Corporate Calgary ready to trade pipeline, tax protests for Stampede partying

CALGARY — After months of taking to the streets to demand pipeline project approvals and rallying last month to call for lower property tax increases, Calgary’s business community is looking forward to heading outside for pancakes and parties as the Calgary Stampede kicks off this week.

Windows and patios in the downtown have been sprouting cowboy-themed murals and rough-wood fake fencing for weeks but while many are predicting a party at least on par with last year’s, no one is expecting a return to over-the-top extravagance of a decade ago.

“There’s not really a lot of the big, boozy oil-and-gas fests going on anymore … drink-a-thons, reckless spending and invite thousands of people, open bar, full bars,” said caterer Paddy Sorrenti, who has been helping Calgary have a good time for about 25 years.

“There’s things still happening. Our business is just different now.”

All of Sorrenti’s Stampede parties this year take place during the day, with a breakfast or lunch and no booze, he said. Ten years ago, half would have been scheduled at night.

It’s been a rough decade for Calgary since the global economic downturn in 2008. Oil prices rebounded and bolstered Calgary’s economy through the early part of this decade but crashed again at the end of 2014.

However, growth in oil production, mainly from the oilsands, didn’t stop, and last year began to exceed the capacity of existing pipelines to take it to customers in the United States, leading to steep local price discounts and legislated production constraints in Alberta which remain in effect.

Thousands of layoffs in the energy industry have hiked the vacancy rate in Calgary’s downtown towers to more than 25 per cent, greatly reducing their assessed value and shifting the business property tax burden to the surviving city businesses.

Following a protest rally by hundreds of business owners outside city hall last month, council implemented a short-term relief plan and vowed to cut its spending.

Despite the challenges, Calgarians will “pull up their socks” and enjoy themselves during Stampede, predicted Sandip Lalli, CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

Recent positive developments for the city include federal approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the new United Conservative government’s promise to roll back the Alberta carbon tax and some minimum wage changes made by the NDP, she said.

“There are always hurdles but there is a definite sense of optimism,” she said, adding she still expects “property tax will come up at every barbecue.”

Stampede decorating companies are reporting mixed results this year.

Fewer office towers have asked Authentic Western Productions to decorate their windows and common areas this year compared with last year, said owner Mike Werbisky.

But Sheena Tetley of Blazing Saddle Western Display says orders for her company’s fire-retardant hay bales are consistent with previous years at more than 3,000.

Two of the remaining big invitation-only corporate bashes take place Thursday, the day before the Stampede parade officially starts the 10-day event. Both raise money for charities.

Gregg Scott, president of Scott Land & Lease, says he expects 800 people to attend the 23rd edition of his Scott Land Stomp at the Wildhorse Saloon Stampede tent downtown, about the same as last year.

But the “Best Damn Stampede Party” has been downsized to about 3,500 from around 6,000 people last year, said organizer Rob Laidlaw, a vice-president with Acumen Capital Finance Partners, after it was moved to a smaller venue due to uncertainty about the availability of its usual Cowboys tent.

Meanwhile, IT service provider TWT Group is hosting its fifth annual party this year in a large tent at the Deane House restaurant for about 200 clients and friends, some of whom work in the oilpatch, said Murlyne Fong, director of client experience. The event to thank its supporters aims to raise $30,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary.

Stampede attendance last year was 1.27 million, up from 2017 but lagging behind the record 1.4 million in 2014.

The good news for visitors coming to Calgary for the Stampede is that although weekend hotel rooms are selling out fast, there are plenty of mid-week vacancies, said Dave Kaiser, CEO of the Alberta Hotel & Lodging Association.

The number of rented rooms rose by about 2.8 per cent in the first five months of this year compared to the same period of last year but the number of rooms — mainly due to new hotel openings — jumped by 6.6 per cent, he said.

The result is an average occupancy rate that has dropped by 1.3 percentage points to 52.8 per cent and an average daily rate that’s down 0.7 percentage points to just over $136 per night.

“Historically, (Stampede) has been an important week. It’s hard to find city-wide events that fill most of the rooms in the city over the course of a week,” he said.

“It is still a huge event but, on a relative basis, for a single hotel, not as good as it used to be.”

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