Last Saturday morning, I woke up extra early (for me) and trekked over to Stephen Mandel‘s campaign office on 111th Street and 102nd Avenue for a sit down with the Mayor. Joined by Jeff and Mack in a sort of ‘bloggers editorial board’ we engaged Mayor Mandel is a good question and answer session about his six years as Mayor, the campaign, and his plans for the next three years if he is re-elected on Monday, October 18.
Over the course of an hour, we peppered the Mayor with a series of questions ranging from Open Data to cooperation in the capital region to homelessness to plans for making the urban core neighbourhoods more friendly for young families.
Sitting down and talking with Mayor Mandel reminded me what a different place Edmonton has become over the past six years. Looking outwards, our City is no longer fighting with our neighbours. Edmonton is now sitting down at the table and cooperating with the other over twenty municipalities in the region through the Capital Region Board. While the municipalities were somewhat strong-armed by the Provincial Government to make the process work, it has had positive results for regional cooperation.
Looking inside our City limits, we have seen serious investment in our crumbling infrastructure and public spaces for the first time in decades. Although some people will raise a red flag about increasing debt levels, Edmonton only has about half the debt level of Calgary and a repayment plan was in place before any funds were borrowed (a requirement under provincial law. See: Section 251(1) of the Municipal Government Act).
The creation of the Universal Bus Pass for students at the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan University and the expansion of the LRT to Century Park has proven to be excellent investments that are paying off. While these advancements have been somewhat besmirched by the construction of the expensive and questionable 23rd Avenue interchange, they are important steps for our City.
Our downtown core neighbourhoods are about to blossom. When I first moved to Edmonton in the early 2000s, my apartment was located in a decrepit area of Oliver. I soon moved south across the North Saskatchewan River into the University enclave of Garneau. When I moved back into the Grandin area of Oliver two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised at how different the area had become. New condo and apartment buildings that had been constructed over the past five years had lead to new businesses and restaurants in the area. I was shocked to see people actually walking down Jasper Avenue at night!
While this new life has been breathed into the area between 109th Street and 124th Street and 104th Avenue, spill-over can be seen deeper into the downtown core. What was a decrepit and sketchy area down 104th Street even five years ago has transformed into a vibrant area of the downtown core. The City Market regularly draws over 10,000 people to 104th Street each Saturday and the construction of new condo towers on that street is starting the essential element to neighbourhood vitalization: people living there.
There are still challenges to bringing young people to the core. When I posed this question to Mayor Mandel, he replied that “the City needs to be far more creative” in facilitating the development of housing in the core neighbourhoods that will be friendly for young families. “We need to create a policy between the school board and the city to build attainable housing for young people in the core,” said Mayor Mandel. The City is already working in cooperation with the School Boards to set up first-time home buyers housing on surplus school sites around Edmonton, but with little surplus school land in the core, they need to look at other options.
As I wrote in my blog post about the first Mayoral candidates forum in September, I generally believe that Mayor Mandel has done a good job over the past six years, but it is not without reservation that I will give him my vote on October 18, 2010. I am skeptical about the Mayor’s support for the Expo 2017 bid and am weary of his close relationship with the Katz Group in light of their bid to build downtown area complex, but there has been too much positive movement forward over the past six years to stop now.
Under Mandel’s Mayorship, Edmonton has moved forward on a number of levels. After years of hum-drum leadership under his predecessor, Mayor Bill Smith, our City is now starting to feel like it is coming out of the doldrums of a decades-long inferiority complex. While I have respect for a number of his challengers, especially Dan Dromarsky and Daryl Bonar, I do not yet have confidence in their ability to keep Edmonton moving in the positive direction we are now on track towards.
The City of Edmonton will never be a “world-class” city like New York or even Toronto or Vancouver, but why should we aspire for that? As a medium-sized North American city, we have the opportunity to look at and learn from similar cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon, who decided that their size compared to the bigger cities was a strength and not a weakness. Edmontonians should be proud of what our City could be, not in relation to Calgary or Toronto, but in terms of the quality of life and creative and smart ways that we can shape our City’s future growth.
At least for the next three years, I trust Mayor Stephen Mandel to help us get closer to that reality.