Edward Keenan: Toronto and Calgary — a tale of two growing-up cities
If you are successful in your career, one milestone that marks your arrival is that you graduate from job hunting to job choosing.
When you’re starting out, hungry and desperate, you arrive at job interviews with a virtual “will work for food” sign around your neck, trying not to outright beg as you tell interviewers just how high you are prepared to jump on their command. If you work hard, and well, and get a bit lucky, then maybe you reach a point one day where when people contact you with job opportunities, you start asking the questions and deciding that maybe you’ll take a pass.
It’s not like there’s some ceremony to mark this privileged transition — it happens gradually, and it’s not always permanent (a few changes in your industry or your life circumstances and you could be back to cold calling with your cap in hand). But it is a good place to arrive at, one in which you’re steering your own ship, making decisions about what to do with your life based on your own goals and needs, rather than someone else’s demands.
It seems to me there are similar marks of success and self-assurance cities can reach, such as the decision of Calgary residents this week in a referendum to not proceed with an Olympic bid, and in Toronto’s approach to Amazon’s search for a new headquarters. Both cities appear to have looked at a cattle-call audition opportunity and decided they had no intention of debasing themselves for a chance at recognition.
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Traditionally, bidding for the Olympics was a Survivor-style process of outwitting, outplaying and outlasting rivals while running a gauntlet of civic degradation, graft and self-punishment. The payoff, for most contestants, was as dubious as for most who appear on reality TV: a chance to be the centre of attention for a bit, at whatever cost, and hope it fills the hole where your self-esteem should be. Which isn’t to say there weren’t actual benefits to winning, just that they were often overstated and came with real costs — and risks, too.
But the profile of the Games has changed somewhat, and so has Calgary. And with that experience already under its belt, it seems residents would prefer to focus on different goals. There’s a lot of pride in the new landmark library that recently opened there. There’s local hunger to deal with, infrastructure needs and the economic challenges that come with a drop in oil prices. Some boosters of the Games bid portrayed the “no” side as down on the city, potential self-fulfilling prophesiers of doom. But following from afar, my sense is that there’s more confidence and self-assurance in the indifference to hosting another Olympics. The city has strengths, and knows what they are. It has needs to address, but they don’t necessarily include needing a big expensive party as some sign of external validation or excuse to do what needs doing.
Toronto did bid — as did what seemed like every other North American city — for Amazon’s “second headquarters.” That process turned out to be not exactly as advertised when the company ultimately divided the new location between New York City and a Washington, DC suburb in Virginia, which are two places experts would have considered the natural front-runners before the elaborate, yearlong search process began. The prize was smaller than advertised, and the fix was in from the start.
But Toronto, through the mayor, is still declaring victory from its participation. John Tory claims the city number-crunchers say our shortlisted bid book generated $143 million worth of marketing value for the city (it was downloaded 17,000 times, apparently). I don’t know about the dollar value but, as I wrote when it was first submitted, it was exactly the kind of bid we could be proud of. It contained no grovelling or begging, and no billions of dollars in inducements for the tech giant. It simply explained why this is an amazing city in which to locate a business. That’s all. Take it or leave it.
Amazon left it. Shrug. As the winning cities go through internal shouting matches over whether it’s fair to provide helipads and billions of dollars of tax breaks for one company while other priorities are neglected, we can get on with building the city we need, for ourselves and for the companies who like it here and are building themselves into the world’s next giant success stories.
It’s a subtle, gradual sign of growing up and growing well, for cities as it is for people in their careers. Toronto and Calgary seem to have reached the point where they are choosing what they want, rather than wanting to be chosen.
It’s a great place for a city to be.