Media Monday Edmonton: Meet The Yards

There’s a new, hyperlocal magazine now available in Edmonton focused on our city’s central neighbourhoods. The Yards launched last week at an event downtown, and soon it’ll find its way into more than 24,000 mailboxes in the Oliver and Downtown neighbourhoods. A collaboration between the Oliver and Downtown community leagues, The Yards will attempt to document and impact the major changes taking place in central neighbourhoods by redefining what it means to be a community publication.

The Yards Cover

I attended the launch event last Thursday and have since had the opportunity to speak with Jarrett Campbell, President of the Oliver Community League, and Omar Mouallem, editor of The Yards, about the project.

The Idea

The core idea behind The Yards is that central Edmonton is special. Downtown has been called “Edmonton’s living room” by more than a few community leaders, and together, Downtown and Oliver are home to many more people than the thousands who live there; thousands more work, eat, shop, and seek entertainment in the two neighbourhoods. Additionally, both neighbourhoods are undergoing significant changes. Multiple new investments, both private and public, are having a major impact and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Yards is a way for the community to chronicle those changes, and to shape the conversation around them. “A newsmagazine gives us the opportunity to showcase why living centrally is not only possible but favourable,” is what DECL President Chris Buyze wrote in his first message in the magazine. “We’re excited about telling our neighbourhood’s stories and discussing it with the broader community,” added Jarrett in his.

The idea initially wasn’t quite as grand, however. When Jarrett became president of the community league in 2012, he had a long list of things he wanted to get done, and while improving and modernizing the community newspaper was on the list, it wasn’t near the top. It wasn’t until about November 2013 that discussions began about what could be.

Jarrett simultaneously led his community league’s effort to handover the production of its newsletter to a third party and led the creation of The Yards, a balancing act which was definitely tricky at times. In the end the community league had to choose between two proposals, one of which was The Yards. “We [at The Yards] operated under the assumption this was going to happen,” said Jarrett, who recused himself from the community league’s decision on the matter. He was confident the idea and team would win the board over. The board’s final decision to move ahead came in July, and The Yards was born.

The Model

The Yards is published by the Central Edmonton News Society (CENS) in partnership with the Oliver Community League (OCL) and the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL). As a non-profit organization, CENS is made up of volunteers, but The Yards does have paid staff, and they do pay their writers. Omar is the magazine’s editor, while Vikki Wiercinski is the artistic director. No one is involved to get rich. “Everyone is doing this out of passion,” Omar said. “It isn’t lucrative!”

Jarrett serves as the primary link between the community leagues and CENS. He is President of the OCL Board of Directors and is Chair of the CENS Editorial Committee (DECL President Chris Buyze is Vice Chair of the Editorial Committee). Jarrett is listed as the publisher of The Yards, but hopes to see someone else move into that position in the future.

The Yards Launch
Omar, Jarrett, Vikki, and Chris

The masthead says “the Editorial Committee consults on story ideas and offers strategic support, leaving the decision-making and final content to The Yards staff.” Members include Alex Abboud, Justin Archer, Lisa Baroldi, David Cournoyer, Emerson Csorba, Cory Haller, Myrna Kostash, Milap Petigara, and Anne Stevenson.

In addition to advertising revenue, The Yards is funded by the two community leagues. OCL contributes $15,000 per year, which is what it was already paying for the community newspaper. DECL contributes another $5,000, and this is the first printed communication it has ever had. It’s the community leagues that make advertising appealing too. Their involvement means the publication can be sent to 24,300 mailboxes, which is far more than other organizations are able to achieve with Canada Post. Combined with high quality content, that distribution is appealing. “The value proposition is there,” Jarrett said.

When I asked why it was important for CENS to be a non-profit, Omar and Jarrett both seemed surprised at the question, as if they couldn’t see it working any other way. “Having a non-profit mandate allows us to support issues in a different manner,” Omar told me. “As a non-profit, we can be advocates.”

