Jasper Ave Blues: The Employment Challenge

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.

Riding By

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.

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4 Responses

  1. I have been through the decline, demise, and multiple attempted resurrections of Edmonton’s downtown and you are spot on. For years the government has looked at ways to lure businesses downtown (property tax reductions, abatements, grants, generous zoning, and others) and so many times we watched a ‘wave of renewal’ sweep through downtown only to see it crash against empty streets and recede back to the suburbs – we did this to ourselves by buying into the ‘work here – live there’ mentality of the 1950’s.

    It seems to me that people don’t necessarily go where businesses are, but businesses go where people are. This is partly experience, (living in #yegdt, #yowdt, and old strathcona) partly education, (location, location, location,) and partly common sense (although a lack of that got us here to begin with). Improving the options for living will bring more bars, restaurants, and retail, which do bring some jobs – the challenge is not to start with a gentrified vision of the urban environment (which is what we’re building now with $500k condos and not much else) so that these bars, restaurants, and retail have a customer base which is also willing to invest in the community by working and living there, not in the business nodes located elsewhere. Basically I implore the city to focus on infill and mixed development instead of the ‘super developments’ of luxury towers and area plans. Also many people fall between the two extremes of luxury and subsidy and they, at present, have relatively few options in the areas of the city which we are talking about here.

    my $0.02

  2. […] Abboud talks about how many employers in the city don’t have offices downtown due to the nature of their industries, and that means a slower build up of the […]

  3. Another problem with businesses as that they don’t operate after hours. That can lead to crime and making the area less attractive. Residents are around all the time, and if business come to cater to them, people will be out on the streets and crime will likely go elsewhere.

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