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A building in downtown Cagary for lease in January 2016.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Downtown Calgary isn't what it used to be. Buildings now sit plastered with signs pleading for new tenants. Once-full lunch tables now sit empty. Above it all, there's a lingering cloud of resignation that this isn't just a bump in the road.

Amid the doom and gloom, a different breed of worker is carving out a new reality for Calgary, one that relies less on non-renewable energy and more on another, more sustainable resource: themselves. Workers who have lost their jobs are turning to self-employment, fashioning themselves into one-person shops or service providers, with some hoping to expand their businesses and employ others before too long.

"We see a lot more interest in that entrepreneurial journey," says Kari Gordon, executive director of Startup Calgary, a not-for-profit that connects new entrepreneurs with people who can help take their ideas from cocktail napkin to reality. "People who have been working on something part time; perhaps their circumstances are now such that they are looking at that idea more seriously."

According to Statistics Canada, the number of self-employed in Alberta jumped by 16,700 in December from the previous month. But for some, the journey from employee to business owner can be a tricky one.

"Entrepreneurs are vulnerable, especially in the early stages, but even more so when you're dealing with people who are moving into the entrepreneurial space, having just come from a very traumatic time," Ms. Gordon says.

She says it's easy for people to talk about becoming an entrepreneur or wanting to pursue a new idea, but not about the circumstances that got them there.

"There's a lot of people in this city that need to heal."

Ray DePaul, director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Calgary's Mount Royal University, says people are drawn into the startup world during tough economic times.

"When times are booming, people are starting companies to be opportunistic. When times are tough, people start companies to control their own destiny. I actually think it's a pretty resilient ecosystem."

Kendall Titchener recently became part of the startup crowd when she was laid off from her job as a social media and digital expert at Calgary-based oil company, Cenovus Energy Inc.

"To be honest, I didn't think that I was at risk," says the 28-year-old Vancouver native, who was the only person in her position at the company. "When the news was delivered, the only thing I said was, 'Okay,' and then packed up my things and left."

As soon as she walked out the door, she knew what turn her life was about to take. She was already in the early stages of launching her own business and immediately decided to put her energies into that full time.

"It kind of worked out that when layoffs happened, it was my cue to take the side hustle full-time. By the next day, I was already templating my business processes and building out proposals."

Facing full-time self-employment has put Ms. Titchener on a steep learning curve as she navigates how to run a successful business, from time management and organization to the more serious issues of corporate registration and taxes. As a digital marketing agency for startups, the overhead costs for her company, Pixelated Pinto, are relatively low. Other entrepreneurs face heftier startup costs, especially if they need financing to buy specialized equipment or cutting-edge technology.

"I think the challenge is, in times like this, everyone is fearful and nobody wants to invest, because they think oil is going to stay at $30 [U.S.] forever," says Rene Amirault, who started his energy services firm, Secure Energy, a year before the 2008 recession. "Banks are going to be reluctant to start anything new in times like this."

Sometimes equipment is cheaper during downturns, but Mr. Amirault says U.S. buyers are snapping up much of the discounted equipment available through Canadian auction houses because of our weak dollar.

However, he does see one potential advantage to starting a business during tough times. "There's some great people that are unemployed right now," he says. "That's probably your No. 1 benefit, is that great talent available that just wasn't there two to three years ago."

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