Canada's Best Cities: Calgary Vs. Edmonton

On and off the ice, these Alberta cities are competitive.

Intro | The winner | Toronto vs. Mississauga | Calgary vs. Edmonton | Saint John vs. Moncton | Comeback city

It's back, finally. The NHL returns to action this season — and in a new suit to boot. Along with a revamped rule book designed to speed up play, there's a fresh schedule that will accent regional rivalries — like the one between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. The two will battle eight times over the course of the regular season to determine who can claim hockey supremacy for the Highway 2 corridor.

It will be a close fight. The Calgary squad will be led again by the supremely talented Jarome Iginla, who became a national hero for his spirited pursuit of the Stanley Cup two years ago. But Edmonton, a beneficiary under the new salary cap, will field one of the most competitive lineups it has had in years. That suggests this battle, which stretches along one of the fastest-growing economic regions in Canada, is too close too call.

As it is off the ice, as well — at least according to our fourth annual ranking of Canada's best cities for business. Perhaps it's the shared regional identity — it's all Wild Rose Country, after all — but Edmonton and Calgary slid into adjacent spots on our list, starting at No. 18. When the final numbers were crunched, Calgary took the upper spot, relegating Edmonton to No. 19. The competition was close, though. In fact, in many areas Edmonton took the lead, including the all-important category “annual operating costs” of doing business — a result backed up by a No. 1 finish in a 2002 KPMG report that ranked overall business costs of 86 large and medium-size cities. “There's a bang for your buck here,” says Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, referring to the benefits of locating a business in this northerly, modern city stretched along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. “There's a quality of life that doesn't exist anywhere else in Canada.”

He has good reason to say so. Consider Edmonton's health-care system. It took the top spot in Maclean's magazine's 2003 survey of the 57 largest health authorities in Canada. “Despite the Canadian debate about declining quality of health care, we're doing great,” says Allan Scott, president and CEO of the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. “People come from all over to access this incredible service that is right down the street for people in Edmonton.”

That's almost bragging, though it is justified. In a phone conversation with the mayor, he mentions a recent breakfast at which he met Dr. Lori West, a pediatric cardiologist who relocated from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. Other doctors who have done the same have mentioned they like the entrepreneurial attitude in Alberta. “There's a western work ethic that is about getting it done and doing it, rather than not,” says Mandel.

That entrepreneurial spirit is nourished by a first-rate education system that begins with the Edmonton Public School Board, which boasts a “decentralized” approach to management that has been copied around the world (and arguably made it the most successful school system in the country). There is also the innovative Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, which recently worked with Dell Computer Corp. to facilitate the skilled workers the U.S. company would need to locate a facility in the city. And the University of Alberta, already known for its world-class engineering facility that has come up with many of the techniques used in the global energy industry, will soon be home to the National Institute of Nano Technology, funded by the National Research Council. “People are really beginning to notice the university,” says Scott, who mentions some 150,000 people in Edmonton are enrolled in post-secondary education. For a metropolitan area population of just one million, that's impressive.

The city's main industrial strength, however, is the core of small and mid-size energy-industry support companies, which provide services like exploration, drilling and steel fabrication to the oilpatch. “That's the backbone of this city,” says Scott, pointing out the sector has developed over the past 10 years from a locally focused one to a global player that provides services to places like Kazakhstan, the Middle East, South America and the North Sea. “Sure, Calgary has the Imperial Oils,” says Mandel. “But we have all the small service-industry companies that work on the ground. I say you spend money in Calgary but you make money in Edmonton.” No wonder annual economic growth has been a steady and strong 3.5% for the past decade.

How can Calgary compete, you ask? “The facts speak for themselves,” says that city's engaging mayor, Dave Bronconnier, over the phone. “What's so great about Calgary? That's an easy question.”

In addition to being head office of the Canadian energy industry — and the obvious wealth that brings — Calgary has become the main western transportation hub; companies like Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire now use Calgary as their axis. Intermodal containers from around the world are shipped here (to places like Canadian Pacific Railway's expanded storage yard at the south end of the city), unpacked, broken down and distributed regionally. That growth industry, along with the energy sector, has the city doing just fine economically. “If you want a job, you can find it,” says Bronconnier. “I think officially the unemployment rate is 3%, but in practical terms I've heard people say it's effectively zero.”

That reputation as a beacon for opportunity is what has made Calgary this country's No. 1 destination for young Canadians looking to move for economic reasons, according to a recent study completed for the Alberta government. “It's a meritorious society here,” says Bronconnier. “People come for the opportunity, but find they like it and then stay and raise a family.” That also explains why the average age in the city is under 35. It's a unique dynamic in Canada, which is generally growing older with an average age of 37.6 years. Even so, the city boasts one of the highest home ownership rates in Canada, at more than 70%, compared to Montreal with less than 50% and Edmonton with 35.3%.

It's also a green city, which may be a surprise to those who fall prey to stereotypes about the West. There are 3,000 parks in Calgary, the design for the new $300-million sewage treatment plant (now under construction) received the highest rating possible from the Sierra Club, and the city's light rail line is powered by wind energy.

The overall image of this town — the Heart of the New West, according to a slogan used by the Calgary Economic Development Commission — is one of youth, prosperity and community spirit. “People take care of each other here,” says Bronconnier. “That's the culture of the city. People are connected here.” Proof of that is in an anecdote the mayor tells about a recent golf tournament that produced the largest one-day tally for a charity golf game in Canada: $1.1 million. “That's what happens with a healthy economy,” he says. “People give back.”

If there were any cracks in Calgary's case for Alberta's best business city, it would be the lack of infrastructure funding and the labour shortage. The mayor may brag that the unemployment rate is effectively zero, but that is a cause of concern for industry. And it's something of an issue for Edmonton, too. (Its “remote suburb” of booming Fort McMurray knows this well.) But that's life along the Highway 2 corridor these days. Everyone seems to be doing well. In fact, a TD Bank report labelled the entire region an economic tiger and predicted the area as a whole will grow faster than Canada for the next several years.

Another plus: Alberta eliminated its debt and now has to figure out how to spend its massive budget surplus. One solution has been to hand out free money. The government is planning to send a “prosperity bonus” of $400 to every individual in the province, which is always a nice touch, and suggests it's a bit ridiculous to pit Calgary and Edmonton against each other. It's kind of like asking who's hotter: Rachel McAdams in a bikini or Elisha Cuthbert in lingerie?

Still, the city rivalry will continue on the ice. “Who's going to win? That's a no-brainer,” say Bronconnier, referring, of course, to the Flames and their superstar, Iginla. Mandel begs to disagree, suggesting the Oilers are going to put up a fight. He sneaks in a little known fact about the Flames famous forward: “He's an Edmonton boy.” It's that regional thing.