E-Town celebrates entrepreneurship in Edmonton

e-townNext week a new festival takes place in our city called E-Town. Billed as  “an intensive two-day festival of ideas for entrepreneurial-minded people who get excited by innovation, change and disrupting common thought,” the event is being organized by EEDC and takes place at the Shaw Conference Centre next Thursday and Friday.

“E-Town is built on an existing regional strength—a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit. The festival features not only a reflection on past learnings and stories, but a launching ground for ideas, change, self-growth and relationships. Attendees won’t be disappointed to meet and join the people in their city who didn’t just talk about their business ideas or leave them on a cocktail napkin. They put their ideas into action to get them where they are today.”

Tickets for the event are $299, but the impressive lineup of speakers should make that easy to stomach. You’ll get to hear from musician David Usher, astronaut Chris Hadfield, former WestJet president and CEO Sean Durfy, former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki, bitly’s chief scientist Hilary Mason, and founder of The Webby Awards Tiffany Shlain. On top of that is a series of panels and breakout sessions, and a concert featuring the Barenaked Ladies.

I asked EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson for some additional details on how the event came about and what attendees should expect. “We wanted to go bold,” he told me. “It speaks to brand development and confidence in Edmonton.” Brad explained that the idea was to bring the entrepreneurial community together, to celebrate entrepreneurship in Edmonton. “EEDC has the ability to assemble, to germinate the idea,” Brad said. They brought a group of local organizations focused on entrepreneurship together and said, “let’s go do something.” Co-hosting with EEDC are the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Startup Edmonton, Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, TEC Edmonton, Junior Achievement, JCI Edmonton, Capital Ideas, Alberta Enterprise & Advanced Education, Alberta Enterprise Group, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, Make Something Edmonton, and the Edmonton Executives Association.

It was important to the organizers for the event to be about more than just business. They wanted a mix of arts, creativity, business, entertainment, and education. “We are aligned by mindset rather than industry,” Brad told me. He cited C2MTL, LeWeb, and InnoTown as events that are similar in spirit to what E-Town hopes to become. 

Commander Chris Hadfield will kick things off with a keynote on Thursday at 5:15pm. The Food Truck Fest (featuring Bully, Drift, Eva Sweet, La Poutine, Smokehouse BBQ, The Crooked Fork, The Food Fighter, and Yellowbird Café) and Barenaked Ladies concert will follow. The remainder of the keynotes and sessions take place during the day Friday, with local musician Martin Kerr closing the show at 6pm that evening. Check out the full schedule here.

One of the interesting things E-Town is doing differently is sponsorship. They’re really trying to get the speakers engaged and participating in the event instead of just plastering their logo all over it. Sponsors can choose to take part in the Emerging Questions Panel and then get interactive in what are called “exploration sessions”. Think whiteboards and interactive panels rather than talking heads. Sponsors on board include ATB Financial, the City of Edmonton, Parlee McLaws LLP, PWC, and Rogers.

While EEDC is supporting the festival for the first year, the goal is to have it both grow and become sustainable in future years. “We want to break even this year, and build the brand,” Brad said. In future years, additional days and locations could be added, making the event even more of a festival. More than 1000 attendees are expected to take part in the inaugural event, most of whom would likely be locals. That’ll change in future years as well.

I asked Brad why people should attend E-Town, and he responded with a question that has driven much of the event’s planning: “What do you feel the least prepared for?” The conference is an opportunity to explore what’s changing, and to get inspired by what’s possible. Don’t stay comfortable with the status quo, is the message. Brad also promised some surprises for attendees once they get inside (think of the impressive stage from this year’s Economic Impact Luncheon, amped up). “We want to show off what we can do with digital!”

As for EEDC, Brad says E-Town is an opportunity to “take economic development in a new direction.” They’re striving to provide value for money but also to make a statement. “We want to get people talking about it.”

Be sure to check out the E-Town news page for lots of additional information and updates. You can also follow @etownfest on Twitter and Facebook. And if you’d like to attend, get your tickets here.

The Make Something Edmonton Rope

What’s a rope? "A rope is a linear collection of plies, yarns or strands which are twisted or braided together in order to combine them into a larger and stronger form," according to Wikipedia. I like to think of Make Something Edmonton (MSE) as a rope. As such, it’s made up of a number of different strands that had to come together. There are three strands that I want to highlight.

strand

The first started with a wall.

In the spring of 2011 while still working at the Edmonton Journal, Todd Babiak wrote a series of stories on what he called "interventions". It began with the blank, unattractive wall that he saw every day when looking out the window. Todd wanted to do something about it, so he wrote about it. And he encouraged readers to email him with their suggestions.

A few months later at the downtown-focused Pecha Kucha 10, Todd spoke about the interventions project. He stole the show that night with a hilarious, entertaining, and thought-provoking presentation. Todd called Edmonton "a magpie town" and shared with us a lesson he learned through the interventions process: "I should have asked people to do something, then email me."

Six months later, Todd had a new startup called Story Engine, and he found himself pitching the City of Edmonton. "I had worked on the City Vision for 2040, and I had noticed — in community halls all over the city — that citizens were obsessed with the Edmonton story," he later wrote. Todd wanted to help tell that story. He was persuaded to start a blog, appropriately called magpietown, and he used it to explore the ideas that would form the groundwork for Make Something Edmonton.

The second strand is a long one. If you follow it back far enough, you might find yourself at Edmonton’s beginning.

Like most cities, we aspire to be recognized and loved on the world stage. We want our city’s image to be positive and well-received. Branding is a part of forming that image, and over the years there have been numerous attempts at identifying or creating our brand. We’ve always had this inferiority complex, and many Edmontonians have tried to do something about it. Most recently, the City of Edmonton embarked on a project called Edmonton Stories. By most accounts it was a disappointment, masked only by the repositioning of the project as a tool for recruiting rather than as a tool for emboldening Edmonton’s image.

