GUNTER: Edmonton needs people, not ad dollars, to revitalize Downtown

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The city’s latest idea to counter the collapse of our downtown core is called Meet Me Downtown. The administration describes it as “two programs and a marketing campaign to help position Edmonton’s downtown as a place of opportunity, activity and connection.”

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Well, that’s just what we need, not one but two programs AND a marketing campaign. I’m sure that’ll make everything right.

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It will cost $6.5 million in taxpayer money. That’s not bike-lane funding ($100 million), but it is likely to be every bit as wasteful.

The city explains the money will be used to help businesses and organizations “increase the number of people living downtown, develop local tourism opportunities and infrastructure, promote downtown businesses (and) events, and activate economic opportunity and vibrancy.”

Wow, all of that for just $6.5 million. Amazing value.

Except, of course, it is just another example of city naivety about what ails Downtown.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi claimed, “Downtown Edmonton is a place where diversity and creativity flourish. It’s where everyone can gather, celebrate, share ideas, learn, trade and innovate.”

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But it isn’t those things. And if it were, we wouldn’t have to be throwing millions of public funds at trying to make it so.

When I first heard about Meet Me Downtown, I cynically thought, “Yeah, meet me Downtown. I’ll be standing next to the homeless guy under the sleep bag, across the street from the addicts shooting up in the LRT station.”

The problem is not a lack of publicly funded activities, it’s a lack of residents and office workers.

The city could do more for Downtown vibrancy by making its office workers return to their offices in the core. Most are still working from home.

But it is less hassle for administration and council to throw your money at fancy solutions than to face the wrath of civil servants told to go back to work.

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However, it is the absence of city workers (as well as provincial and federal civil servants, and private-sector professionals) that has reduced retail traffic Downtown and limited customers at restaurants and food courts.

Downtown-as-ghost-town is not due to a lack of grants for advertising what a wonderful destination Downtown is. It is due to the lack of daytime workers.

The problem Downtown used to be a lack of residents. Daytime was OK because of the tens of thousands of office workers. It was after they all went home that the evenings were sparse.

Now there are neither enough workers nor residents to make the streets lively, day or night, which has left them inviting to the homeless, addicts and criminals.

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However, throwing away public money on tiny bandages amounts to looking at the telescope through the wrong end.

The mall Downtown, which is distressingly empty, doesn’t need more festivals or “local tourism infrastructure.” It needs more workers in towers who stream down at lunch for a meal or after work for a quick shop.

More people living Downtown would help, too, but that is a long-term issue. An example of what I mean is the Ice District.

Ice District is one of the few bright spots Downtown. It is bustling during Oilers games and concerts. And it succeeds without fancy grants and city marketing. Yet even in the Ice District, developers have been unable to sell condos. There is little interest in living in the core, so they have had to convert many units to rentals and long-term hotel stays.

The crime and grime clean up contained in the Meet proposals (and in recent provincial plans to crack down on chaos) will help. A little. But those won’t reverse the trends that are the result of absent workers and insufficient residents.

More street performers and Taste of Edmonton are fine, but they won’t replace office employees and condo owners.

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