Mary Moran is on a mission. The president and chief executive officer of Calgary Economic Development is touring major U.S. cities in a bid to woo technology companies to recession-weary Calgary. This week, she visited Silicon Valley; her next stops include Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York and Boston. She took time out of her busy tour to speak with Jeff Lewis.
How'd you land on this idea?
We've got an office-space vacancy problem here and we've got a lot of great talent. So we have had an initiative of going into jurisdictions to try to get them to set up satellite offices here.
We've been working on it for the last six months of last year. But the reality is the conditions are obviously deteriorating. Office space continues to grow. Unemployment continues to grow, so there's greater emphasis on this. We're actually very much still in reconnaissance mode right now.
Have U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies changed your approach?
If you think about the things that he's talking about, kind of the top three things that he's talking about, they should be a worry for Albertans, period. The first one being a cross-border tax. Will it impact the energy industry? Agriculture could be greatly impacted. Corporate taxes are also a big threat to us. We know that a lot of companies in Canada in the energy industry have shifted a lot of capital investment into the United States. So if he drops corporate tax [rates] that's going to be a high risk to us.
On the immigration policy, Canada starts to look awfully appealing. And certainly, Calgary is much more multicultural than the rest of the world knows, if they do know about Calgary.
Is that part of your pitch to prospective investors?
It will be a part of the message, but that's not driving the need. We still have empty office space and unemployed people, so the need is we have to do something about that.
We've been working on it pretty aggressively for the past six months, but we're putting more resources into it right now because our situation here is deteriorating. It's not getting better.
Calgary's not known as a tech hub. How do you compete with Vancouver, or Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, that have a more natural appeal?
Our technology story is a little untold. There's probably a stronger tech sector that has been able to survive here, not necessarily thrive here, and we've got a lot of work to do with respect to that. But what we're doing is not actually saying we want to go after what I would call high-tech companies. The companies we're looking at are those that are playing in clean-energy tech, companies that are playing in agri-tech and also those that play in artificial intelligence and big data, because we're actually really good at that and we've got that talent pool here.
We're trying to zig while everybody's zagging, where we know the Torontos and Waterloos are looking for the next big app developer or a Facebook or Google. We're going to a deeper level than that, because we do have deep bench strength. It comes out of the oil and gas [sector], that's good at the Internet of things and big data, and even cybersecurity.
Does this mean the oil and gas industry may not recover to historic levels?
It is 100 per cent an acknowledgment that this is a structural change in the energy industry. We have a lot of great talent that needs to pivot. Even if we get back to $80 oil and we're fortunate to get pipelines, we know that that is not where employment growth is going to come from, period, end of story.
The good news is we've got this science-based population that needs a bit of nurturing in order for us to be more competitive across all our sectors – energy, logistics, financial services, creative industries and agriculture. If high tech emerges out of it, then that's great. That means we've got a strong ecosystem here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.