A recent blog post by Edmonton Journal writer Elise Stolte caught my attention. In it, she highlights a project approved but on hold, to be located on the popular 104th Street, Edmonton’s ‘Warehouse District’. The reason? Melcor – the developer – can’t find tenants.
It seemed curious at first, given the wave of recent announcements of new condos, and renovated and reopened buildings such as the Jaffer and Mercer. Many, including myself, have trumpeted the growing appeal of downtown – in particular 104th – for businesses and residents alike.
In her story, Stolte quotes Dan Eggert of Melcor (disclosure: Dan is a friend), who makes what I believe is a salient point about Edmonton’s economy – that many of Edmonton’s current employers don’t prioritize downtown. One could go further and identify the fact that many of Edmonton’s leading industries just aren’t suited for a truly urban environment too – particularly industries in the petrochemical, and manufacturing sectors, amongst other highlighted by EEDC. It’s one of the major reasons Edmonton and the region’s business activity is spread out – almost node-like – rather than being centralized to the degree that of other cities’ might be.
While diversifying Edmonton’s economy would be a positive move, it is much easier said than done. It is also fraught with risk, should government be tempted or pressured to incent certain developments. Michael Porter, a leading expert on the competitiveness of regions, has written about how this process of “picking winners” rarely works out.
Something to think about, then, is what is – in the short to medium term at least – the most efficient way to encourage greater development downtown, knowing what Edmonton is. Business growth in the area will most likely continue, but may have limited potential right now. A better strategy may be to continue encouraging – and where it makes sense providing incentives for – residential development. Build that, and restaurants, cafes, pubs, and other commercial establishments will follow to serve the growing market. One might even go so far as to think at least a handful of these new downtown residents will be entrepreneurs who may want to set up shop close to home.
It’s a realistic and achievable goal for Edmonton to increase downtown activity, and fast (though I disagree with some of the ways it’s attempting to do so). Activity comes in many forms, and right now it looks to me like building a stronger and larger residential community is the most effective way to go.