How 'reimagining' downtown Edmonton could help with economic recovery

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce held a meeting on Wednesday to address some big challenges the new council will face when it comes to the city’s path to economic recovery.

“We have to stop looking to the past, we have to look to the future,” Todd Hirsch, the vice president and chief economist of ATB financial, said.

“That can feel a little uncomfortable, maybe a little frightening for some people because we like the idea of going back to where we were. But, that’s not an option.”

According to Hirsch, Alberta needs to start reimagining how the province will look in 10 years. He said growth is expected to come from new industries rather than energy and oil and gas, once the “backbone” of the province.

“It's going to come from technology and digital,” Hirsch explained. “It’s going to come from renewable and clean energy technology, agriculture and agri-foods so we have to look to the future and concentrate on that.”

However, one of the biggest hurdles is going to be getting the “skills in people’s hands and in their brains,” he noted.

“There’s a disconnect between the skills that workers have and the skills that businesses need.”

'WE CERTAINLY WANT DOWNTOWN VIBRANCY'

The other big push will be rebuilding the city’s downtown core with a focus on rebranding its identity.

“I think what Edmonton and Calgary both need is an overall rethink of what their downtown core is all about,” Hirsch said.

Traditionally, both cities have predominantly focused on office space downtown. As a way to better utilize that open real estate, Hirsch recommends thinking about how it could be repurposed for arts and culture, education or even recreation.

“There’s all sorts of really creative ways to start to think about what can we do with our downtown core and not be locked into ‘we just need to get office workers back here,’” he said.

According to Edmonton's Downtown Business Association, 20 per cent of the space in Edmonton’s downtown is vacant. There’s 16 per cent retail vacancy and nine per cent residential vacancy compared to eight per cent citywide.

“We certainly want downtown vibrancy,” Jeffrey Sundquist, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, said.

“But, we also want to put in some fiscal guardrails. We recognize we’re in very challenging times, but having fiscal guardrails, having that fiscal accountability with a balance of service delivery, those are really important to the business community.”

Hirsch noted, one of the first steps in creating a more vibrant and inviting downtown would be by addressing some of the “reputation issues” associated with it such as safety concerns for residents.

“We need to start to correct that,” he told CTV News Edmonton.

'GENDER BALANCE ON COUNCIL'

Now, with the ushering in of new council representatives, both Hirsch and Sunquist feel confident they’ll be able to work with the elected officials to move toward more positive change.

“We’re delighted to see better gender balance on council,” Sundquist said.

“I was very encouraged with the results of both Edmonton and Calgary’s municipal election because I think that speaks volumes,” Hirsch added. “These are now more representative of the people who will actually live in these cities.”

Wednesday's event was part of the kick off to the BDC Small Business Week in Edmonton.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Touria Izri