Last year, the issue once again came up at City Council. One of the outcomes of The Way We Propser was a desire by those involved to better define and communicate our city identity. So in July 2012, Council decided to strike a task force. It got off to a rocky start due to significant differences in approach, but by the fall everything was in place.

That’s when Brad Ferguson, the new CEO of EEDC, spoke up about the issue. "On a scale of one to 10, we’re a one and a half. I’m not going to sugar-coat it," he told Council. All of a sudden, the new task force on image and branding became even more important.

The third and final strand I want to highlight is probably pretty boring to most people, but it’s highly intriguing to a City-watcher like myself.

Since 2006, the "big C" City (the City of Edmonton) has been undergoing a significant transformation. A new City Manager, a new approach to visioning and planning, and a progressive Council working cohesively to move things forward all contributed to a very different mood around City Hall.

One of the side effects of that transformation, in my opinion, has been an expansion in the kinds of things the City is willing to take on. Whereas in the past certain things may have been ignored because they were not seen as central to the City’s mandate (such as establishing a Food Council), today there’s almost an expectation that the City tackle such endeavours. On the whole this has probably been a good thing for citizens.

I think the City has gone back-and-forth on who should own the image and branding piece. Should it be Communications? Should it be a new City-led office? Should it be a partner, most logically EEDC? If the expansion trend continues, I would not be surprised to see some within the City push for MSE to remain a City-led initiative.

These and other strands all came together to form Make Something Edmonton. How exactly the strands came together, I don’t know for sure. But I like to imagine that the committee was sitting around trying to figure out how to get from being 1.5 out of 10 to something better, and Todd said, "I have an idea!" He pitched Make Something Edmonton and everyone declared, "our work here is done!" That’s probably unfair to everyone who put some significant volunteer time into the project, and I don’t mean to belittle that effort. But I also think it’s probably not far from the truth.

The initiative, or movement, or experiment – take your pick – officially launched in March of this year with a splashy party attended by the same people who always show up at these sorts of things. It was a good start, and the launch party was energizing and created a certain amount of momentum. There have been a number of really successful projects added to the website, and the Twitter hashtag remains as popular as ever. It’s a great way to showcase the many exciting things happening in Edmonton.

There is, however, a certain amount of spin surrounding Make Something Edmonton. It was evident at the launch party, and has become somewhat more evident in recent weeks.

Is MSE a grassroots movement, by the people for the people? The funding and committee structure behind it would suggest otherwise. There’s a big MSE committee, and a number of smaller sub-committees, all made up of the same 300 or so people who get involved in most things. Furthermore, that committee is expected to submit a report back to Council. It is, after all, just an expanded form of the task force that Council struck.

Is MSE a new approach to city branding, because traditional branding doesn’t work? The process would seem to suggest otherwise. The City hired a firm to design the MSE logo and identity, and another firm to build the website. There was Brand Camp a few weeks ago, but the only element of it that didn’t resemble a traditional branding exercise was that it was called Brand Camp. It was a bunch of people in room talking with no clear idea about what the outcome should be. Pretty typical consultation piece for a branding exercise if you ask me.

Does MSE tap into a fundamental truth about Edmonton? I feel it does, but many others dispute this point. "Can’t I make things in Winnipeg?" they ask. "Maker is too exclusive," others will say. If MSE isn’t resonating with the smaller group of the same 3000 people that are already hyper-engaged, how can we ever hope to get to 30,000? Or to 300,000?

Since March there have been a number of smaller MSE-related events (like Brand Camp), but the big success has undoubtedly been the creation of the website and its listing of hundreds of projects. I think "maker" is absolutely the right word, because otherwise we’ll end up with the lowest common denominator and that’ll get us exactly nowhere. It needs to be aspirational. Seeing all of the projects on the website and thinking about all of the people behind them gets me incredibly excited about our city.

But as great as that website and all of those projects are, thinking about them inevitably leads to the question that I’ve been hearing people ask more and more: what’s next?

The City of Edmonton has funded MSE so far (by way of the task force on image and reputation) which means they not only feel a sense of ownership, but need to be careful about how they spend the money. It also means that MSE is going up against everything else the City does for resources. And practically it means there will need to be a report that goes back to Council.

Another thing is that while our current Mayor and City Council support the initiative, they’re gone in October. There’s no guarantee that the next Council will be as supportive. So you can almost certainly expect the report to come out before then.

Beyond that, I’m not sure anyone knows what’s next. Maybe there’s not even a correct answer. Let’s phrase the question differently: what are we going to do with this rope?

Are we going to have a tug-of-war to see who hangs on the tightest? Are we going to give up and let it collapse into a pile on the ground? Or are we going to keep using it to climb ahead?

I hope we can use it to keep climbing ahead, but to do so we’ll need to know what outcome we’re moving toward.

Here are some suggestions on how we can establish that:

  • Let’s figure out where Make Something Edmonton will live. Right now I think it should be EEDC, because if it remains City-led there’s too great a risk that politics and/or bureaucracy will cause it to fail (or at least to hold it back). (And if we’re going to give it to EEDC, let’s ask them to drop something that doesn’t align as closely with their vision and strategic plan as a consequence.)
  • Let’s recognize that there’s a difference between the organization that funds & supports Make Something Edmonton, and the people who lead it. EEDC can provide meeting space, coffee, and administrative support, but it doesn’t need to be EEDC staff setting the direction.
  • Let’s identify the gaps between the successful projects and the ones that haven’t gotten off the ground. That’ll help us seed opportunities and remove barriers for makers, hopefully resulting in even more great projects for our city.
  • Let’s clearly define our desired outcomes. We want the language, tools, and confidence to be able to talk about Edmonton. From there, we want the City of Edmonton, EEDC, the University of Alberta, Northlands, and everyone else to make use of that toolkit.

