Edmonton Research Park businesses encouraged by city moves

· The Pulse

Leaders of some of the organizations based at Edmonton Research Park are cautiously optimistic about the city's plans for the facility after extensive consultations and a proposal to seek ongoing input.

"I feel positive about the future," said Ahmad Jawad, CEO of Intellimedia and one of the members of the Edmonton Research Park Business Consortium.

In a report going to city council's executive committee on March 22, administration says it will convene a multi-stakeholder advisory group, and will take further action if directed to do so by council.

The report follows three rounds of consultations that followed an outcry from the consortium about the city's decision to sell two buildings at the park. One of the buildings, Research Centre 1, has since been sold to John Yao and his company, Hermay Labs. The Advanced Technology Centre is still for sale.

"I thought this was a good exercise to listen to us," Jawad told Taproot. "And we hope also we have another role in the future to be at the table to be part of formulating where we want to go."

The city "treated all the entrepreneurs here only as tenants," when the decision was made to sell the buildings, recalled Gail Powley, who is president of Technology Alberta, a non-profit headquartered at the research park.

"I know that really frustrated all of them because as entrepreneurs, you're so much more than just renting a building, right? They're part of a community. They're part of building a city and the future of innovation."

After approving the sale of the buildings last March, executive committee directed administration to engage with businesses at the park and others to "provide options and actions to advance economic development opportunities" in alignment with the city's Economic Action Plan. In the resulting report, administration identified four actions it could reasonably implement, starting with convening an advisory group.

"That's exactly what the (business consortium) team has been asking for all this time," said Powley. "There are many people who are willing to contribute to this, and we have such brilliant people across the city and across the province."

Gail Powley speaks before a crowded room inside the Advanced Technology Centre, a building made of glass, grey concrete and red steel.

Gail Powley addresses attendees of a March 14 event at the Advanced Technology Centre, co-hosted by Technology Alberta and the Edmonton Research Park Business Consortium. (LinkedIn)

Administration identified three other actions: to develop and communicate a vision statement for the park, draft a strategy to maximize land use, and improve understanding of the restrictive covenant that governs how the park is used. It says it needs council direction to pursue those actions, as they exceed the city's current responsibilities. If directed to do so, it will need council approval for any additional costs.

Developing a vision to help promote business retention and expansion in the park is a step in the right direction, but perhaps a bit overdue, said John Murphy, CEO of Bio-Stream Diagnostics and a member of the consortium.

"I just happen to think before we made certain decisions, we should have put the vision together," he told Taproot at a March 14 event at the park. "It might make sense to have a vision, and then execute towards that vision, as opposed to execute first."

Jawad also touched on vision, noting that it shouldn't be created by the city in a vacuum. "The vision is not only the vision of the City of Edmonton. We have to agree on a vision for the park," he said. "We want to be part of that process, of formulating that vision with them, because we are the actors (who will be) doing something."

Formalizing a vision makes sense to Powley. "It is good for the city to articulate what that vision is, so that they could support it, and not get us into a scenario where 10 years from now we're shutting down the research park. Without that vision, we're going to be stuck going around and around in circles."

Further actions under consideration

The proposal to draft a strategy to maximize land use is mainly geared toward the development of the Southlands portion, which is owned by the Alberta government and is not governed by the same restrictive covenant that dictates conditions for tenancy in the rest of the park, including how much of a business's work must involve research. It may also be possible to put mixed-use buildings on vacant lots within the park, the report says.

Jawad says land use maximization is a good idea. "There is an opportunity for the land that's available to be used and basically be available for companies to use it or to build facilities there," he said.

As for the restrictive covenant, which dates back to the park's inception in 1983, it may not even reflect present-day concerns, said Jawad. But making it clearer is a good start in determining that. "The understanding piece is important for all of us. It's important that it's summarized properly."

A report commissioned by Edmonton Global in 2022 recommended building upon the Edmonton Research Park as a useful asset for attracting new investment to the region.

Earlier this month Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation (API) announced that it had finalized an agreement to manage the Biotechnology Business Development Centre, a 72,000-square-foot building at the park that offers space to life sciences companies. The building is owned by the Alberta government but had been managed by Explore Edmonton until API assumed the lease in January.