Pennies for culture

Transformation Calgary wants to build a better city

George Brookman isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be advocating for a sales tax. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, the typical Calgary businessman who’s, well, all business. Down-to-earth and direct, he realizes that he and his organization, Transformation Calgary, have a lot of selling to do in order to win over this city’s tax-averse citizens.

Transformation Calgary wants to see one per cent added to the GST within Calgary in order to develop and fund new recreational and cultural facilities, or fix up the ones that are crumbling in our midst. The group estimates that in four years, the city could collect $1 billion to help create the kind of city that attracts and retains what Brookman constantly refers to as the “best and brightest.”

In other words, it’s not quite as improbable as it seems that Brookman, along with Brian Felesky, the vice-chair of Credit Suisse Canada, are pushing for a new tax. It’s not fair to say it’s all about business, but that certainly plays a role. Both men understand that you need to have strong quality of life in a city if you want to grow.

“That’s always been the thing with me,” says Brookman. “You really want to build community here, and community involves a lot of things. You’ve got to cater to little kids, you’ve got to cater to old guys, you’ve got to cater to young guys, you’ve got to cater to people who want hard bodies, you’ve got to cater to people who want to sit and listen to the philharmonic. You’ve got to cater to everybody and you’ve got to invest in that on a regular basis.”

There is also a lack of vision around what we can accomplish. Brookman points to past projects — the Jubilee Auditorium, the Centre Street bridge and old city hall — and says we have lost our foresight and innovation. We build with small budgets and no thought to the future. “This is going to be a city of two million people not that long from now,” says Brookman.

The idea for a one per cent bump in the GST came after Brookman attended a dinner at the Epcor Centre three years ago. The management was unveiling its plans for a $600-million retrofit and Brookman realized there were a few high-profile projects on people’s wish lists — a new central library, the National Music Centre, a new building for the Glenbow, to name a few — and that the same bunch of wealthy Calgarians were always asked to contribute. There was no planning. No priority list. There was no direction and very little in the way of citizen input. “Everybody has the same 25 people on their list,” he says of local fundraising activities.

He and Felesky started talking with Casey Vander Ploeg from the Canada West Foundation and started looking at Oklahoma City, which implemented a one per cent sales tax that transformed the ailing city. Transformation Calgary was born.

Ron Norick, the former mayor of Oklahoma City — a self-described conservative Republican — had managed to convince his own tax-averse citizens that they should vote in favour of the tax because it was the only way the city was going to be able to build a place that would appeal to tourists and locals alike. They needed investment and they needed to keep young people from moving away.

The first Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) tax was narrowly approved in a plebiscite with 53.9 per cent approval. It had a lifespan of five years. The city accumulated the funds and laid the groundwork for development before earning enough money to start building. The first round of tax, which built a new ballpark, a new library and revitalized the river, among other projects, was so successful, and popular, that a second tax used to fix the area’s schools garnered about 70 per cent approval. A third tax term was approved by almost 80 per cent of voters.

“When people could see their dollars at work, they did not miss that penny,” says Norick during a recent trip here at the invite of Transformation Calgary.

For Brookman, the idea is a no-brainer. The city doesn’t have enough money and doesn’t have any stable funding from either the province or the federal government. When it does have money, it has to make tough decisions between competing infrastructure needs. Culture falls by the wayside. Or, even worse, according to Brookman, we are forced to borrow to pay the costs. “The city is borrowing $250 million to build these four rec centres,” he says. “Well I really believe we want the rec centres, but I really don’t want the city to borrow that money.”

If Transformation Calgary has its way, the money would be there without the need to borrow, and there would be a certain percentage set aside for operational funds as well.

While Brookman described the task ahead as “pushing water uphill with a rake,” he’s positive that Calgarians will see the wisdom in self-financing a great city, with minimal cost to taxpayers. Now he just has to get the politicians on board.

So is there political will for something like this?

“The answer is no. And yes,” he says. “Essentially what our political masters are saying to us is we can’t start this, but if you can get a parade going, we’ll join you.”

Brookman realizes the challenges — public perception, political will and the hatred people have for the words tax and sales tax — but returns to Norick as a source of inspiration.

“I loved Norick when he says to me, ‘You think you guys are tax averse here? We got people in Oklahoma City that say we don’t need a fire department.’”



Comments: 21

paulhughes wrote:

This idea has potential if closely connected to the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative and not just diverting astronomical sums of money to building exclusive environments for snobby cultural elites.

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 1:27pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

By snobby cultural elites, do you mean the people who buy tickets and help artists make a living? Perhaps you mean the artists themselves, who, across the country, have an average income of about $12,000? Or do you mean the hundreds of thousands of people who attend cultural events in Calgary each year? Would a new central library be snobby? Or rec centres?

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 1:57pm Report Abuse

Just Jonathan wrote:

Easy Drew. I concur with Paul's concern but would refrain from name calling as it is counterproductive in my grumble opinion. Yes, any patron should be respected. Any.
Here's my take on the 20% tax increase proposal. It is disingenuous to paraphrase it otherwise.
I have issues with the "this will make things great!" because we have disposable money to build things.

If Mr Brookman and Ferlesky really want to display fiscal and community leadership, I have a different approach.
How about open houses firstly that breakdown Calgary's current spending, on what and where including city owned ( owed ? )entities like Enmax.
I can personally tally up what I project to be $100 million annually on unjustified capital projects that are added to the cities debt load.
Having a non-partisan open forum with lots of mathematical data to mull over and discuss how the same goal can be achieved without expending said funds.
Welcome creative, constructive and achievable solutions.
Here's the real kicker. Then leverage those ideas with our local, provincial and federal politicians under one tent, all at one time to expedite the process and enhance the lines of communication.

With Mr Brookman's standing and rolodex, I'll bet this process, albeit unorthodox would shake the tree of entrenched silo protecting bureaucrats to be exposed to sunlight. Video and YouTube it all for everyone to see and hear a more vibrant approach to the public sentiment, warts and all.
To me, just to scoop $1,000,000,000 in 4 years without investing say .1% in this type of a process is plumb dumb. It should provide the citizenry to have more input and participation into our affairs from idea to inception to overseeing the contracts and bidding process that seems to be remiss in our current administration at times.
Feedback? Comments?

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 2:46pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

The problem with writing comments is sometimes they seem harsher than intended. Just asking questions of Paul (who I know, and like), but I agree that using names isn't going to get us anywhere.

Your approach has merit, but it seems to me it would be more difficult than the Transformation Calgary proposal. I do think the budget process should be more transparent and allow more overview of spending, and I totally agree that there could be significant cost saving with better processes. I always err to having more and more transparency in government at all levels (obviously).

I'm a little unclear on one point. Are you saying that this tax should go ahead, but a portion of it should be used for the process you outlined?

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 2:51pm Report Abuse

AP wrote:

I am very willing to pay 1 penny in extra tax, but for the right reasons. The arts and culture is one of those right reasons, but there are many others. As mentioned, some of them should go to initiatives for removing poverty, transit system, affordable housing, public school system, libraries and recreational centres (parts of Art and Culture I suppose), humane society (I own pets), parks and various others. The amount of $1 billion is a lot of money, and it can be put to a lot of good use. Some one from city hall please present me with a plan.

on Nov 22nd, 2012 at 4:20pm Report Abuse

Just Jonathan wrote:

Drew. I am not adverse to contemplating the concept, but it strikes me that the easy way ( dare I say ) is to expend a swack of energy and money to get this idea off the ground, and that will cost money that will come from somewhere.
So what I am proposing is a stringent review of city expenditures to see if we can find the savings rather than wrap this up as a panacea to be the most efficient way to address the fiscal challenge. In essence, it's a tax increase.
A short parallel. Coming from the hospitality industry. I have seen many a restaurant expend vast sums to renovate their business due to sagging sales. Yet the fundamental underpinnings is the "Operations" are the core problem. Be it quality, service, cleanliness,honest profitability and controllable expense scrutiny, execution of volume building and controllable expenses etc. Without that, a vast expenditure to revamp a restaurant only masks inefficiencies.
If the city is viewed in the same context, I'm confident
that we can save and direct funding to the same projects. That will require brutally honest and candid questions asked of current business practices.
My point is to bring to the forefront that discussion first before talking up how we can raise $200,000,000 a year. From the taxpayer.
This program will cost money to be implemented,and where will that capital expenditure be funded from? I doubt from no one but the taxpayer.


on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 9:32am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Good points. I think the only expenditure to really get this thing going would be in the referendum needed for approval. There may be administrative costs for an oversight panel, but that would be minimal. But yes, this is a tax hike. That said, we are the lowest taxed city in the country. And taxes are a social responsibility. You can't have services, infrastructure etc. without them.

I think you've got the right idea about looking more closely at spending within the city and how services etc. are delivered, but the city government is doing that - cutting red tape, transforming the way the bureaucracy works..... Again, boils down to whether or not your trust that process. It's not as open as you're proposing.

I think perhaps a combination of the two approaches would be the best way forward.

The point is that we're looking at infrastructure shortfalls of around $2.5 billion in Calgary alone (that figure depends on what's on the list), which means that simple streamlining isn't going to do it alone.

Cheers back. I like it when an idea spurs conversation.

on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 10:04am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Congrats guys. First unintended consequences: The traffic jams at Cross Iron Mills will be worse. The stores in Airdrie & Okotoks & Cochrane & Strathmore will do well.

You have your pet projects, your wants. Why don't you pay for them? No, you want everyone to be forced to pay for them. So you build a clientilist state ... Argentina of the north.

Taxes are not a social responsibility. Taxes are to provide basic services. Social responsibility is personal, it is volunteer. When the government takes over social responsibility, you get fat bureaucrats, inefficient & ineffective services, and disconnected citizens.

So artists have an average income of $12,000. How is that the taxpayers' problem? Why should someone who chooses a very poor paying job expect to be subsidized by taking money by force from people who are not willing to voluntarily buy what these artists produce? Sorry, I forgot, you are entitled to do whatever you want, and someone else must pay your bills.

on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 12:06pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Okay, you manage to raise one point that's worth addressing. The one per cent bump in not enough to drive people to the outlying communities simply because it costs more to get there than it does to pay the one per cent. In fact, those who live in outlying communities will be paying into the city, which they don't do now in the form of taxes, even though they use our infrastructure.

Oklahoma City, the test case, didn't see any exodus to outer-ring shoppping centres etc.

on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 12:20pm Report Abuse

CalgaryGeorge wrote:

It is very gratifying to see this dialogue and discussion and I am so glad to see the debate. I would like to provide one or two responses;
(1) There was no mass exodus of shoppers out of Oklahoma City after the tax was introduced. In fact there was clear evidence that since people felt they were contributing directly to a project(s) they wanted, they actually made a point of spending at home.
(2) There are always those who believe that cities are wasteful, but I do not believe that. Calgary is particularly lucky to have both a Council and a bureaucracy which are very careful with our money. I doubt that there is enough "fat" in the system to make any significant difference to costs and our taxes are already one of the lowest in any major Canadian city.
(3) Property taxes are really a poor way to pay for anything except the 'operating costs" such as police, fire, parks etc. People who are the most careful in maintaining their properties inevitably pay more tax. Sales taxes catch the people who buy Porsches ahead of those that buy Chevy's and 30% or the penny tax will be paid by people who come into our city, use the services but do not pay any tax towards creating and maintaining them.
(4) Most of all, Cities are more than roads, interchanges and LRT cars. Cities have to have a soul, they have to be healthy, vibrant and safe . Great recreational facilities and great arts and culture facilities give cities their soul. Does anyone visit Paris, New York or even Vancouver because of the roads?
Calgary is for everyone who lives here, the rich, the poor, the young, the elderly, those born here and those who are just arriving. It takes dollars to make it great for all citizens. This is simply a vehicle to make big dreams possible.