Thoughts?

Recap: Edmonton’s Economic Impact Luncheon 2013

Today more than 900 local leaders filled Hall D at the Shaw Conference Centre for EEDC’s Economic Impact Luncheon. It was Brad Ferguson’s first luncheon as the new CEO of EEDC (you can read my interview with Brad here). Peter Silverstone, Chair of EEDC’s Board of Directors, told us that Brad wanted to go big with the luncheon this year. I think it’s safe to say he delivered, and not just because of the giant screen that dazzled everyone in attendance.

eedc impact luncheon

The program began with remarks from the Province and City. Minister of Finance Doug Horner was on hand to bring greetings from the provincial government. He sounded positive, declaring that Alberta would remain Canada’s growth leader, but also realistic. “You’ve heard over the past few weeks about the province’s fiscal challenges,” he said. “You’re going to hear more.” Next up was Mayor Stephen Mandel, and he too sounded upbeat, calling Edmonton “the most entrepreneurial city in the country.” Both men talked about the incredible opportunity that Alberta affords.

Brad followed the dignitaries and he brought a more even tone to the event. He delivered EEDC’s Statement of Intent for 2013-2015, which you can download here. The highlights are that EEDC intends to:

  • “Refocus and re-engage the organization” and will “get back into the industry development business.”
  • Become the change they want to see in the marketplace, which means being competitive vs. complacent.
  • “Fundamentally change the value we deliver to the market.”
  • Bring clarity and confidence in the structure of the organization.
  • Redefine stakeholder relationships within the economic development system.

There’s also a section on “being accountable” that reads:

We believe strongly in building a performance-based culture, and will be working throughout 2013 to build a reporting process of transparency and accountability. To build high-performance business units, each division will focus on its objectives, goals, strategies, and measures – a change from the past to a future focused on a new level of predictable performance. 2013 will be a year of transition, new leadership, new processes and new accountabilities.

Of course the big highlight is the new organizational objective:

To ensure Edmonton and the Capital Region outperform every major economic jurisdiction in North America consistently over the next 20 years – no matter if the price of oil is $40 or $140.

That objective is all Brad, and it speaks to his commitment to competitiveness.

Reading through the longer version of the Statement of Intent, it is clear that major change is on the way for EEDC in 2013. The section on EEDC’s divisional approach makes clear that each division, from the Shaw Conference Centre to Edmonton Tourism, must be held accountable and perform well. It also opens the door for one or more of those divisions to leave EEDC, something that has been discussed with growing frequency. “We are organized to maximize operating efficiency, with proactive orientation and resource allocation along with clear exit strategies…” Furthermore, the list of priorities highlights that alignment with the City of Edmonton and an organizational restructuring is on the way. Perhaps EEDC needs to become a leaner organization in order to execute on its new objective (for the record, I believe it does).

EEDC Impact Luncheon 2013

Here’s what Brad said in the press release for today’s luncheon:

“We are upfront and clear in outlining what we are about and what we will do this year,” says Ferguson. “Edmonton is a great northern city with unlimited entrepreneurship, education and energy — we will be a beacon toward which people who crave opportunity will come.”

Far more interesting is what he said during his remarks. Here are a few quotes I made note of:

  • “When the head of EEDC and the Mayor are in sync, great things can happen. When they are disconnected, the city perishes.”
  • “The self-esteem of Edmontonians is just as volatile as the price of oil, and that has to change. Our self-esteem issues must be conquered.”
  • “When the going gets tough, the tough gain market share. Now is our time.”
  • “We need to have less bravado about Alberta and more about our contribution to the country.”
  • “We need to start talking about what the premier isn’t talking about – and that’s a stable revenue framework.”
  • “I can promise you we’ll never fail because we didn’t try hard enough, or because we lost focus.”

Brad talked about why Edmonton is Canada’s economic and entrepreneurial powerhouse, but he also highlighted some of the dark cloud he sees looming. The message was the same one he has been reiterating since he took the job: we cannot be complacent. It wasn’t all so heavy though. Brad also joked about possibly needing to save the Oilers again, and remarked that we may or may not have a new mayor in October (which I don’t think was meant to be funny, even though the crowd nervously chuckled). He finished with a call-to-action: “come build it here.”

The guest speaker was former Suncor Energy CEO Rick George. He shared some thoughts on Alberta and the future we have ahead of us. Though he touched on some of the topics discussed in his book, Sun Rise: Suncor, The Oil Sands And The Future Of Energy, he didn’t get into too many details about the oil sands. He did challenge everyone to look far down the road, echoing Brad’s earlier call for a plan for Alberta. Rick described himself as “a hopeless optimist” and said we need both optimism and imagination to succeed. “Without optimism, there’s little room for contrarianism and the outside-the-box thinking needed to turn the corner,” he said. Everyone in attendance took home a copy of Rick’s book.

I loved the giant screen and the reorientation of the stage at today’s event. As we ate lunch, images and factoids about Edmonton’s past and present danced across the screen. The event was live-streamed, and it sounds like that was a big success. There was a lot of discussion about the event on Twitter too, using the #yegimpact hashtag, and that always makes these things more interesting.

Most of all I enjoyed the refreshing approach that Brad brought to today’s luncheon. Even, measured, realistic, honest. Sure there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. We can’t take our eye off the prize.

Want to compare to years past? You can read my recaps of previous EEDC luncheons here: 2012 Annual Luncheon, 2012 Economic Outlook Luncheon, 2011 Annual Luncheon, 2010 Annual Luncheon, 2010 Economic Outlook Luncheon.

