Communication errors blamed for uproar over Churchill Square tree

· The Pulse

The Edmonton Downtown Business Association anticipated in May that some Edmontonians would "probably not be super-happy" with its decision to forego putting up a giant Christmas tree in Churchill Square this year, says executive director Puneeta McBryan.

But that foresight did not help either the EDBA or the city prepare for the ensuing uproar when it became clear on Nov. 15 that there would be no such tree for the first time since 1999, she indicated on Episode 199 of Speaking Municipally.

"The communication around it has really not been ideal. And that's our fault. And yes, it's the city's fault, too. We just really didn't coordinate this very well," she said. "The reality of it is, though, regardless of how we had coordinated the communication and however much clarity we provided right off the bat, I think people were going to be really, really mad no matter what."

In a joint statement released on Nov. 20, city manager Andre Corbould and EDBA board chair Martin Kennedy acknowledged the communications could have been better.

"We are charting a new path," they wrote. "In retrospect, we should have communicated these activities better, and we apologize that some people were led to believe that Churchill Square would not be a festive place."

Corbould and Kennedy added that any communications oversight does not justify the racist attacks that a few people have directed towards EDBA staff and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi in response. "We do not tolerate online hate and bullying, and we will not be swayed by such behaviour," they said.

The EDBA decided in the spring that it would shift its Holiday Light Up festivities on Dec. 3 from Churchill Square to Rice Howard Way, spending the resources it would have put into lighting the tree and programming the square into a festival with a closer connection to downtown businesses.

"For our mandate to support the downtown local economy and draw people in to do things and spend time downtown and yes, spend money downtown, it just doesn't make sense to draw people to Churchill Square," she said, noting that visitors to downtown tend not to linger when the focal point is an event in front of City Hall. "People park underground, they come up for the event, and then they get in their cars, and they leave."

Churchill Square will have a "festive forest" and art installation throughout the holidays, as well as free skate rentals and music at the soon-to-reopen rink on weekends.

A large spruce tree festooned with colourful lights, topped by a star, in downtown Edmonton

A large, decorated tree in Churchill Square, like this one in 2009, has been the centrepiece of downtown's holiday light-up for more than 20 years, but that won't be the case this year. (Mack Male/Flickr)

The city decided to communicate those plans separately from the EDBA's announcement about the Holiday Light Up, McBryan said.

"Obviously, in hindsight, I would go back and say, 'No, no, no, please join us. We need to do this together. This is not going to make any sense to anyone,'" she said. "But at the time, I think, we really underestimated what this was going to turn into."

McBryan said the EDBA's activities on Rice Howard Way, integrated with commercial spaces such as City Centre Mall and Enbridge Centre, are meant to emulate the street-level, human-scale experience seen in events like All is Bright on 124 Street, which took place on Nov. 19. But the way she communicated that goal made things seem more transactional than she intended, she added.

"I probably did a terrible job phrasing that when I talked to the media about it, and instead now, to Edmonton Journal readers, I'm a Scrooge who only cares about people spending money in businesses," she said.

Past trees had been donated by the forestry company Millar Western. McBryan said it's unusual for cities to have a natural tree with its inevitable imperfections as the centrepiece for their holiday decorations. If a tree is to return in the future, she said, it might be time for the city to "buy a proper, artificial but real-looking, beautiful tree."

In the meantime, she's excited about what the EDBA will be bringing to Rice Howard Way this year.

"It's actually going to be bigger than ever because we're putting all of our effort into the programming, because we're not worrying about putting up a big tree," she said.

Hear more about how "Treegate" unfolded, as well as the advent of Arc cards and the Heritage Festival's new temporary home, on the Nov. 18 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast.