award-winning building and example of brutalist architecture many Calgarians well remember.

Leinster said he wants to integrate the space into the surrounding community by making it affordable to visit, and by building an entrance pavilion right off the street.

Next on the walk was Alberta Theatre Projects, which went from having their best season in 10 years to having to postpone its season to next year.

But Darcy Evans, executive and artistic director at Alberta Theatre Projects, told Gray the company now has the opportunity to focus on new play development — even if it has to be over video calling while working at home.

"Our audience is amazing and they've stuck with us … and so we're excited about sharing those plays in a year," said Evans.

The Alberta Ballet was days away from opening a production of Peter Pan at the Jubilee Auditorium when they had to shut down in March.

"Like so many companies everywhere, we were a bit like chasing our tails and just figuring out how to get things going," said Christopher Anderson, artistic director designate with Alberta Ballet.

Now, they've got some creative projects in the fire and will be looking at offering ballet again in new formats.

MEG Energy

Derek Evans, the CEO of MEG energy, also joined Gray for a ramble along the sidewalk.

"The downtown's coming alive," Evans said.

He said it's been a quiet summer downtown, but it's starting to pick up and all of his employees will be returning next week.

"COVID-19 was a real knock to our businesses, but that's after five years of pretty tough times," Evans said.

"We will find a way to persevere and come out of this on the other side, but we're going to have to change how we do things, business, as well as interacting with others."

He said he thinks more consolidation will take place in the industry, but also more of a focus on efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases.


Among the city's challenges are also success stories.

Tech company Attabotics said business is booming and they are overhauling how warehouses work.

Scott Gravelle, founder and CEO of Attabotics, said his "aha moment" came from studying ant colonies and how they use three-dimensional vertical space.

Scott Gravelle, founder and CEO of Attabotics, said their business is still doing very well amidst the pandemic. ( Madelaine Lapointe/CBC)

Gravelle said part of their success comes from using the talent that existed in Calgary already.

"We took the true energy that is in the city … that is the talent of the engineers that exist here because of the energy sector and gave them something to do," Gravelle said.

He said the city needs to create an ecosystem for innovation to get tech companies to stick — and that means universities doing more research into topics like software development.

Downtown West Community Association

Calgarians may not think of the west of downtown as a flourishing place to live, but the Downtown West Community Association is trying to change that view.

Farnaz Sadeghpour, president of the community association, said they call their community of about 2,000 residents the "middle child" of Calgary because they're often overlooked.

Sadeghpour said one of the major draws for choosing to live downtown is the proximity to amenities.

"I love not being dependent on a car, just going to work with my bike," she told Gray as they made their way down Stephen Avenue heading toward the core.

Her association banded together to get a community park built, as well as commissioned several murals with plans for more.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Gray's last guest donned a purple tie and mask as he waited on the steps of city hall. 

Mayor Naheed Nenshi has many memories of his "downtown story," where in Grade 10 he would use his transit transfer moments to buy candy at the Hudson's Bay or go to the arcade.

As part of his conversation with Gray, Nenshi discussed the city's high vacancy rates in downtown towers.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said we need to remember that arts, culture and restaurants is what continues to draw people to downtown. (Madelaine Lapointe/CBC)

"For me, that's what's really important to remember, is that kind of vibrancy and the arts and culture and restaurants is what will continue to draw people here," Nenshi said.

He said a shift in mindset to what buildings are used for could help ease those high vacancy rates and points to The Edison building in downtown Calgary, which went from zero per cent occupancy to 100 per cent.

"The landlord there said, 'Let's reinvent what a skyscraper looks like,' and he tried to create a vertical Silicon Valley," Nenshi said.

He added that two other major buildings are undergoing the same transformation.

"You're going to see residences, you're going to see different kinds of small business, but it's going to take a long time to get there," Nenshi said.

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener and Natalie Valleau


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