Keep an eye on this URL for speaking notes, video, and other materials from today’s luncheon. Be sure to follow @EEDC and @EEDC_BRAD on Twitter for updates.

Brad Ferguson is ‘all in’ as EEDC’s new President & CEO

One month into his new role as President & CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), Brad Ferguson is still trying to get a handle on an organization that many would say is in need of change. Starting a new job is tough enough, but Brad’s new position comes with its own unique mix of history, politics, and public scrutiny. Despite that, Brad insists he is ready to tackle the challenges and bring about significant, positive changes. “I have never been so on for something in my life, since maybe when I was starting my own company,” he told me as our coffee interview got underway last week. “I’m fired up, I really am!”

Brad Ferguson

Though he has lived in a number of different places, Edmonton has always been Brad’s home. He earned a B.A. in Economics and B.Comm in Finance from the University of Alberta. A job at Proctor & Gamble took him away from the city in the mid-nineties, but he soon returned to start a family and “really setup shop.” After P&G, Brad spent time at KPMG and TkMC (Sierra Systems) before starting his own management consultancy Strategy Summit Ltd. in 2002. He has made a career out of advising organizations on how to become more competitive to facilitate growth.

He was not thinking about the EEDC job at first, but a series of conversations in recent months changed Brad’s mind. A number of individuals encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring, so he did. After going through the headhunting and formal interview process, Brad started to feel as though he might be selected. “I became downright competitive about it!” He had come to realize that the opportunity was too important to pass up, and he wanted the job.

At just 43 years of age, Brad will bring a perspective to EEDC that the organization has not had in fifteen years. His two most recent predecessors, Ron Gilbertson and Allan Scott, were both 55 when they took the job. Before them, Jim Edwards was 61 when he took over from Rick LeLacheur, the organization’s first president and CEO who was about six months older when he started than Brad is today. EEDC is often criticized as an “old boys club”, so the board’s decision to move ahead with Brad as the new leader reflects a willingness to change.

Established in 1993, EEDC is wholly owned by the City of Edmonton. The organization’s mandate includes the promotion of economic development and tourism, as well as the management and development of the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Research Park. Or as Brad put it, the organization is made up of four very different business units. “We have a major facility and caterer, real estate, tourism, and economic development.” With 130 full-time employees, 650 part-time employees, and a $36 million annual budget, EEDC is a major force in our city yet many Edmontonians wonder what the organization does. Brad wants to change that.

“It’s about being externally focused,” he said. “It’s about demonstrating value to the community.” He acknowledges that structural changes are necessary, not only to change EEDC’s image, but to enable it to deliver on its mandate. “The structure has to mesh with strategy and be aligned to organizational outcomes.” He admits to feeling some public pressure to make changes as well.

That process will take time, but it starts this fall when Brad will take a series of directional statements to the board in an effort to get authorization to further explore the options. He hopes to present a set of recommendations by the end of the year. “I have three phases,” he explained. “Focusing the organization, building leadership capacity, and bringing about a cultural shift.” He’s not sure exactly what that change will look like, but he knows where he wants the organization to end up. “Our structure needs to build confidence and clarity in the marketplace.”

One of the first people Brad called after starting work was Richard Andersen, President and CEO at Northlands. “I want to bring resolution and clarity to the question of Shaw versus Expo,” Brad told me. Competition between the Shaw Conference Centre and Edmonton Expo Centre can sometimes be unhealthy, as each focuses on winning the client instead of ensuring the client comes to Edmonton and has the best experience possible. Like EEDC, Northlands has also struggled in recent years to defend its existence, a problem that only got worse when they were left out of discussions on the downtown arena. Under Andersen’s leadership however, there are signs that things are beginning to change for the better, and Brad certainly holds his counterpart in high esteem. “Richard is an incredible operator and leader in this community.”

The open approach to collaboration will be important as Brad charts a new course for EEDC. “No one organization is responsible for economic development,” he told me. “It’s a system, and it’s important to be supportive of other organizations.” While the amalgamation of the various economic entities in the nineties helped to bring clarity and efficiency to Edmonton’s economic development efforts, perhaps the time has come to reassess that structure. Perhaps EEDC doesn’t need to be in four different businesses.

Even if a breakup is not in the cards for EEDC, there is certainly room for greater coordination with other organizations. Just days after Edmonton Tourism’s joint initiative with Travel Alberta to bring former Bachelorette star Ashley Hebert and her fiance J.P. to Edmonton made headlines, Brad admitted that he learned a lot from the experience. “I have learned who they are,” he quipped. Then, becoming more serious, “I have made it known internally that I want to understand the ROI on this.” Brad was quick to support his staff however, explaining that experimentation and creativity are needed and should be cultivated. As for the collaboration with Travel Alberta, Brad was happy the two organizations were able to work together on a project. Still, he recognizes there is work to do. “There should be a joint context, a joint set of priorities.”

One of Brad’s earliest memories of Edmonton was a walk through the river valley when he was about eight years old. “I remember the green and gold of the leaves,” he recalled. “It felt like a new phase for me.” That same spot, near the Royal Glenora, had an impact on him later too when a conversation about the negative economic situation in Edmonton weighed heavily. In the latest phase of his career, Brad finds himself in a much healthier city, faced with the opportunity to have a major impact.

There are many Edmontonians that have shaped the leader Brad is today, and many that he admires greatly, but two stand out. “Sandy Mactaggart recognized there was opportunity here,” Brad said. “He was a city builder and is still a great philanthropist.” The other is Rod Fraser, perhaps best known as the former President of the University of Alberta. “He is one of the great communicators,” Brad said. “He talked about the university being indisputably recognized internationally as one of a handful of the best organizations.”