The Name

As Omar wrote in his first editor’s note, the name “harkens back to the old Canadian National rail yards along 104 Avenue” and serves as a way to look ahead without ignoring the past. On the website, the name is described as “a loving tribute” both to the rail yards and to “the role downtown has always played, as a gathering place for the whole city.” Fitting as it may sound, naming the magazine was no easy process.

“The Yards wasn’t even an option at first,” Jarrett admitted. Names like “53”, “Magpie”, “Centric”, and “The Crux” were considered and voted upon. After one round of voting, no clear winner emerged. That’s when Chris suggested “The Yards”. It wasn’t an immediate hit either. “I really didn’t like it at first,” admitted Jarrett. “But it is growing on me.” Omar loves that the name prompts a conversation with people about the history of the area, but agreed that “it needed to percolate a bit more” before the team felt confident it was the right name for the project.

The Content

Each edition of The Yards will contain messages from OCL and DECL, but the focus is on high quality, professionally written content. And while that content will certainly reflect the issues that are important to residents, it’ll go beyond what might have appeared in the old community newspaper. “The reality is many people come to Oliver and Downtown to work, to eat, for entertainment,” Omar said. He wants the magazine to reflect that, and to reach a broader audience.

Whereas the old community newspaper was often made up of submissions from non-profits, the new magazine is “run like a magazine”, to use Omar’s phrase. Instead of accepting submissions (and basically printing all of them), the magazine may choose to interview people to present more context around issues that are deemed worthy of coverage. If there’s an issue the community would like to see covered, they need to let the editorial staff know.

The goal is to have something that is relevant for much longer than the old community newspaper. “You could pick this up in six months and it’ll still be relevant,” says Jarrett. The first issue includes an article on empty nesters considering a move to downtown, a list of restaurant deals that can be found in central Edmonton, an events calendar, “a biography of downtown”, and opinion pieces on a “wet shelter” and designing safer crosswalks.

Omar also sees education as part of the magazine’s mandate. “I want readers to walk away from The Yards feeling like they have increased literacy on municipal issues,” Omar told me.

The Approach

While you can read The Yards online, it’s currently available only through Issuu, rather than via a developed website with permalinks for each article. But an improved website is in the works, and the team definitely want to have linkable articles. “I’d rather put money into content,” Omar told me. Right now, the focus is on growing the magazine.

“The Yards is modern and very visual,” Omar said. Vikki is largely responsible for that, drawing on her expertise as a graphic designer (she also organizes the popular Royal Bison craft fairs). For the first issue, they worked with local firm Studio Tipi on the illustrations. They’ve worked with Monocle, Alberta Oil Magazine, and many other publications in the past. Their flat, 2D-style illustration on the cover uses a limited color palette and feels both modern and timeless.

Another area of focus for The Yards has been social media. The magazine currently has about 450 likes on Facebook and more than 1000 followers on Twitter. “I think we’re already developing a credible voice on the area for those online communities,” he said. It’s through social media that many people find out about news and events, Omar pointed out, so it’s important for The Yards to have a presence there.

The Yards Launch

The launch event last week wasn’t just a way to build awareness about the new magazine, but is indeed a sign of things to come. “We’re applying some knowledge from modern magazines,” says Omar, pointing out that they have come to view events as a critical part of a successful magazine. “There’s a lot of value in events, because they bring the community together.” The plan is to host an event with a guest speaker in conjunction with the launch of each new issue.

The interview with Mayor Iveson at the launch event was recorded for The Yards podcast, another component that Jarrett and Omar hope to explore. They’re aiming to do one podcast per month for now, but again, the priority is the magazine and ensuring that grows successfully.

In addition to showing up in the mailboxes of residents in the two neighbourhoods, The Yards will also be available at restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses in the area.

The Community

Throughout our conversation, Jarrett and Omar reiterated that The Yards is a work in progress and they’re still figuring out how things are going to work. That applies especially to the relationship between The Yards and the community leagues. Right now the relationship is great, with lots of alignment between the community leagues and the editorial team. But a new community league board could change that dynamic, Jarrett admitted.

There’s also the matter of ensuring that the magazine reflects the entire community and not just the community league boards. “The community league doesn’t always reflect the makeup of the community,” Omar pointed out, noting the editorial committee is made up primarily of community representatives.

