John Rose moved to Edmonton last May to become the City of Edmonton’s Chief Economist. It’s an important role at the City, though it is one that most people know very little about. I sat down with John last week to chat about his new job and to get his thoughts on Edmonton.
John loved geography when he was younger, and wanted to work in a field where he could apply that passion. He settled on urban planning, but while studying at the University of Toronto, switched to economics. He has been in the field ever since, working for the federal Foreign Affairs department in the 1980s in West Germany and South Korea before returning to Toronto to tackle the consulting business. He most recently worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The move to Edmonton was a unique opportunity for John to combine his interests in urban planning and economics. “I’m interested in what drives the economics of municipalities forward.” He brings an outsider’s perspective to the City of Edmonton, something that initially made him wary. “I thought people would just say ‘here’s another Easterner showing up, telling us what to do’, but people have been very welcoming.”
As the City’s Chief Economist, John is responsible for publishing the reports that the City relies on for budget planning and strategy, among other things. Twice a year he publishes a long-range forecast, using a statistical model of Edmonton’s economy that looks both 3 and 10 years into the future. On a quarterly basis, he publishes City Trends, which provides current information on social, economic, demographic, land development, and transportation trends (here’s the PDF for Q3 2010, the latest to be posted to the website).
The City of Edmonton uses economic models developed by The Centre for Spatial Economics (C4SE). Somewhat surprisingly, Calgary and the Province of Alberta also use models from C4SE. The models can be complex, but John said recent technology improvements are making a difference. “In the 80s, you needed a mainframe to drive even the most simplistic models,” he told me. “Now the tech required is ubiquitous.” While acknowledging that economics is abstract – “you can’t touch the economy” – John said technology is increasingly getting rid of the mystique and mystery.
If you look at the Economic & Demographic section of the City’s website, you’ll find that most of the information is out-of-date. John explained that the transition from his predecessor is the cause, but he said to expect changes. “There’s a lot of value in the information and we want to get it out there, we want it in the public realm.” John noted there currently isn’t a way to notify people when new information is posted, but said an internal effort currently underway should change that. Getting everyone on the same page is a major push for his office this year.
John would also like to see a shift toward more regional forecasting. He works with a variety of organizations outside the City of course, including EEDC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Finance department at the Province, but sees room for improvement. “We already do regional forecasting to a degree, because we do the CMA and extract a forecast for the City from that.” John noted that most statistics are available at the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) level, and so it makes sense to look regionally when setting up models. “With a larger economic entity, the trends smooth out a little.” John suggested the Capital Region Board might be the logical place to host a regional forecasting effort.
Speaking of the capital region, John said that while 2011 will be a strong year for Edmonton, “most of the growth will take place outside the City of Edmonton proper.” This is partly because the City itself didn’t suffer as large a setback as a result of the recent downturn. “The manufacturing sector took a big hit in Alberta and Edmonton,” a sector largely concentrated outside the city, such as in the northeast. In a recent interview with the Edmonton Journal, John said we should see an annual growth rate of nearly 4% here in Edmonton.
He was also bullish on the province. “Alberta will be ahead of the national economy as a whole in 2011,” John told me. Again, this is due in part to the way the economic slump affected the province. “The impression is that Canada came through it very well, but the truth is the province didn’t.” In 2011, John expects Alberta to post the first or second best provincial growth rate in the country, depending on how Saskatchewan does.
Turning to individual sectors in the City, John told me that construction will show growth, but mostly due to commercial projects. The residential construction sector will be somewhat sluggish because “there’s just not a big demand for a lot of new housing.” FIRE will do well, but John cautions that increased regulation will have an impact. The retail sector will also grow more slowly this year, because people are reluctant to take on more debt and as as a result savings rates are going up. “The consumer-oriented durable component in particular” will grow slowly according to John, because as people buy fewer houses, the need for new vehicles, furniture, appliances, etc. also diminishes.
John talks about trends and forecasts all the time – he has made it part of his job to do interviews, meet people, and spread the word on Edmonton’s economy. He can rattle the numbers off with ease, and is obviously very knowledgeable. As our discussion shifted toward the city more generally, John became more thoughtful. We talked about the common refrain that Edmonton’s head office situation is dismal at best, and John pointed out that the larger question is how to “attract and retain investment, and talent.” He said we should do “exit interviews” with organizations that leave the City, to try to highlight any cross-cutting themes.
I asked John about the push to revitalize downtown, and in particular, about the City Centre Airport and the proposed arena. He called the ECCA redevelopment a “good move” by the City, because making such a large piece of land adjacent to the core largely residential will have a positive impact on our downtown. “The key to developing a vibrant downtown, is to have people living, working, being entertained, doing all those things, in the core.” He doesn’t think a blanket policy on financial incentives (such as the Railtown subsidy) to attract more residents to downtown makes sense, however. “If there’s an area that we want developed in a particular way, then the City could be come active, but otherwise there’s enough opportunity already.” John didn’t take a side on the arena, but said “it depends on how the development takes place” and said his main concern is that “we don’t want to be in a situation of two competing facilities.” He cited the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and the positive changes and increased activity it brought to the area south of Front Street. “It is very nicely integrated into the city.”
I asked John what he missed about Toronto, and he quickly replied “jazz clubs.” He said while the Yardbird Suite is great, there was more variety with regard to venues back in Toronto. John joked that by moving away from Toronto when he did, he avoided the current political drama that is taking place with new mayor Rob Ford. That led us into a discussion about transit, and LRT in particular, something John considers “the urban equivalent of an enabling technology – if you have it, you can do a lot of great things.” Projects such as the LRT expansion “are a big benefit to the local economy” in the short-term and are “vital for the City’s future,” John told me. The real value to the economy is what the LRT enables, rather than the jobs it directly creates. “If you don’t have mass transit downtown, you’re going to have a hard time developing nightlife, for instance.”
I really enjoyed talking with John (and not just because when I asked him if he was now an Oilers fan he replied, “that implies I was a Maple Leafs fan before!”). Stay tuned to his section of the City’s website for future economic updates.