EEDC has been vocal about its vision to make Edmonton one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030, but Brad is not sold on that. “Visions are never achievable,” he told me. “They have to be long-lasting.” The implication is that being a top five mid-sized city is completely reasonable and achievable. “Let’s declare ourselves there, up the bar, and figure out what’s next.” He would rather see us really stretch. After all, as the saying goes, no one gives you power, you just take it.

So what would a stronger vision sound like? “The vision should be to consistently outperform every economic jurisdiction in North America for the next twenty years.” An audacious and yet very measurable statement. “That means when the price of oil fluctuates, we still need to outperform, so that’s resiliency.” The focus on North America rather than simply the world is important, because Brad says the “continental approach is where we want to perform.”

Whenever Edmonton’s aspirations are discussed, two words seem to get thrown around more than any other: world class. “I don’t subscribe to those words a lot,” Brad declared. When pushed for a definition, he said the first thing is we need to be proud of whatever we’re calling world class. And secondly, “it has to be relevant and respected by people outside of our borders.” He did have praise for the downtown arena, perhaps the project most often associated with the term. “I think the arena is a bold, dynamic project, that has the ability to spark the creativity and interest of whole lot of other developers,” he said. “I want to compliment the City for having the courage to really entertain this and to be involved as a partner.”

One word that Brad has been using very consistently and deliberately since taking over as CEO is “complacency.” To him, it perfectly captures one of Edmonton’s biggest challenges. “It’s our number one enemy,” he said. “Right now the economy feels strong, but there are some dark clouds looming.” It’s clear that Brad has thought a lot about the subject, and has strong feelings about how to avoid becoming complacent. “We need to change to a culture of competitiveness,” he told me. “We need to have a hunger to compete.” Despite his cautions about complacency, Brad does feel that Edmonton is more resilient and diversified today than ever before. And he notes that significant opportunities lay ahead for the city. “A number of the things Edmonton has – education, food, water – are things the world wants,” Brad said.

Ensuring we can articulate Edmonton’s story to the world is going to be an important piece in making the most of those opportunities. “There’s a real need to tell our city’s story better,” Brad declared. “I compliment the mayor for his leadership on this.” Noting that everyone has an opinion on the topic, he doesn’t think any one group can fully articulate what Edmonton’s story is. “I think a common language will emerge,” he said. “Something to do with the opportunity to contribute.” Whatever the story is, Brad hopes it has an impact on the way Edmontonians feel about Edmonton. “We have to build a little more pride in how we talk about our city,” he said.

Capital Ideas Edmonton Mixer

While Brad will absolutely need to lead the way as a retooled EEDC works to make Edmonton the economic jurisdiction to beat, he recognizes that he won’t be alone in that quest. “There are so many great people that want to help build this city,” he said. “Part of my job is to help them make something happen.” He stresses that his door is open, and that he’ll be both accessible and proactive. “Everyone can expect my call!”

Despite the economic turmoil taking place around the globe, Edmonton’s economy has remained strong and healthy growth is forecasted for the years ahead. Of course EEDC has a role to play in that, but it’s an indirect one that requires clear direction and strong collaboration. Ensuring EEDC has the right people, strategies, and relationships to play a significant role in that growth is absolutely something Brad must tackle. He’s ready to do just that.

“I want to fundamentally up the value of the organization to the community and to the City of Edmonton.”

Celebrities will never be Edmonton’s cheerleaders

There’s no such thing as bad publicity – isn’t that how the saying goes? That might have been a good maxim in the past, but I’m not so sure that Travel Alberta and EEDC would agree with it in the current social media-laden world. Both agencies have taken a virtual beating over the last week for their decision to spend $20,000 to bring former “Bachelorette” star Ashley Hebert and her fiancé J.P. Rosenbaum to Edmonton. The couple was flown in from New York, stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald, visited the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Old Strathcona Farmers Market, and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, and ate at Joey’s. They seemed to have a good time, judging by their tweets, and both Travel Alberta and EEDC have been defending the expense. But questioning whether or not the trip was worth it for us is just one of the many questions that Edmontonians have been asking.

Perhaps the first question is: why Ashley and J.P.? The answer is demographics. Despite having eight seasons under its belt, “The Bachelorette” remains an incredibly successful show for ABC. And significantly, it performs very well in the all-important 18-34 demographic. In fact, the show is #1 in its timeslot for that demographic. Reaching potential visitors in the 18-34 age group is an important target for Travel Alberta and EEDC. Those are the folks that have the disposable income and ability to visit, and they’re also the group that might want to move here to work or to start a family.

Another question that comes to mind is, what do we get in return? Travel Alberta and EEDC will tell you that the return on investment comes in the form of media coverage. Incredibly, they think that we’ve earned at least $250,000 in media coverage. I suspect that figure is based predominately on the number of page views a website gets. Well let me tell you, I could put up a website with photos of the trip and spend a couple of hundred dollars and within hours I’d have hundreds of thousands of page views, but they’d all be completely worthless. Take a look at the coverage that EEDC has been highlighting. Here’s the “coverage” that appeared on CBSNews:

cbsnews

How is that photo supposed to make anyone want to visit Edmonton? Or how about this article or this blog post. Would anyone seriously look at that and say, you know, I want to visit Edmonton! I know that you have to stay top-of-mind if you want to be considered, but it feels like we’re deluding ourselves here. I think the most valuable exposure we got from this trip was the tweets from Ashley and J.P. themselves, yet that doesn’t appear to have been factored into that $250,000 number.

