Calgary’s pent-up energy is on full display at the city’s annual Stampede, with actor Kevin Costner leading the parade and a return to the first full rodeo and midway after two years of cancellations or scaled-back events. Conservative leadership races at both the provincial and federal levels are at full tilt, a provincial election is less than a year away, and politicians are filing in for pancake breakfasts and barbecues all over the city.
Downtown Calgary is looking lively, too. The invite-only corporate parties are back – a parallel world to the fairgrounds or community events, and long a reliable gauge of the state of the Alberta economy. The events incorporate booze, schmoozing, raising money for charity, and reminding others you exist. The city’s movers and shakers say their party schedule – which begins days before the official 10-day Stampede starts – has never been busier.
Demand for the province’s oil, natural gas and agricultural commodities is high and the unemployment rate is below 5 per cent. The 60-storey Telus Sky building with its artful nightly LED display opened this week for tenant occupancies, adding to hopes the glut of vacant space downtown is at least starting to be absorbed.
Still, the tone is more circumspect than carefree. Business-minded Calgary has been rocked by the uncertainty of new COVID-19 variants, climate imperatives, and how hard an inflation-driven recession could hit. It might be a resurgence of the city – but it’s not quite the same vibe as previous periods when oil sat at around US$100 per barrel.
“We are cautious about our optimism,” said Gregg Scott, who founded one of the city’s major land services firms, which acquire land for oil and gas companies.
“2014 was a long time ago. I think those days are gone – that boom mentality,” he said, referring to the last time West Texas intermediate prices for oil stood nearly as high as today.
Mr. Scott has famously hosted Scott Land STOMP at the Wildhorse Saloon Stampede tent for more than two decades, but made the call in February not to hold the STOMP this year, given the uncertainty about COVID-19 waves. But many other legacy parties, such as Peters & Co.’s famous Firewater Friday, are back.
And a new generation of functions is coming out, including from the city’s growing tech sector. At the Innovation Corridor Stampede Party at the top of a new tech hub in the East Village, the tone on Thursday evening was more counterculture than cowboy. Roller skaters line danced at the Platform Innovation Centre rooftop, and the performing drag queens and Mayor Jyoti Gondek talked about how Calgary is a city that is about far more than its stereotypes.
“I want to make sure we’re delivering that message not only in Calgary, but throughout the world,” Ms. Gondek said.
A party scene that went full-out in prosperous years such as 2007 or 2014 was dampened down by lean times – when commodity prices were low – in the several years leading up to the pandemic. Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Deborah Yedlin said she’s seen a lot of new faces at parties and events this year, and knows people are coming from out-of-town – hotel rooms are hard to find.
“People are coming here to be part of the energy associated with the Stampede,” she said. “It’s Calgary’s coming-out party.”
At the same time, “It is weird because we have this backdrop of high energy prices. We’ve got strong indications of economic diversification, which is also positive.
“Then we have this issue of rising interest rates. Is there going to be a recession?”
Venture capitalist Irfhan Rawji said he’s been struck by how quickly economic indicators are changing this year. He pointed to the Stampede Chuckwagon Racing tarp auction in April – usually a bellwether for the health of the energy industry and how charged Stampede parties will be in July. At the last canvas auction in 2019, 36 wagons raised nearly $3.3-million. This year, the total was $2.1-million.
“The numbers we saw weren’t record-breaking, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Mr. Rawji, the managing partner of Relay Ventures and the founder and chairman of MobSquad. “It’s not the right signal for this year because the momentum has carried since then.”
Mr. Rawji said in all his nine years in Calgary he’s never seen such busy a Stampede party season as 2022 – which he attributes in part to economic optimism and in part to pent-up demand. Many people want to get out and enjoy time with other people while COVID-19 cases in Alberta are relatively low.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve learned that when there isn’t an outbreak or a wave of COVID, that we should get out and have fun while we can,” he said. “We’ve learned to ride the waves.”
Mr. Rawji also believes that Albertans are heartened by a more nuanced discussion around Canadian energy and pipelines, as of late. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shifted the way Canadians outside of Alberta think about oil and gas, to the “safety and security” of domestic energy production, alongside climate concerns.
“We’ve all known that living in Calgary. But I think others are now figuring that out.”
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