on Nov 23rd, 2012 at 6:35pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

To paraphrase from Herrmann Goering: Whenever I hear someone say the words "the best and the brightest", I undo the safety catch on my revolver. Are George Brookman and Calgary George the same entity? If not, then both, and not just one, are naive beyond the verge of utter foolishness.
This municipal government, like virtually every government that has ever existed, is a bureaucracy. As Kurt Lewin noted, a bureaucracy exists mainly so that it can continue to exist. It is a self-serving and parasitic entity that will always find new ways to expand itself and to devour evermore of the input ($) that supports it.
Calgary's government demonstrates this in myriad ways. Do we REALLY need a plethora of pennants placed about 50 metres apart on almost every street to remind us that we are traversing Memorial Dr., or 17th Av., or - fill in blank? That merely needlessly duplicates the job already done quite adequately by the lilttle green signs at every corner. - How much does it cost to create these asinine and usually ugly pennants, to install them, remove, them, clean them, etc.? - And that is just a tiny, yet readily visible example of our tax $ at WASTE.
Observe how the song-and-dance routine that seeks to extract still more of your money from your pocket ALWAYS cites the vast improvement in quality of life for the commmon person that will derive from this "tiny", "insignificant" "contribution". - Until reality shows that it doesn't, and the cost is always exponentially more than originally claimed.
This hare-brained scheme is just another reason for those who do not live here now to not visit in the future. Just another reason for those of us who do live here now to drag out the atlas and contemplate all those other places in the world - and my, aren't there a LOT of them - that do no have nefarious designs on every dollar they see or imagine might be in our pockets. Many citizens of this wanna-be "World City" moved here from elsewhere. We know that we can as easily move again. Stop giving us reasons to do so.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 1:12am Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

I believe the last time I saw the quote for the banners (some years ago, I might add) it was upwards of $90,000 every other year for Center Street Bridge and Kensington (separately) to have these banners created. Enmax was likely subcontracted to install them at some ridiculous charge. Banners were single sourced as well, I might add, due to the ineffective oversight of procurement at The City.

Now just look at City Council and Administration falling over themselves to spend the 'windfall' they have found from unexpected revenue. Sure, Calgary is under-taxed by some standards, but we also rely on a lot of user fees (which in my belief is the right way to go). I hope they stick it to the CPS for once and stop listening to Midget Mar's whining about the need for more policing when major crime is disappearing. Look to other cities in how they combat domestic violence instead of implementing wasteful and unproven strategies that will ultimately not work, but will in fact be a justifiable source of expenses to reduce the surplus to nothing.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 3:48am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

Civic governments operate on the consensus system, which means that politicians scratch each other's backs, and overspending or outright corruption is never exposed, as it tends to be in partisan Provincial and Federal politics. Give billions in extra revenue to local governments? F@#$ no! This will only mean more profligacy, more porkbarrel spending, but with the same lack of accountability.

Nenshi just blew what now looks like over half a billion on the airport tunnel, Shrew Ferret had $$$ thrown at everything from the Calatrava bridge to rubber sidewalks, the last City Council blew huge amounts on the LRT expansion and 16th Ave widening (including a pending $25M lawsuit from The Brick), and a future City Council will revive the insane plan to run an LRT line up Centre Street--something that would cost hundreds of millions in property acquisition costs alone.

The Federal Government needs to get out of funding local governments, which fall under Provincial jurisdiction. And the Provinces need to keep a tight leash on local governments. The firing of Tracy McTaggart...

...and the utter refusal of Nenshi to allow a Provincial audit of the Louise Station deal should have been a warning that Civic politics in Calgary stink as badly as they do in Montreal, or Laval. The Provincial government also needs to tame the growth of city bureaucracies (e.g., Calgary's pet licensing program), superfluous bylaws, and the runaway development that's fueling demand for more infrastructure in the first place.

And funding for things like arts and sports venues is a non-starter. These are not priorities, and should be privately funded. Mr Brookman and other like-mindeds can dig into their own pockets to fund this stuff.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 4:33am Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

You know, it's almost impossible to have an interesting debate/conversation when Herman Goering comes up, followed by name calling like Shrew Ferret. It destroys credibility and prevents people from taking your points seriously (and there are some valid points here). I know I say this from time to time on the site, but let's keep it civil and not get carried away. That way others may want to engage in conversation with you. You know, sharing of ideas and all that.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 11:19am Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:

@Drew Anderson,

Shrew Ferret, Pave Bronconcrete--some monikers just fit.

