Groundwork: We wish downtown Edmonton to return again to life, however the dangers to restoration stay

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Author of the article:

Keith Gerein

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23 August 202112 hours agoRead for 5 minutes 7 comments Kristina Botelho, owner of the kb & co restaurant at 10224 104th Street in Edmonton on August 18, 2021, is hoping for an increase in customers when workers return to downtown. Kristina Botelho, owner of the kb & co restaurant at 10224 104th Street in Edmonton on August 18, 2021, is hoping for an increase in customers when workers return to downtown. Photo by Ed Kaiser /Postal media

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For many of the downtown retail stores, cafes, and lunch spots, September 7th is a date that has been circled in red for months.

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Yes, the day after Labor Day always signals the end of the summer vacation, when the students return to school, the workers are fully back at work and corporate events attract.

But this year, the first Tuesday in September brings hope for an even more profound change in which companies that depend on all of these students, workers, and clientele can see an inner city for the first time in 18 months, the final of the city separate is pandemic.

That is, if factors like a fourth wave, increasing social disorder on the streets, and uneven recovery don’t derail them.

Kristina Botelho is one of those business owners who eagerly look forward to seeing the midday constellations at the door again. She has owned kb & co, a plant-based café on 104 Street, since 2016.

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Unlike numerous other downtown entrepreneurs, Botelho kept their cafe open throughout the pandemic, even in the first few months when the volume of business didn’t seem to justify it.

“I felt that closing the brand could be detrimental in the long term,” said Botelho, who also spent a lot of time in Kelowna during the pandemic to support a kb & co that opened just a day before the COVID outbreak.

“It was the worst and the best time of my life. I’ve learned how to spin and get creative. “

The cafe has stayed afloat with a combination of reduced staff and hours, reliance on family help, marketing for a healthy lifestyle, and a move to more take-out and delivery.

Still, long-term viability ultimately depends on the resumption of daily pedestrian traffic, which has increased in recent months. The only question now is whether this progress can make another important leap this fall.

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So far the signs are promising.

For one thing, there were no widespread business closings. The office vacancy rate in downtown, which was already high before the pandemic, has remained stable at around 20 percent, also due to federal rent and wage subsidy programs.

And when it comes to whether the pandemic may have convinced employers to stick with the cheaper home work model, the answer so far seems to be no. That’s because many of the employers who have stuck to their offices are now moving to recruitment, some full-time, and some trying hybrid-time models.

A recent survey by the Downtown Business Association found that around 75 percent of employers had no plans to move their office space. A handful even said they were expanding their office space.

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“I can breathe a little easier than eight months ago,” said association manager Puneeta McBryan. “Most of this worst-case scenario that we were expecting did not materialize.”

She said employers in the most difficult position are usually smaller companies that can’t afford to support workplaces in both home and office so they have to make a decision.

Even if the recovery prognosis looks good in the short term, not everything is helpful. Of particular concern are the increasing cases of COVID.

Additionally, several Groundwork contributors have noted an increase in social disorder on the downtown streets – a likely product of the pandemic, which was particularly ruthless for people living on the fringes with the occasional low-wage labor.

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A man walks through a homeless camp near the river valley south of downtown Edmonton on October 25, 2020. A man walks through a homeless camp near the river valley south of downtown Edmonton on October 25, 2020. Photo by LARRY WONG Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Although everyone reacts differently, there is no question that the sight of more people sleeping messily, storage, trash, urine, etc.

And while there is little evidence that Jasper Avenue and its surroundings are less safe, just the perception of danger and clutter can be hugely damaging. Companies can rethink their move plans. Conferences can find other places. Dinner and drinks after work may be less frequent.

The subject is so significant that it became an important topic in the general election. All candidates for mayor agree that downtown prosperity is inextricably linked with housing, although they all have different approaches to increasing supply.

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Another problem is the office vacancy rate, which could worsen due to ongoing uncertainty in the oil industry and the possibility of layoffs in the public sector.

New strategies are therefore needed to attract not only new workers, but also tenants and visitors.

Among the ideas offered, Kim Krushell has urged nonprofit or cultural groups to move into empty storefronts. Cheryll Watson offers free parking for one hour, free public transportation and free Wi-Fi. Amarjeet Sohi talked about activating more unused public spaces for business and art. Michael Oshry wants an end to disruptive building.

Others have suggested making older office buildings attractive to young tech companies or converting them into apartments. The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce has suggested that vaccination records can build consumer confidence. And while the return of viewers to the Oilers Games should help economically, the city’s recently released Downtown Vibrancy Strategy aims to increase the volume and variety of events.

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Some of you reading this will wonder why such effort should be expended on Downtown, and may even believe that the local economy can thrive even if the core doesn’t if market forces lead there.

I have my doubts about this thinking. Downtown is the tone setter, a prime hangout where we express our aspirations and try to show the world our best. A visibly battered inner city has both economic and psychological effects and creates an indelible image that poorly reflects the city as a whole.

“Economic confidence and spending are so dependent on how people think of the economy,” said McBryan. “When we all get together and focus on creating the downtown experience we all want to see, everything else will come along.”

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This article is part of Groundwork, an Edmonton Journal project in engagement journalism that aims to ensure that our reporting focuses on topics that are most important to our community, build trust, and open journalistic work to new voices and insights.

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