Though Oliver and Downtown are the communities behind The Yards, the stated aim is to serve central Edmonton, which includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Queen Mary Park and McCauley. “Downtown is all of the intrinsically connected central neighbourhoods,” Omar wrote in his editor’s note. “We believe it does us good to consider the sum of the parts and not get hung up on invisible lines.” It’ll be interesting to see how effectively the magazine reflects those varied communities.

Despite the risks, those involved see The Yards as a better model that will ultimately benefit the community. “For neighbourhoods that are changing so rapidly, the [old community] newspaper is not the best way to engage citizens on the issues,” Omar said.

The Yards

The primary goal is to produce quality content, which Omar and Jarrett hope will allow the magazine to grow. Having more advertisers will allow the magazine to include more pages, and Jarrett is confident that will happen. “Once people see the product,” he said, “they’ll get it.”

The Yards Launch

Omar feels the passion of those involved will shine through and will ultimately allow the publication to fulfill its mandate. “We’re civic-minded, engaged, and proud of our community, and we want to share that,” he said. “The magazine is a great way for us to shape the conversation.”

You can read the first issue of The Yards online now. Follow them on Twitter and on Facebook for updates.

Recap: DBA Annual Spring Luncheon & DECL AGM

I suppose every day is a ‘downtown day’ for me given that I both live and work here, but today felt especially downtown-focused. Of course the arena news was still fresh this morning and most people I came across throughout the day were talking about it. At lunch I was fortunate enough to be a guest of EEDC at the Downtown Business Association’s annual spring luncheon, where some City Centre Airport news was released. And this evening I joined Sharon at the Downtown Edmonton Community League’s annual general meeting.

DBA Annual Spring Luncheon

The spring luncheon is one of two annual luncheons produced by the DBA. Held at The Westin, there was a packed house for the presentation of the DBA’s 2010 Annual Report. Jim Taylor, Executive Director of the DBA, highlighted some of the activities from the past year, and in what has become an annual tradition, presented the Downtown Beat Officers with a new bicycle.

All five finalists in the City Centre Redevelopment competition were present at the luncheon. Mayor Mandel couldn’t be there in person, so a pre-recorded video was played instead. In the video he referenced the “decision” made yesterday regarding the competition, which got a chuckle from everyone (because, of course, they couldn’t decide). Simon Farbrother took the stage and surprised us with the announcement that the list of five had been trimmed to three:

  • Perkins + Will, Vancouver, B.C.
  • Foster & Partners, London, U.K.
  • KCAP Architects, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The final decision will be made by City Council on June 22.

Guests at the luncheon were also reminded that the Downtown Core Crew starts again next week. You can book the team of summer students for tours and other special events!

You can read about past luncheons here, and watch for the annual report to be posted online here.


Tonight’s DECL AGM was held at the Yellowhead Brewery on 105 Street. It was fairly well attended for a community league AGM! President Chris Buyze presented his annual report highlighting a number of successes:

  • On-going community events such as Al Fresco, CornFest, and the first annual EFCL Day.
  • The completion and passing of the new Capital City Downtown Plan in July 2010 (with the zoning portion passing in December 2010). Chris had personally been involved in consultations for more than 5 years!
  • Participation in various downtown and city-wide issues and initiatives, such as the ONEdmonton Downtown Vibrancy Task Force and the Jasper Avenue Hospitality Committee.
  • Embracing social media to connect with residents!

Chris also highlighted a couple of challenges that DECL met, including conveying concerns with the proposed downtown arena and the development of a new 2-year strategic plan.


There were also two presentations this evening. We received a brief update on the Alley of Light project, and Alex Abboud talked about Homeward Trust and the work that they are doing in our community. Watch for a new Homeward Trust website next month, and check out Find Furnishing Hope, a social enterprise offering quality, low-cost previously used furniture located at 5120 122 Street.

