Mayor Don Iveson has always spoken like a progressive politician, but for the first time Tuesday, he sounded most like an old-school civic booster, banging the drum for Edmonton and the local economy.
In a short speech to a packed crowd of movers and shakers at the Edmonton Economic Development Corp. (EEDC) luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre, Iveson assured everyone that the new city council was a “constructive team of city builders” who would help deal with a difficult economy.
“Ensuring the Edmonton metro (region) is competitive and that our entrepreneurs are enabled to innovate and to scale and to export like never before, that imperative is my top priority for the next four years,” he said. “I am continually inspired by what I see around me each day and the optimism and momentum that is gradually but consistently building.”
This bullishness on business first came out strongly in the 2017 civic election, but is still new to Iveson. It’s certainly some distance from the Iveson of 2010-12, who pushed hard on mass transit and social housing — as he still does — but was out of step with the business elite on a project like the new downtown arena. In fact, Iveson’s eventual support for the final arena deal was his first major step in terms of making economic growth his top priority. Now he’s just more committed and enthused about it.
Iveson’s message was completely in step with the luncheon’s keynote address from outgoing chief executive officer Brad Ferguson, who is leaving the job after five years.
Ferguson’s speech — essentially his recollection of how EEDC worked with former Journal columnist Todd Babiak to build up the city’s reputation through the “Make Something Edmonton” campaign — was the best I’ve heard in years from an Edmonton booster.
When he started at EEDC, Ferguson realized the city had a problem with its self-image:
“The grand challenge we faced and had to be overcome was this vulnerable identity and self-esteem of Edmontonians: ‘Why would anyone ever want to be from Edmonton? What is there to do there? Why would you ever want to visit the city? Invest there? Own a business there? Go to school there? Live there, Die there?’ We all heard these questions, but as a city, we didn’t really have answers.
“Five years ago, in the dead of winter, Edmontonians would go down to Phoenix, Palm Springs or Mexico, arrive at the hotel, and the concierge would say, ‘Where are you from?’ And, the Edmontonians would say, ‘I’m from Edmonton.’ To which the concierge would say, ‘Oh, too bad.’ And proud Edmontonians would be frustrated because they had no language, stories and tools to talk about their city, to defend it, to speak positively about it. So, they just sink their chins into their chests, avoid eye contact and quietly walk away.”
To combat these issues, Ferguson’s team interviewed hundreds of Edmontonians about life here and were able to draw from that a promotional campaign that tapped into something basic about our appetite for hard work and improvement.
As Ferguson put it: “Your stories, our stories, all centred around one common theme: that if you are willing to take a risk, if you have the courage to take an idea to reality, to build, to make something, Edmonton was your city.”
This message was pushed hard and the payoff came in 2017, when after years of being completely ignored, Edmonton was finally ranked on the list of the 100 best cities in the world, earning 6oth overall.
As to the future, Ferguson threw down the gauntlet, calling for four per cent economic growth for each coming year. The city’s economy grew 3.9 per cent last year, but it’s predicted to slow to 2.5 per cent this year.
With four per cent growth, we’d double our population in 20 years, Ferguson said: “People want to be part of something that is exciting, that’s growing, that’s winning.”
Asked at a followup news conference about Ferguson’s four per cent target, Iveson said it was a great message: “You set an aspirational target. That message, I think, resonates with Edmontonians. As a city that has led population and economic growth on and off over the last decade, I think we want to sustain that momentum.”
Iveson isn’t quite yet at former mayor Bill Smith levels of civic boosterism, but he’s now on the same page, pushing the same story as our business community. That’s a big step for Iveson and promising for the city.