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.”