There was also the official business of the AGM this evening, with a few board members moving on and a few new faces joining the board: Scott McKeen, Sharon Yeo, and Sebastian Hanlon. Questions and discussion covered the arena, the intersection at 105 Street & 104 Avenue, and electronic signs and billboards downtown. We also took a quick trip outside to look at Scott Property where hopefully a park will be built before long!

How much do traffic signs cost?

I read with great interest this week about the City of Edmonton’s new residential speed reduction pilot. Speed limits have been on my radar since late last year when Patricia Grell of the Woodcroft community started her Safe Speed Limits blog. She and many others have been pushing for a reduction to 30km/h on residential streets. The pilot goes half way, to 40km/h, and will take place in six Edmonton neighbourhoods: Woodcroft, Beverley Heights, Ottewell, King Edward Park, Westridge/Wolf Willow and Twin Brooks.

Those communities were selected based on “the extent of the speeding problem” as well as traffic volume, the number of playgrounds and schools, etc. The City consulted with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues to identify community leagues that would be willing to participate. EFCL Executive Director Allan Bolstad told me that community leagues will act as the “window into the neighbourhoods”, both to help inform and educate, as well as gather feedback on how well the program is working. He said the community leagues will meet mid-March to start implementation, and will continue to meet regularly to evaluate.

The City of Edmonton already has traffic safety programs of course, and they will be integrated into the pilot. Specifically, Speed Watch (which shows drivers their speed), Neighbourhood Pace Cars (vehicles that act as mobile speed bumps), and Safe Speed Community Vans will all be used. Dan Jones from the City’s Office of Traffic Safety said there will also be digital readout speed trailers (like the ones you see at construction sites) and of course, new traffic signs.

He also confirmed that the projected cost for the pilot is $100,000 per neighbourhood. I’m in favor of reducing speed limits, if only so that police officers can ticket people at 50km/h instead of the current 60km/h, but when I heard that figure I thought it sounded rather expensive. Allan Bolstad said he too was “puzzled” by the amount. If I understand things correctly, only the signs are new – the other programs already exist and presumably already have the appropriate funding. Which begs the question – how much do traffic signs cost?

To find out, I talked to Rick MacAdams from Edmonton-based hi signs. They manufacture a wide range of signs, including the speed limit signs you’d see around town. Their speed limit sign, the RB-1, comes in two versions: one with a high intensity reflective film and one with a “diamond grade” reflective film (both films are 3M products). The first costs $76.70 per sign while the diamond grade one costs $109.38. That’s if you’re buying one or two signs; there are discounts for large volume orders, of course.

Next question – how many signs are required in each neighbourhood? I decided to go to Google Maps, to count the number of straight street segments in a couple of the neighbourhoods. I took that number, and multiplied it by two (so we have signs for each direction). The range I came up with was between 60 and 120 signs per neighbourhood. You can probably do the math, but at 120 signs per neighbourhood, using the highest price per sign, the total comes to $13,125.60 per neighbourhood. So a grand total for the pilot of $78,753.60. Nowhere close to the $100,000 per neighbourhood that has been projected!

Now this back-of-the-napkin analysis leaves a number of things out. For one, the time and cost required to have crews post the signs in each neighbourhood. For another, the cost of the digital speed readout trailers. There will also likely be marketing costs. But it also leaves out the fact that the City of Edmonton has its own sign creation department, so the cost per sign is probably far less than what hi signs would charge. And my analysis probably significantly overestimates the number of signs required for each neighbourhood.

So I’m left happy but confused and maybe even a little alarmed. Happy that the City has heard residents and is testing residential speed limit reductions to see if it improves community safety. Confused because I can’t imagine why this pilot will cost $600,000.

Recap: Next Gen Community Challenge

Last night the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL) and Edmonton Next Gen co-hosted an event called the Community Challenge at Orange Hall in Old Strathcona. The goal of the event was to bring together interested members of the next generation (roughly 18-40 years old) to share ideas on how to improve and better work with community leagues.

