When the upscale restaurant, Teatro, first opened, Craig Broadbent was scared to walk back to his car at night.
Seven years later the restaurant’s assistant manager says he’s no longer afraid to be in the downtown core.
Teatro was in many ways an informal pioneer of a movement to put the heart back in Calgary. The movement has gathered official momentum recently under the leadership of Colin Jackson, president of the Calgary Performing Arts Centre.
“A city without a heart is a suburb,” he says. “At the end of the day, what’s going to hold you there?”
Medication to restore the heart has, so far, taken the form of research on the area that is bounded on the east and west by 1st Streets S.E. and S.W. and on the north and south by 7th and 9th Avenues.
The concept is so new, it doesn’t even have a name yet, although the Cultural District is being bandied about in the interim. The area includes such august institutions as City Hall, the Glenbow Museum, Olympic Plaza, the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer, the Calgary Urban Project Society, two convention centres, several hotels and restaurants including Teatro and the new Hyatt as well as the Famous Five group of statues, a popular attraction.
Jackson expects that in January a formal application will be made for the interested partners to become an association and for the work to begin on making the area brighter and more welcoming.
If life at the centre of the city isn’t revived, Jackson and other participants including Mike Robinson, president of the Glenbow, believe that the loss will be financial, artistic and spiritual — not necessarily in that order.
“It (the revival) will be good for everybody,” says Robinson, who came to Calgary 20 or more years ago because of the economic opportunity. “If I were 25 today, my options would have included a lot of U.S. cities,” he says, pointing out that the Alberta Advantage isn’t enough to keep people here by itself.
Jackson says U.S. cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are revitalizing their cores and consequently establishing stronger identities. Calgary’s future is not assured unless it acts consciously to do something similar, says Jackson who moved here partly because he believes “of all Canadian cities, Calgary is the one most likely to grab onto its destiny and make something sustainable.”
Both men would like to see the Cultural District become something of a destination as Kensington, Inglewood and 17th Avenue have over the years with funky shops, outdoor patios, galleries and a residential component.
“The most important thing we can do to enliven, enrich and improve the downtown core is help people live there,” says Robinson. “People like to watch each other,” he says, adding he believes this is quite achievable with East Village, Eau Claire and Bow Valley Centre all doing their bit.
Robinson says it’s been calculated that the performing arts contribute $83 million a year to Calgary. He’s convinced, although he’s hard put to measure it, that Glenbow exhibits like the coming Mysteries of Egypt, Dec. 2 to March 11, bring a lot of business to the area in terms of hotels, meals and other tourism spinoffs.
Recently there have been independent signs that the city’s heart is beginning to quicken again. The restorations of the original sandstone storefronts along Stephen Avenue Mall are one symptom of returning health, says Robinson. More restaurants are arriving on the tail of Teatro.
When it first opened, people asked whether we were crazy to do this, says Broadbent. “We brought in a lot of different clientele and upped the ante,” he says.
“From the day it opened, we had a good following from the theatre crowd. We can thank them for our longevity.” As well as luring people into the area with good food, different organizations within the core are beginning to reach out to each other. In the spring when the Hyatt opened, general manager Randall Caraway walked across the street to CUPS, an agency which works with street people, and told director Lorraine Melchior he would like them to benefit from the hotel’s opening gala.
“He said: ‘We take care of people travelling away from home and CUPS is in the same business. We have a lot in common,’ ” Melchior recalls.
The event, with the help of the Arts Centre, raised $145,000 and Caraway says the Hyatt will continue to be involved with the agency, making it the hotel’s official charity. To Melchior, this is a strong statement that you don’t hide your poor from sight. CUPS has also hooked up with the Glenbow, taking advantage of a special membership rate for their clients, and with the cathedral.
Not to be outdone in the giving department, Melchior says that CUPS has also contributed, helping make downtown a safer place and eliminating panhandling. Caraway, originally from Louisiana, came here via San Francisco and knows the value of a vibrant city life.
He sees hope here. The Hyatt wasn’t going to open its patio cafe immediately in May last year, but there was such a demand, he sent staff out to buy the furniture and set it up. Instantly, it became a popular hangout.
And U.S. cities, he says, aren’t always in as good shape, or as clean as their Canadian counterparts. In some other ways, we may even be further ahead of our cousins to the south with the neighbourliness that’s developing in the core.
“It’s such role modelling for North America,” says Melchior. “I’m excited, really excited. There is a sense of people working together and taking care of each other.”
But perhaps the mood of all the parties involved in bringing the core to life is best summed up by the slogan in the lobby of the Hyatt. It reads: “The heart, art and soul of the city.”