EEDC hosted its annual Impact Luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre on Tuesday. Last year’s event featured Premier Jim Prentice and took place during a more positive time for Alberta’s economy – looking back now it seems like so long ago. A lot has happened over the last year, and to say the landscape in Alberta today is different would be a major understatement.
I think EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson showed great leadership during Council’s budget deliberations a couple months ago, requesting a 2% cut to EEDC’s budget. “Going into 2016, it could be one of the hardest years in Edmonton’s history,” he said at the time. No City-owned organization or branch had ever requested a decrease.
Photo by Brad Ferguson
Board Chair Barry Travers welcomed everyone to the event, and said that EEDC is “committed to doing more with less.” He reiterated that EEDC is focused on achieving $175 million in economic impact. After lunch, emcee Carrie Doll read a story about Edmonton. “Amidst a year of economic headwinds, this resilient city pushed forward once again,” she read. The story was full of feel-good statements like “this is a city of beauty, a city that’s engaged, a city that is alive 52 weeks a year.” I think many in the room felt it was inspirational, but it was perplexing to me. “It’s time to say goodbye to the Edmonton that once was, and hello to the Edmonton that now is.” What does that even mean?
In delivering his keynote address, I thought Brad did a great job of balancing the necessary realism of the current economic situation with the upbeat cheerleading that goes along with being CEO of the City’s economic development organization. He acknowledged that the next 2-3 years are going to be difficult for everyone, then continued:
“But in three years, if we are united and do this properly, this city and province will emerge even stronger than it’s been in the past, an economic powerhouse for our country, an incredible place for the next generation of Albertans to be born into, and a place where everyone will again want to come in search of an abundance of opportunity.”
Brad started globally and worked his way to the local context. “The world around us has lost its compass,” Brad said, explaining that the current period of time is unique because of high debt levels, the fast pace of technological change, and geopolitical tensions. He noted that “using debt to stimulate growth is incredibly addictive for politicians” but that it is citizens who end up paying the price. Global growth has stalled, he said, and that means “demand for commodities grinds to a halt.” He touched on oil, saying that the supply at the moment seems endless. And he talked about “an incredible time of volatility and anxiety, all around the world.”
Next Brad turned his attention to Canada. Though he again scolded politicians for being addicted to debt, he talked about how personal debt has escalated in recent years, despite the fact that middle income wages “have been relatively stagnant since 1995.” This has led to the “Age of Anxiety” as Brad called it, in which “people and families are doing everything possible and are still unable to make ends meet.”
Although he criticized some of the Province’s recent decisions, including “a delayed royalty review and a substantial amount of new provincial debt and new interest payments”, Brad said he wasn’t blaming Rachel Notley or her government. “They inherited 10 years of drunken-sailor euphoria that came after the Klein years,” he said, “which was the last time we made hard decisions about size of government, debt repayment and government program spending.”
More importantly, Brad placed blame on himself and everyone in the room, “We…didn’t do our job over the past 10 years of euphoria and we didn’t hold our government to account.” Regardless of who’s in power, Albertans need to question their political leaders and get more involved. But he didn’t let the current government completely off the hook. “It doesn’t matter what political ideology was campaigned on, our government has a responsibility to steward this province forward for the best interest of Albertans and future Albertans.”
Photo by Carrie Doll
Last year, Brad highlighted ten themes “that would strengthen our economy over the long term.” This year, he highlighted five calls to action:
- Export & Trade
- Energy Innovation
- Tourism, Conferences, and Major Events
- Leadership in Public Service
On entrepreneurship, Brad said “the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in talent.” He said the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Edmonton is “working exceptionally well” but noted that health innovation, agrifood, and a shared maker space are all areas that we could improve upon.
“Export & Trade are essential parts of the wealth creation formula,” Brad said. He encouraged local business leaders to speak up about the TPP, saying “we generate about $50 billion per year from TPP countries.” He also talked about pipelines and logistics and said “everyone has a role in making these opportunities come to life.”
“Our energy future is all about innovation,” Brad said, highlighting five challenges that we should be focusing on: CO2-Free Emissions, Enhanced Oil Recovery, Carbon Capture & Storage, Clean Coal, Safest Pipelines in the World. He said it doesn’t make sense to shut down or phase out one of our competitive strengths in exchange for “making green infrastructure investments in which we have no competitive advantage.”
Though he noted that EEDC has been working with Northlands to “end the 30-year old discussion of how we can best market the city under one banner,” most of what Brad said about major events and tourism was a repeat of last year. “Major events create an energy, rhythm and pulse in a city” he said, repeating last year’s message nearly word-for-word. It seems to be that civic leaders love to talk about Edmonton’s major events strategy, yet I have never seen one articulated.
“In this country we have three levels of government with the risk of introducing a fourth at the regional level,” he said. I assume he’s talking about regional government, and he argued effectively against it. “We can barely afford the multi-tiered system that we have, and we certainly cannot afford it becoming more engorged.” He talked about government becoming more efficient and less bureaucratic.
My favorite part of his remarks came when Brad talked about the complicated system of economic development and innovation organizations, saying “the level of duplication and inefficiencies is astonishing, with no overall leadership, coordination in planning or true accountability for results.” He called for an overhaul of the system, and extended an invitation to work with the other organizations to “reshape the economic development and innovation system to what is needed for our future, and leave behind the ineffective systems and structures of our past.” I hope Brad’s colleagues take him up on the offer.
Brad finished with this: “I believe this province will regain its potential, and out of this extended period of darkness, better days will come.”
Overall I think he delivered a thoughtful speech. With clear calls to action, some thought-provoking statements, and a personal touch, I think Brad had a big impact on everyone who listened. Let’s hope that other civic leaders follow his lead and do their part to help Edmonton emerge stronger from the downturn that is ahead.