Let’s assume that bringing Ashley & J.P. was a good investment because of the target demographic we want to reach and the media coverage that we received as a result. Did the itinerary align with that? The couple stayed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. Aside from the fact that the hotel doesn’t seem to match the couple’s style, it’s probably not the first place a 25-year-old visitor might consider. Why not have them stay at The Matrix or The Metterra hotels? The folks at Hotel Mac are fantastic, and I’m sure they took great care of Ashley and J.P., but it doesn’t seem like the right choice. I certainly can’t complain about the activities – the Fringe, the AGA, and the OSFM are all excellent stops (though I would have preferred to see them at the City Market Downtown). Sending the couple to Joey’s for dinner, however, was shocking to me. Travel Alberta talks a good game about culinary tourism, but this makes me question everything about their efforts on that front. You fly them all the way to Edmonton to eat at a chain? I know that independent restaurants can sometimes be trickier to work with, but if you’re not going to do it right don’t do it at all. You know which restaurant is not on Dine Alberta’s list of those that serve local food? Joey’s.

Could Travel Alberta and EEDC have taken a different approach? If you’ve seen “The Bachelorette” (judge me if you must but I have) you’ll know that the show is really more of an extended travel commercial than an emotional quest for true love. The bachelorette and her potential suitors fly all over the world to attractive, romantic destinations. Beaches, mountains, and busy cobblestone streets are all common sights. If reaching viewers of “The Bachelorette” is important, why not work to have Edmonton and Alberta featured as one of the destinations on the show itself? At least that way we’d be able to showcase our natural beauty and probably one or two interesting activities too. Maybe Travel Alberta and EEDC have tried to make that happen, I’m not sure, but it does seem like the return would have been greater.

I really hope that Travel Alberta and EEDC both review this experiment and learn from it. We need creative and innovative approaches to attracting tourism and investment to Edmonton, but that still has to align with strategic objectives. I would hate to see the individuals responsible for this reprimanded – instead I hope they are recognized for their initiative but educated about the importance of providing context. The uproar over this relatively minor $20,000 expense could have been almost completely avoided. And while it’s great to see Travel Alberta and EEDC working together on something, it seems to me that a few more discussions about shared objectives should have taken place first.

Ultimately, I don’t think we should ever count on celebrities to be Edmonton’s cheerleaders. Sure they might tweet something about how much they loved Edmonton, but at the end of the day that has very little impact, and there’s no guarantee that media coverage will result. The connection between bringing celebrities to Edmonton and the increased tourism and economic activity that may result seems tenuous at best. Instead of focusing on a few celebrities here and there, let’s focus on the 1.2 million people that already have a strong connection to Edmonton. Let’s provide Edmontonians themselves with the confidence, tools, and common language to tell others just how great Edmonton is and why they should come here to live, work, or play.

I’d spend $20,000 on that, wouldn’t you?

Recap: 2012 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Yesterday was EEDC’s Annual Luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre. Now in its 17th year, the event was just as well attended as it was last year! Hosted by Manfred Kalk, Client Services Manager of the SCC, the event was an opportunity to learn about some recent changes at EEDC, to get an update on Edmonton’s economy, and to recognize three organizations that have made significant achievements in recognition, innovation, and community leadership.

First up was EEDC board chair Henry Yip, who talked about some recent successes in our province and about how Alberta can continue to succeed in the future. He also provided some updates on EEDC itself, thanking outgoing president Ron Gilbertson for all of his hard work over the last few years. Outgoing board members include Laura Schuler, Bob Gomes, and Peter Kiss, not to mention Henry Yip himself. The incoming board chair is Peter Silverstone.

EEDC board member Richard Brommeland was up next to hand out the annual achievement awards. The three winners were:

  • Donovan Creative Communications for recognition (those who bring extensive positive awareness and sustained name recognition of Edmonton).
  • Quantiam Technologies for innovation (those who have created or changed a product, process or business practice creating the broadest impact).
  • Homeward Trust Edmonton for community leadership (those who best engage our community or industry to achieve impactful positive change).

Each had the opportunity to speak for a few minutes after receiving their award, and a video was played for each organization as well. From the press release:

"Shortlisting the submissions was not an easy task," notes Richard Brommeland, EEDC board member and chair of the award selection committee. "The award winners do amazing work, and we are the better for them calling Edmonton home."

I know Donovan’s work fairly well. Among other things, they are responsible for EPL’s Spread the words campaign as well as EIA’s Stop the Calgary Habit. It’s great to see them recognized for bringing greater recognition to Edmonton. Quantiam I was not familiar with, but I learned that they are a nanotechnology company that recently created a joint venture with BSAF, the world’s largest chemical company. Exciting to hear that kind of thing happening here in Edmonton! And finally, Homeward Trust is an organization that is doing such important work in our city, so it’s completely appropriate that they were singled out for community leadership. Susan and her team have set the bar high. Congratulations to all three! You can see their videos here.

The keynote speaker was Ron Gilbertson himself, and he spent his time giving us an update on Edmonton’s economic report card (which you can look at here in PDF).

"Edmonton has a remarkable economic story. In 2011, our economy grew and showed momentum, and we are poised for a bright future," says Gilbertson. "Combine that with our quality of life, we are well on our way to becoming recognized as one of the world’s top mid-sized cities."

Overall, we received an “A-Minus” on our report card. The four main areas we need to work on are Office Vacancy Rates (C+), Inflation Rate (C), Annual Growth of Passenger Traffic at EIA (B), and Unemployment Rate (B+).

As everyone knows, our economy is built on oil and gas. Current and planned investment in the oil sands is around $290 billion, and that number is expected to grow. But we know it can’t last forever, something Ron acknowledged. “Should oil ever lose its lustre, we don’t really have a plan B.”

For the most part though, everyone was pretty upbeat about the local economy and our prospects for the future.