Upon arriving, attendees were given a name tag and were asked to place a dot on the map to show where they live. Additionally, everyone had a polaroid taken that was pinned up on the giant map of community leagues in Edmonton. As you can see, most people were from the core:

Next Gen / EFCL Community Challenge

The program kicked off at 7:30pm with some introductions from EFCL and Edmonton Next Gen representatives. The first activity of the evening was for each table to discuss two primary questions:

  • What can community leagues to do better engage the next generation?
  • What kinds of projects would you like to work on with your community league?

Every single group mentioned “Twitter” and “Facebook” among the answers to the first question. Other ways of getting young people engaged included ensuring website information is accurate and up-to-date, aligning community league benefits with the demographic, and making information available at more locations in the community. Projects included community gardens, car sharing programs, community health plans, block parties, and many more.

The second activity was to work as a group to get the ball rolling for one project. It seemed less effective than the first activity, but I liked the intent. Afterward many people stayed to mingle and consume the large amount of leftover food and wine!

Next Gen / EFCL Community ChallengeNext Gen / EFCL Community Challenge

Back in April I wrote about EFCL’s push to adopt social media as part of a larger strategy to attract a younger demographic. I think the Community Challenge event was a smart way to make progress on that. Social media is a powerful thing, but nothing beats face-to-face conversations in a room of passionate, enthusiastic people.

I asked Michael Janz, EFCL’s Marketing Director and co-host for the evening (along with Next Gen’s Angela Hobson), what he thought about the event. He told me he was “thrilled with the turnout” and that he thought “many people were inspired to participate further in their communities.” Michael said the results of the “collective brainstorming” will be typed up and posted to the EFCL site soon.

If you couldn’t make it out last night, don’t worry: you can still get involved. You can head over to the EFCL website to purchase a community league membership, or you can volunteer for your community league. Be sure to check out EFCL on Facebook and Twitter, and Edmonton Next Gen on Facebook and Twitter. You might also want to sign up for the Edmonton Next Gen weekly newsletter. Finally, keep an eye out for a similar event in August.

Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL) and Social Media

Can an antiquated organization use social media to become relevant to younger generations? The Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL) may soon give us an answer. They’ve started to create a presence on Twitter and Facebook, and promise that more is on the way.

First of all, what is a community league? From Wikipedia:

A community league is an organization of community residents who represent their community at large in communication with a municipal government. Community leagues are organized to provide such services as providing recreational opportunities to the community, addressing municipal issues which address the community directly, and keeping community residents up-to-date on happenings within the community.

Edmonton was the first city in Canada to adopt the idea of a community-based organization, according to the EFCL history page. The Crestwood Community League was formed way back in 1917! Today, there are 150 community leagues under the EFCL umbrella.

So far, EFCL have created a Twitter profile and a Facebook page. They are “slowly slipping [their] toe into the waters of social media.” I contacted Michael Janz, EFCL’s Marketing Director, to ask for his thoughts. He quickly corrected my initial assessment of the organization:

“I would challenge the notion that EFCL is ‘antiquated’ – I think ‘established’ is a better word. EFCL has been here for 80 years. People know what it is and what EFCL can accomplish.”

He did concede that the younger generations are much less familiar with the EFCL however, which is what I meant by “antiquated”. The organization’s main membership drive kicks off in September, and the goal this year is to have a more coordinated promotional effort, making use of both traditional and social media. Michael told me that the EFCL is getting on Twitter and Facebook now to be prepared. They are “moving to where the puck is going”, Michael said.

I asked Michael about the challenges EFCL faces with adopting social media, and learned there were other, bigger challenges: “As of March 2008, only 50% of our leagues had websites. We’re now up to 70%.” Clearly having a web presence is an important first step before making the jump to Twitter! EFCL’s mandate is to serve the community leagues, and helping them get websites and email addresses setup is the focus for now. Social media tools will follow.

The first community league to follow that trajectory is Crestwood. They have a regularly updated website, full of information for members. Recently, they joined Twitter and have been posting an interesting mix of tweets – some community-specific, some related to Edmonton as a whole.

I think it’s great that EFCL is mindful of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools and services. They’re fortunate to have someone like Michael on board. I look forward to following their progression in the world of social media, first in September for the big kick off, and beyond.