Recap: #MeetInTheMiddle

Early in the new year I received an email invitation to take part in the inaugural Meet In the Middle event, scheduled to take place near Olds, Alberta on Agriculture Day in Canada (February 16). Along with the promise of a five course meal and bus transportation from Edmonton or Calgary, this was the pitch:

“We’re bringing together 150 of the up-and-comings, the established, the industry leaders, the fifth generations and the never-set-foot-on-a-farm to talk about food over a five course meal. Each course is prepared by a different local chef and features food grown in Alberta, paired with a craft beverage from a local brewery or distillery. What better way to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day than bringing consumers, producers and industry leaders together – all at the same table!”

The event was organized by A Seat at Our Table, an initiative launched by ATB Financial with partners the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, Tourism Calgary, Edmonton Tourism, and the Alberta Motor Association. I decided to accept the invite, and found myself on a bus to the Willow Lane Barn that afternoon with a dozen or so other Edmontonians.

#MeetInTheMiddle

I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one uncertain about how the evening would unfold. The organizers had sent an online survey in advance of the event (the results of which were to be shared with the event partners and provincial crop and livestock organizations) but few details about what to expect. It’s too bad I hadn’t discovered this article before the event! Evidently we were all to be millenials.

We were greeted with Village Brewery’s Blonde ale. Nothing like a little beer to get the conversation going! At some point an announcement was made that a coffee roasting demo was going to take place before dinner. I think Calgary Heritage Roasting Co‘s story is pretty interesting, but I was not expecting that. You get 150 Albertans together, on an Albertan farm, and you show them…coffee? Odd. I skipped the demo and snuck inside to check out the barn.

#MeetInTheMiddle

As you can see, Willow Lane Barn is a beautiful venue. Despite the fact that it is on a real farm, the barn building we were in was expressly built for events (especially weddings). Very Instagram-friendly. The organizers and kitchen staff were very busy preparing hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The namecards at each place setting were a nice touch and I was happy to see we were seated with people from all over the province. Throughout the dinner some people played musical chairs, a somewhat successful attempt to facilitate networking.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The food was delicious, though somewhat mysterious. There were no menu cards at the table, and while the emcee (Global Calgary’s Amber Schinkel) did speak to the chefs throughout the evening, it was more about their stories than the dishes. I realized part way through that each course flashed up on the screen momentarily, but I think this aspect of the dinner could certainly have been improved. I managed to convince one of the volunteers to send me a PDF of the menu.

#MeetInTheMiddle

I was happy to know only a handful of people in attendance, and I really did have some great conversations over dinner and on the bus ride down and back. I met a pulse farmer, an electrician, a brewer, a physician, a maker of skin care products, a fruit rescuer, a fashion designer, and a rancher, to name just a few. It was a really diverse mix of Albertans.

Willow Lane Barn

I couldn’t resist sneaking outside once or twice during the dinner to take in the sunset. It makes sense that you’d want to hold an event like Meet in the Middle on a farm, but it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of it while we were there.

#MeetInTheMiddle

The chefs for the evening included: Samath Rajapaksa from Rajapaksa Catering, Marie Willier from WinSport Canada, Jesse Woodland from Chartier, Rieley Kay from Cilanto and Chive, and Danielle Job from The Pink Chef. Great stuff from all!

#MeetInTheMiddle

Most people seemed to have a good time, but the evening was just too rushed to get much beyond introductions. As soon as the dessert course was served we were being reminded to get on the bus! We left Edmonton at 2:30pm and got back at 9:30pm, but the actual dinner was basically 5-7:30pm. Especially for the folks who travelled from even farther in the province, it’s hard to see how that was a good use of time.

I understand the intent of the event was to get a mix of young Albertans together over dinner and to encourage conversations that might not otherwise take place. The food and drinks were fantastic, the conversations were great, and overall I had a good time. It was certainly a great idea to get everyone together from across the province around a single dinner table, but I think the event could have had a much bigger impact with fewer attendees and less travel. I’d certainly be open to attending future events organized by A Seat at Our Table, but would hope for a more intimate, close-to-home affair.

Thanks for the opportunity to attend!

Why the City of Edmonton should pay to light up our bridges and landmarks

Who knew that Dave Mowat’s presentation at Pecha Kucha Night 14 back in October would become such a big deal? Maybe he did, but I sure didn’t. It was a great presentation, but we’ve had lots of people come forward with ideas on how to beautify the city, and none of those took off. Furthermore, Dave wasn’t the first one to suggest lighting up the High Level Bridge, something he readily admits. So what made his presentation different?