My thanks again to EEDC for hosting me at the luncheon! Be sure to follow @EEDC on Twitter for updates.

I <3 YEGDT: Downtown X-posed

Hundreds of Edmontonians will gather next Thursday at the Shaw Conference Centre for a full day event focused on downtown. Organized by the EEDC and the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force, the Downtown X-posed event will provide an opportunity to learn more about the broad array of things happening downtown, and will also give attendees a chance to provide input and feedback on how we can continue the positive momentum.

The vibrancy and character of a community’s downtown is a critical part of its identity. Think about places you’ve travelled to and you’ll know exactly what we mean. Please join us for a dynamic, one-day, one-of-a-kind event to learn about Edmonton’s downtown – what we have now, what’s in the works, what’s yet to come, and some new things we might need to consider. Come learn, talk, connect and get involved in your downtown. As goes your downtown, so goes your city.

51/366: I <3 yegdt

It has been a pretty great year for our downtown. EPCOR Tower, the first new office tower in two decades and also our tallest, opened.  Despite some hiccups, both the arena project and the new Royal Alberta Museum appear to be moving forward. The province is working to complete the renovations of the Federal Building and the adjacent Centennial Plaza in time for next summer. The first phase of construction on Capital Boulevard is underway. MacEwan University has started working toward its single sustainable campus. I could go on – the point is, there’s a lot happening! Megaprojects aren’t enough though, we need more people living and working and shopping and learning downtown. What are the barriers this? How can we make it happen? What are we missing? Join us next week to discuss those questions and more.

I had the opportunity to talk about the event yesterday on CTV Edmonton:

Downtown X-posed runs from 7:30am until 3:30pm on December 15. Tickets are just $50, which includes breakfast and lunch. You can purchase tickets here. If you can’t make it, be sure to follow along with #yegdt on Twitter.

Recap: EEDC’s 2012 Economic Outlook Luncheon

EEDCOn November 15, EEDC held its annual Economic Outlook luncheon at the Shaw Conference Centre. Hundreds of Edmontonians filled Hall D on Tuesday to hear from a panel of senior leaders moderated by Dr. Mike Percy, the former Chamber of Commerce president and until this year Dean of the School of Business at the University of Alberta.

This year’s panelists included:

  • Dr. Jodi Abbott, President & CEO, Norquest College
  • Diane Brickner, President & CEO, Peace Hills Insurance Company
  • Pierre Gratton, President & CEO, Mining Association of Canada
  • Ron Liepert, Minister of Finance, Government of Alberta
  • Paul Verhesen, President, Clark Builders

The five panelists each shared their thoughts on the local economy before fielding questions from the audience. Here are a few of the more memorable statements the panelists made:

  • “We are very, very lucky to live where we do.” – Paul Verhesen
  • “Productivity and innovation are down as a result of not having to compete with others.” – Paul Verhesen
  • “I’m not sure there’s a better place than Alberta in the world to do business.” – Ron Liepert
  • “We do not have the population base to meet the expected labour-market demand.” – Dr. Jodi Abbott, indicating Alberta would have 77,00 unfilled jobs by the end of the decade.
  • “Mining is back.” – Pierre Gratton
  • “That will go.” – Ron Liepert, indicating the Royal Alberta Museum would in fact move ahead.

For more, check out the Edmonton Journal’s Storify of the event.

At the luncheon in 2009, I learned that Alberta’s aerospace industry is a billion dollar business. This year I learned a little more about the mining industry in our province. The Canadian Mining Journal summed it up well:

Canada’s mining industry will invest as much as $140 billion in this country over the next five years, and almost 50% of it will be in Alberta. The province will grow thanks to 12 mining projects proposed for development by 2016 with combined costs of $67.7 billion.

The $67.7 billion will be invested primarily in the oil, gas and oil sands development that Alberta is most known for, however significant investment is also anticipated in coal, limestone, salt, shale, dimension stone, ammonite shell, sandstone and sand and gravel.

Apparently Alberta accounts for 70% of Canada’s coal production (by weight) and is home to more than 540 mining industry suppliers.

Here is the Edmonton Journal’s story about the luncheon. Here is the Edmonton Sun’s take. And here is Avenue Edmonton’s article.

The Bridge

I thought EEDC did a great job with the event. The luncheon was livestreamed by the Edmonton Journal, and though they ran into some issues with the sound, it did appear to get more Edmontonians involved than usual. EEDC smartly chose a hashtag ahead of time, and made it clear to everyone that they should use #outlook12. They also displayed the tweets up on the big screen, and although it consistently ran behind, I thought it was a useful addition to the event. I expect both will get better in future years!

As enjoyable as the luncheon was, I found myself wishing there had been a handout or better yet, a QR code to scan that would take me to more information. I thought the panelists were great, but I can’t say I left with a strong sense of how Edmonton’s economy is expected to do in 2012. Fortunately, there is a bit of information online if you look for it.

Here is Cushman & Wakefield’s prognosis:

Overall vacancy is expected to increase in 2012 as a result of the market dynamics caused by recently completed Epcor Tower in the downtown core. Regardless, confidence in Edmonton’s economy is strong, despite continuing global economic uncertainty.

Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) predicts 18% more housing units will be constructed across the province in 2012 than were built this year.

Edmonton will likely have 3,750 construction starts of multi-family housing this year, down less than four per cent from a year ago, says CMHC.

And from the City of Edmonton’s long-term economic outlook:

Few economies have prospects as bright as northern Alberta, at the geographic core of Canada’s economic future. As the research and industrial workhorse of the province, Edmonton stands tall as one of Canada’s most dynamic and prosperous urban centres.

The Economics Society of Northern Alberta is holding its 2012 Outlook Conference all day tomorrow at the Sutton Place Hotel, so watch for more news to come out of that event.

