EDMONTON – Every day, approximately 4,000 construction workers do their jobs, eat their lunches and spend their time in the heart of Edmonton.
Not only are these workers building infrastructure – hotels, office buildings, and condos – they’re also key players in keeping the city’s economy afloat in more difficult times.
“This is a consumer demographic,” president of the Downtown Business Association Jim Taylor said. “To have that in our downtown… benefits our businesses.”
Taylor is acutely aware of the slump the rest of the province – and many people in Edmonton – are experiencing.
“We just happen to have a situation in downtown where we’re a little bright light in a sea of gloom,” he said.
Most of the construction contracts were settled prior to the economic downturn and some of them already have committed tenants. Another factor playing in downtown’s favour? The type of development taking place.
“None of the stuff happening downtown is reliant on the oil and gas industry,” Taylor explained.
Canada’s unemployment rate hit a two-year high in January as the economy shed another 5,700 jobs amid the ongoing slump in the price of oil and other resources.
But the hit was most pronounced in Alberta, home to the bulk of Canada’s energy sector and epicentre of the commodity shock. Another 10,000 jobs evaporated last month, bringing the unemployment rate in the province to 7.4 per cent – the highest in 20 years.
“Not surprisingly, it’s oil-centred Alberta where the bad news is hitting hardest,” Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC, said.
Edmonton managed to avoid a lot of the pain, recording an unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent. In Calgary, the jobless rate now sits at 7.7 per cent, half a percentage point above the national average.
At a time when payrolls are shrinking across the province, the city said Edmonton saw “modest job growth,” posting an increase of 0.1 per cent, or about 1,000 new positions last month.
“You get to look back and show your kids, ‘I worked on that tower and that tower and that tower,'” said Harleigh Marchant, who’s on the construction crew for the Fox 2 tower. “We’re living the dream. We’re building the future.”
“If the work is there, keep going,” she added. “I’m not going to complain.”
“There’s lots of work downtown,” added Daniel Carefoot, who’s worked on the Fox towers for the last two years. He also buys a coffee and lunch downtown most days.
The business association’s Taylor explained downtown construction projects – and the offshoot of having so many workers in the core – are somewhat sheltered from changes in government and policy.
“It’s not impacted by the change of government federally or provincially,” he said. “These are all private developments and they’re going ahead and will continue for the next three to four years for this build-out.”
Taylor said downturns are cyclical and we’ll emerge on the other side, but in the meantime, Edmonton’s downtown has a bit of a buffer.
“It is a wonderful, good news story, but it doesn’t just benefit downtown; it benefits the whole city, it benefits the whole region, it benefits the province to have our capital city doing so well.”
Eight years ago, Taylor said investment and development in downtown was starting to creep up.
“As soon as that arena became a reality, it leapt up.”
In May 2015, the City of Edmonton’s numbers showed over one million square feet in the core was a construction site. At that time, there were more than 1,100 residential units under construction, another 3,300 had been announced by developers, and the amount of underdeveloped land in downtown had decreased by 17 per cent in two years.
Some of the current and future projects include the downtown arena, two 51-storey towers near MacEwan University, Stantec’s 62-storey mixed-use tower and a new Delta Hotel.
With files from Sarah Kraus, Global News