'A critical role': Most candidates support spending as much — or more — on Downtown Vibrancy Strategy

The Taproot Survey of council candidates has revealed many champions for the Downtown Vibrancy Strategy, with the majority of respondents supporting the current level or more of city investment. But a few are opposed, including two incumbents.

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association (DBA), said the results aren't surprising — but they are reassuring.

"This tells me that our returning and new councillors are leaders who understand the critical role that downtown plays in Edmonton's future," McBryan told Taproot. "I'd imagine they all have different reasons for why they believe this is important work and worth investment.

"Whether a councillor prioritizes Edmonton's economy and job creation, the City Plan and densification, urban wellness and community safety, or arts and culture, downtown is at the centre — literally and figuratively — of all of those issues," she said.

The strategy is "a call for action" to support the recovery of Edmonton's downtown from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2015, more than $4.4 billion has been invested in downtown development, but the pandemic has created "unique challenges" for the area. While the strategy could require between $7 million and $28 million to fully implement, council approved an initial investment of $5 million in June.

McBryan said that council should "seriously consider adding additional city funding," such as incentives for new housing development and office building conversions as well as incentivized tenancy or activations for ground-floor vacant spaces.

"These kinds of programs tend to be revenue-neutral or even net positive for the city, because of the tax uplift they're designed to generate," she explained. But McBryan also said that a significant amount of the funding should come from provincial and federal governments, pointing to success in attracting federal grants for initiatives like Downtown Spark/Root 107.

Puneeta McBryan, executive direction of the Downtown Business Association

Puneeta McBryan was named executive director of the Downtown Business Association at the end of 2020. (Downtown Business Association)

"The (provincial government) is the much trickier nut to crack," she said. "They don't yet seem to be interested in prioritizing downtown vibrancy and revitalization in Edmonton — although they are looking closely at this in Calgary — but we're going to continue advocating to the province."

Twenty-four of the 67 candidates who have answered the survey so far said they support the Downtown Vibrancy Strategy and that the city should fully fund it. Supporters include mayoral candidates Amarjeet Sohi, Cheryll Watson and Michael Oshry, as well as council incumbents Tim Cartmell, Tony Caterina, and Aaron Paquette.

Meanwhile, 28 candidates support the plan at the current level of funding, including incumbents Sarah Hamilton, Bev Esslinger, and Andrew Knack, plus mayoral candidate Kim Krushell. Incumbent councillor Jon Dziadyk and three others said the city has already spent enough on downtown, and nine people said they support investment in downtown but not this plan. Rick Comrie, Diana Steele, and Moe Banga were among those who want to see a different approach.

Two candidates did not have a position on the issue, and mayoral candidates Vanessa Denman, Augustine Marah, and Mike Nickel have not yet answered Taproot's survey. Abdul Malik Chukwudi has since said he endorses Nickel.

Many candidates have included downtown Edmonton in their platforms and policies, putting even more emphasis on the area as a core election issue. McBryan said the next council should focus on several key issues and initiatives for the future of downtown and its businesses.

According to McBryan, those are:

  • Prioritizing community safety and considering the roles and expectations of Edmonton police, peace officers, and social service agencies;
  • Ensuring better planning and communication to reduce the negative impacts of infrastructure construction projects within downtown, and looking at ways to compensate or accommodate businesses experiencing significant negative impacts from construction;
  • Increasing the resources allocated to the maintenance and repair of downtown city assets (sidewalks, alleys, parks, transit stations);
  • Incentivizing positive behaviours and practices from developers, property owners, and businesses, plus creating adequate disincentives or penalties for counterproductive actions;
  • Continuing to prioritize active transportation and investments in transit;
  • Taking the role of "Centre City" within the City Plan seriously and pursuing policies to achieve the vision;
  • Allocating additional funding and exploring new and creative grant and incentive programs tied to the Downtown Vibrancy Strategy.