What else have you come across related to our economy in 2012?

Recap: YEGDT Patio Flash Mob

Yesterday the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force held an event at 105 Street and Jasper Avenue called the Patio Flash Mob. Our “awareness” subcommittee came up with the idea a few weeks ago. What we wanted to do was encourage people to think about downtown a little differently:

Falling leaves. Crisp mornings. But that doesn’t mean the fun stops outdoors as the summer winds down. Stretch that patio season a little longer. Celebrate the vibrancy of downtown Edmonton. A vibrant downtown brings more people, who bring yet more people and more business to the urban core.

The idea was to create a little bit of a spectacle, so we positioned tables and chairs on all four corners of the intersection. It’s a busy intersection, so we knew a lot of folks stuck in cars would see us. Anyone could stop by and have a seat on our “patio” and many did!

Patio Flash Mob

Our thanks to Martin Kerr (in the background there) who provided some excellent music for the patio party. We had some playing cards and sidewalk chalk available for people to play with, but it was great to see what people brought with them!

Patio Flash Mob

We did want it to really feel like a patio, so we engaged some local businesses to help us out. Flirt Cupcakes made some delicious free I LOVE YEGDT-branded cupcakes, and they even offered table service! Transcend Coffee also came down to offer free coffee – given the cooler temperature yesterday, I think everyone really enjoyed that!

Patio Flash Mob

To help build a little buzz, we also created some stencils and used temporary marking paint to put the I LOVE YEGDT logo all over the area. Simple but effective. We also gave out dozens of t-shirts with the logo on the front.

I <3 YEGDT

We didn’t get the turnout we were hoping for, perhaps due to the weather (we need to change this!) or the fact that it was Tuesday evening, but it was still great to see a bunch of people taking advantage of downtown streets and sidewalks.

Stay tuned for more cool stuff from the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force, or if you’re feeling inspired, go and create something awesome for downtown yourself!

See you at What the Truck?! 2 on Friday!

Recap: 2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

I was once again fortunate to attend EEDC’s Annual Luncheon, which took place yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre. After 16 years, the luncheon has become a popular fixture downtown, and it showed yesterday with an absolutely packed Hall D. EEDC uses the event to highlight the work it is doing to help make Edmonton one of the world’s top five mid-sized cities by 2030, and also to honor local businesses making a difference with the EEDC Awards of Excellence. I enjoyed last year’s luncheon, but aside from the length, I thought this year’s was better. The production quality was much improved, with some great looking graphics and videos displayed on the giant screens. EEDC’s own Brent Beatty did an excellent job as the event’s emcee.

This year I was asked by EEDC if I would spend some time with Andrea Wahbe, a journalist visiting from Toronto to learn more about Edmonton’s tech scene. I readily agreed, and enjoyed sharing my take on Edmonton with her. Our conversation naturally touched on more than just technology, so hopefully I was able to provide some useful context. Andrea was only here a short time but she seemed to enjoy downtown, and got to make stops at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Transcend Jasper, and the Edmonton Research Park before heading home.

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

The winners of the 2011 EEDC Awards of Excellence are:

From the press release:

“We have some of the best organizations in the country right here in Greater Edmonton that represent and reflect our corporate priority areas: leadership, innovation and recognition. It is an honour to acknowledge and recognize Stantec, Cleankeys and Master Flo Valve for the significant contribution to our community. They engage the community and act as a catalyst for change, while fostering innovation and increasing Edmonton’s visibility on a global level.”

The special mention award went to Hot To Huddle this year, for their work on the Grey Cup 2010 festival. EEDC Board Member Chris LaBossiere handed out the awards.

Ron Gilbertson, EEDC’s President and CEO, and Henry Yip, EEDC Board Chair, were both on hand to give remarks. Henry focused on recognizing the hard work that everyone at EEDC has done, and introduced the board. Ron spent his time discussing the economic situation here in Edmonton, though a little less formally than he did last year. The impending labour shortage was the hot topic, and Ron noted that our unemployment rate is about 5.8%, which is down from 7.3% just a year ago. “The days of Edmonton being a low-cost labour centre are gone,” he said.

One of the interesting things that EEDC did this year was text voting. Everyone in attendance was encouraged to answer three questions about Edmonton’s competitiveness via text message (they used Poll Everywhere). Unfortunately the event was running behind schedule so they only quickly flashed the results up on screen.

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon2011 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Most people felt that Edmonton is “wandering” when it comes to competitiveness, we have strengths in some areas but not others, and we lack clear focus. The most critical issue affecting Edmonton’s future competitiveness was “labour supply”, with “investment in innovation” and “transportation and infrastructure” close behind. And finally, the vast majority of respondents said they have a plan to enhance competitiveness at their own companies.

The keynote speaker this year was Deborah L. Wince-Smith, President of the Council on Competitiveness (among other things). She spent her time talking about the revolution we’re experiencing in innovation. She cited things like Google, Facebook, and the iPad, but also talked about nanotechnology and high performance computing. I liked her catchphrase for the latter – “to outcompete you have to outcompute”. Though Deborah focused mainly on the United States, she did try to apply her comments to Edmonton a few times. She defined innovation as “I to the 5th power”: ideas, imagination, impact, individuals, and investment. I have to say that I felt mixed about Deborah’s keynote. Some of the things she said really resonated, while others (like her multiple comments about Facebook toppling dictatorial regimes) definitely did not. I liked the way she closed however, stating that “Edmonton is an energy hotspot, but the rest is up to you.”

Thanks to EEDC for inviting me to the annual luncheon. You can read the January update on Edmonton’s Economy in PDF here, and be sure to follow @EEDC on Twitter for updates.