Pecha Kucha Night

Well for one thing, Dave Mowat is no ordinary citizen (despite how down-to-earth and approachable his bio sounds). He’s the President and CEO of ATB Financial, an organization with assets of about $27.4 billion, making it the largest Alberta-based financial institution. If we brought together a group of the city’s “power brokers” , Dave would probably have a seat at the table. When he picks up the phone to call EPCOR and asks for a couple hundred thousand dollars for his project, he gets it. I couldn’t do that, could you?

That’s one reason why I’m not a big fan of the proposed fundraising campaign. With an estimated cost of anywhere from $400,000 to nearly $2 million, Dave is going to need more than just the $225,000 committed by EPCOR. Gordon Kent reports:

He would like a few corporate sponsors to pay the bulk of the expenses, with 100 to 200 businesses making smaller contributions and 10,000 to 30,000 people donating about $10 each to “buy a diode.”

When he spoke to Executive Committee on January 14, Dave said, “I think a project like this lends itself toward grassroots funding.” We can disguise this as a “community project” by launching such a fundraising campaign, but that feels a bit disingenuous to me. Dave recognizes that selling diodes for $10 isn’t going to pay for the project, but will build awareness. Still, I’m concerned it’ll do more harm than good.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it is fantastic that Dave and ATB have taken such an active role in driving this forward. I love that he decided to take action with his idea, rather than just talk about it, and I hope he has inspired other businesses and leaders in Edmonton to do the same.

And I think that lighting up our bridges is a great idea. It aligns nicely with our Winter City Strategy, I think it’ll make Edmontonians feel safer and happier crossing the bridge, and it could become our “signature shot” which would be a great thing for tourism, not to mention civic pride.

light it up

There are always going to be naysayers, but it seems to me that most people like the idea of lighting up the High Level Bridge, especially for its 100th anniversary this June. So why would we rely on the private sector to make it happen? If it’s such a good idea, why do we need to raise funds for it?

I think the City of Edmonton should pay for it. Maybe not all of it, but a majority of it. The High Level Bridge is an important piece of municipal infrastructure, it’s an important part of Edmonton’s history, and this project will benefit all Edmontonians.

There’s precedent for this too, as the report that went to Executive Committee noted:

The Langevin Bridge in Calgary was equipped with decorative LED lighting in 2009 at a cost of $370,000. Funding for this project was provided by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation as part of a revitalization initiative in the East Village. The project included the installation of over 5600 LEDs with roughly the same power consumption of just three Alberta households.

City Manager Simon Farbrother made it clear that Edmonton would not be unique in providing funding to the project. “The reality is that large cities today illuminate themselves at night, and they do it in many ways, and the city has some work to do to catch up in this area.”

We’re spending $2 million this year on Edmonton’s image and brand, and millions more over the next few years. Why not take some of that budget and apply it to a concrete project like this, one that will actually help our brand? Or how about the 1% for Art program? Do you know what 1% of the estimated cost of the Southeast to West LRT expansion is? About $34 million. Considering we spent just 0.08% of the approved 2009-2011 Capital Budget on art, I’d be shocked if we spent anywhere close to that amount along the LRT line. Why not take some of that funding and apply it to the lighting project? It would certainly qualify as a “highly visible” project (and a quick read of policy C458C suggests this is possible).

I recognize that lighting up the High Level Bridge has never been considered in any of the City’s budgets. And I recognize that especially in an election year, this is going to be a tough sell. But I think this is a conversation that needs to take place.

When news first spread that Executive Committee had decided to take a look at contributing to the project, a number of people expressed their displeasure. It was unfortunate that it happened around the same time as YESS announced it could not meet its funding requirements, causing some people to incorrectly link the two. We should help YESS instead of beautifying our city, they said. I think Ryan Jespersen responded to that criticism well:

Along those lines, I wish that Dave had gone to Council and said something like, “this is an important project for Edmonton, and I want to help you make it happen.” Instead, he essentially said “this is a great idea and since we’re both resigned to the fact that spending public money on this can’t ever be a priority, I’m just going to go and fundraise it myself.” Good on him for taking action, but it doesn’t help to shift the conversation in the direction it needs to go. We need to be willing as a city to spend money on projects like this.

So what’s next? Executive Committee directed Administration to come back on March 11 with “a plan, including a budget proposal and a schedule” for the project. It also asked for a report on an integrated program for illuminating other key landmarks, including City Hall and other bridges, and that report should be finished by April 15. In the meantime, I’ve heard that Dave’s fundraising campaign is starting to take shape.

While we’re definitely running out of time to make something happen for June, I’m hopeful that we don’t rush the project. I think the magic happens when we can light up more than just the High Level Bridge. A phased approach is sensible, but it would be nice to have a vision for something larger.

As Councillor Henderson said, “If we’re going to do it, we should do it right.”