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Alberta Calgary video game studio proposal at risk of falling apart over visa issues

The president of a Denver-based video game developer that announced plans to open a new studio in Calgary says the proposal may be cancelled because he is having trouble getting visas.

Local officials called New World Interactive’s decision in February to open an office in Calgary a good news story and a pivot towards more digital jobs in the face of an economic downturn in the capital of Canada’s energy industry. Keith Warner, the developer’s president, said federal immigration officials at the border denied his application for an intra-company transfer work permit.

“There seems to be a huge disconnect between what Calgary and Alberta say they want and what the federal government’s immigration department is willing to support," Mr. Warner said in an interview. "It seems incomprehensible when I’m looking to move millions of dollars into the economy here.”

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On his most recent trip to Calgary to open the studio’s office, Mr. Warner said an official with the Canadian Border Services Agency refused his request for an intra-company transfer work permit because the video game developer does not have employees at its Calgary location yet. He said he was granted a visa that company lawyers told him was shorter term and is much harder to renew.

“I told the border guard that if I can’t get in as the company’s first employee here, how am I supposed to hire more employees? He told me to hire a secretary. This is a video game company, there are no secretaries. If I can’t bring my people in, how am I supposed to train the people we hire here? That’s my challenge,” Mr. Warner said.

New World Interactive is a relatively small game studio that created a franchise called Insurgency that has sold several million copies. The developer decided to open a Canadian office to house some of its international employees, under the impression it would be easier to bring people to Canada than the United States. After looking at Toronto and Vancouver, Mr. Warner said Calgary was chosen because of the lower cost of living and similar feel to Colorado’s capital city, the company’s home base.

The CBSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been briefed on the company’s predicament, and Alberta’s economic development minister is monitoring the situation, according to a spokesman for the minister. Mr. Warner said he plans to speak with federal officials this week, including Calgary-area MP Kent Hehr.

Gian-Carlo Carra, a city councillor who represents the ward that includes the company’s new office, said the situation pits local officials against the federal government when they should be working together.

“There’s a real degree of frustration," he said. “As a city and province, we are trying to innovate and diversify our economy. We understand that to further diversify our economy, we need to use one of our strengths, which is our great standard of living at low cost by world standards. Our ability to walk that talk and be nimble is being challenged by federal rules. Our mission as local politicians is to raise awareness about that.”

He said he wants Ottawa to fix the situation and change its policies to ensure it does not happen again.

The company plans to move 14 people from the U.K., Mexico, Netherlands and Finland to the Calgary office, and eventually have about 60 people there. The company has received about 800 applications, about 40 of which are being considered, Mr. Warner said. No one could start working without significant training.

“If the single most qualified guy on the team, with the most education, the highest compensation and the guy who has done all this can’t get in, how could I expect a less qualified guy to get in? If I can’t get in, we’re going to need to terminate. We won’t proceed, nor would I want to try,” Mr. Warner said.

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