Meeting Challenges of Economic Development and Community Safety requires sensible choices around Northlands Coliseum

Edmonton faces a number of challenges related to community safety and economic development. Recent hard economic times have not only negatively impacted our prosperity but also community safety and crime.

Many Edmontonians are all too familiar with our community safety problems: a 30 percent spike in police reported crimes in 2015, and a subsequent three percent increase in 2016; a near-record homicide rate that equates into roughly one Edmontonian being murdered every week; and an opioid and fentanyl addiction crisis where the grizzly provincial death toll hit 250 in the first half of 2017.

Many of these trends are inter-related – recession, unemployment, addiction, and homicides are interwoven issues that require a robust and co-ordinated response – one that can mobilize the human services, community groups and businesses that are best placed to respond to our challenges.

The City of Edmonton has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote development in areas of the city that have been depressed by crime and the associated departure of small businesses and residents. One example is the Avenue Initiative Neighbourhood Revitalization program where the municipality, local communities and business owners worked together to stimulate growth and prosperity in the Alberta Avenue area.

There has been a concerted effort around 107, 111 and 118 avenues to attract new businesses and residents – and these initiatives have produced hard won gains that cannot be endangered with poor policy decisions.

A significant challenge surrounds the question of what to do with Northlands Coliseum.  In the face of mounting debt, and an inability to attract events and performances with the emergence of Rogers Place, it was announced in September that the arena would be transferred from a not-for-profit corporation to the City of Edmonton. After more than 40 years of hosting sporting and entertainment events for Edmontonians the arena is set to close its doors in the New Year.

What is clear is that this closure poses a significant challenge for the city and an area of the city that has been historically impacted by economic and community safety issues. It is a common sense recognition that businesses and residents what to prosper, live and work in areas where they feel safe and secure and it is crucial that the municipality and developers make decisions that will benefit local residents and small businesses. Those decisions must attract customers and residents rather than create a derelict area that negatively impacts the hard earned gains of revitalization efforts.

The urgency of getting the Northlands question right is now even more apparent given a recent report on what a permanent closure of Northlands could mean for Ward 7. Findings from a commissioned assessment by Nichols Applied Management and Economic Consultants indicate that if the Northlands district became derelict the impact on housing prices and local business could be dire. For example, it found that local housing prices could decrease somewhere between $13,000 and $27,000 representing (at the upper end of the range) a roughly ten percent drop in local values.

The result of the drop in house prices would be measured in reduced municipal assessments, property taxes and the desirability of the surrounding neighbourhood for new residents and businesses. It is clear: we cannot afford to get the Northlands question wrong.

Allowing the Northlands site to sit idle and empty will not only create an eyesore in a storied area of the city – the arena where we became the City of Champions – it will also stimulate a host of community safety issues and drive away the small business owners who are the lifeblood of the community.

These are not easy times in Edmonton. But what cannot be denied is the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of Edmontonians and their ability to find solutions to our collective challenges. Northlands is a test for the City of Edmonton and local developers – there is much at stake and we need to get it right.

Kris Andreychuk is social worker in Edmonton and a City Councillor candidate in Ward 7. John McCoy is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

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