While Druh Farrell has had a couple of good ideas (e.g., opposing the insane Crowchild Trail plan), this woman is the most crooked person currently sitting on council. A few examples that Ms Farrell had an active role in:

* The LaCaille Group and Louise Station.

* The LaCaille Group, Graham Infrastructure, and the Calatrava Bridge.

* The 16th Ave widening debacle.

* The Ant Hill Building issue.

* Those rubber sidewalks along Charleswood (replacing perfectly good concrete ones at substantial cost).

* Bike lanes painted in the dead of winter, on major roadways.

* Closing Memorial Drive.

* Political influence on the approvals of infill projects built by her donors.

* The University Station (RioCan/Knightsbridge Homes/Metropia) mess, with a huge TOD rammed down the throats of her constituents. The University City development (investors, funding) is rife with a number of other serious issues, which will be brought to light by parties from another level of government soon.

Again, Montreal and Laval ain't got nothin' on Calgary, and one can only hope for a CRA audit and more. And, returning to the crux of this article, local governments should not get a dime of additional funding. Current funding levels are more than adequate, but corruption and largesse have infinite appetites.

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 2:15pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Drew also over-reacts and misses the point of the reference to die Reichsfuhrer. It means, when one encounters a certain phrase (for Goering, it was "Kultur", for me "the best and the brightest"), one knows he is in the presence of BULLSHIT that is so annoying and trite that one would like to give its presenter the nine grams in the base of the skull that he richly deserves and move on to the logical and realistic aspects of life.
To be perfectly clear: Brookman's idea is utter nonsense straight from Cloud Koo-Koo Land. Can anybody in this forum cite even a single person who has ever visited Oklahoma City - especially to admire its cultural treasures? Are you kidding? When swinging Caroline is just a few Km. up the road?

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 4:50pm Report Abuse

officematt2002 wrote:

Doesn't Shrew also manage to 'rent' a condo in a building built by one of her developer buddies? Does she not have the desire to actual own a place in her own Ward? Is she some squatter just here to tarnish the finances of the City for years to come without giving a shit about the taxpayer?

on Nov 27th, 2012 at 6:30pm Report Abuse

Agent666 wrote:


This is why we REALLY need campaign finance reform--a total ban on corporate, union, or organization (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Homebuilders' Association) donations, and a very low individual donation limit. Since Federal donations are capped at $1,250, I don't see why a tenth of that wouldn't be sufficient. We need a runoff vote, to eliminate split votes. And double ballot counting, to catch 'mistakes' like there was in at least one ward, in the last election: stacks of 25 ballots 'accidentally' counted as 50.

The Canada Revenue Agency needs to get court orders for the City's books. They did this for over 100 municipalities in Quebec, and it's warranted in Alberta, too. There have been some funny things in Calgary, Rockyview County, and some other municipalities that should have been major red flags. Calgary has been a dirty city since at least the Ralph Klein era, and things have not gotten better.

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 1:35am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For Agent 666: Motion seconded!

on Nov 30th, 2012 at 8:13am Report Abuse

Just Jonathan wrote:

Now that's what I consider a proper discourse. Not all comments are quite right, but all in all, pretty good.
As per Agent 666, here I thought I was the only one who who gave a crap about the convoluted Louise Station deal.

I also concur that Brookman and company are the most visionary fella's around. Lot's of profile though.

on Dec 1st, 2012 at 10:55am Report Abuse

leanintoit wrote:

nice to think that an idea like Brookmans and co. could actually be floated agreed to and work in Calgary but I would suggest that with the Glenbow and AGC fiascos both happening under the Calgary Culture 2012 banner it would be more prudent to make sure that arts and culture organizations have a properly qualified Board of Directors as the leadership reports to the Board not the other way around and then we ask what is happening with the money already in the pot ...where is it going and to who. Vision is important but one blunder after another is just plain embarassing and not smart so is adding more money for arts and culture just to blow it.

on Dec 3rd, 2012 at 10:23am Report Abuse

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