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Is ICE District Revitalizing Downtown?

ICE District’s development is ongoing. Photo courtesy of ICE District.

It may be hard to remember now but the initial announcement for Rogers Place was instantly connected to stories of a revitalized downtown core. Like many stadiums before it, the Oilers’ proposed new home was supposed to bring new venues and new areas for people to explore and enjoy. With these, of course, a renewed excitement was supposed to follow, and more development as a result.

ICE District was announced not long after Rogers Place and with it, the claim that it would “transform Edmonton and [become] the largest mixed-use sports and entertainment development in Canada.” Even today, ICE District’s own website claims that the area is “leading a major rejuvenation — and shakeup of commercial real estate — in downtown Edmonton.”

Such promises of revitalization are the go-to marketing strategy for many stadiums, often used in an effort to get the approval of the public and consequently, public funding. Few stadiums, however, actually deliver on such promises. Edmonton’s own Commonwealth Stadium, for example, was supposed to make its surrounding area a hotspot, something that never really happened. More broadly, a 2008 survey study concluded that “peer-reviewed literature on the economic impact of stadiums, arenas, sports franchises, and sports mega-events has consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes or tax revenues for communities associated with [sports subsidies].”

That made Rogers Place and its significant public funding quite the risk with a slim chance of reward. With a final price tag just shy of $614 million, including the Winter Garden and connection to the LRT, it’s not unreasonable to look at whether the new arena and surrounding area are performing for the city as a whole. This is especially true since the City itself contributed $313 million and the Katz Group added $166 million, mostly in the form of rent payments to the City. A surcharge to fans is expected to make up the rest. With such a significant strain on the public coffers, both in terms of cash and potential for lost revenue, it begs the question: have ICE District and Rogers Place started to deliver on their promises?

Renee Williams, director of international market development for Edmonton Tourism, says the district has already become a major part of the city’s revival and reimagining, and is delivering on its promises both for itself and Edmonton’s downtown. “ICE District is a catalyst. It has played a significant role in the redevelopment and reimagining of downtown,” she says. “I think the people at ICE District and the Oilers Entertainment Group have done a fantastic job with the concert series and looking at ways to have acts in town for more than one day.”

Williams cites Garth Brooks specifically, whose nine sold-out shows generated an estimated $42 million for the city’s economy, according to the Oilers Entertainment Group. This is a significant number, not just as a signal that people are seeing downtown Edmonton as a destination, but to the economic benefits of the stadium.

One of the reasons that Edmonton may avoid the issues that come with most big stadiums is the significant amount of redevelopment in the area, and the major impact that development is already having. To date, $2.5 billion in development is underway, completed, or planned, which is what interests many events professionals in the city. It isn’t just Garth Brooks or other high-profile events that are happening downtown, it’s the excitement surrounding everything that brings people to the core.

For Kate Gallagher, owner and operator of KMG Events, ICE District’s new venues mean more opportunities, but in general her business has been unchanged by its arrival. “Overall, we haven’t seen much of a change to our business with ICE District opening up,” she says, but, “New venues are always good to have, and we are open to using them. It depends entirely on our clients’ wants and needs.”

What Gallagher has noticed is that people, even those from out of town, want to spend time downtown as opposed to flying in, doing their work, and flying out again. “The downtown has become sexier in the past few years and we are noticing our clients are more open to staying and doing things downtown,” she says. “Rogers Place is bringing more people downtown and there’s more to do, so they are more open to staying.”

Christine Dimler, conference director at The Oasis Centre, has similarly noticed little changes in their business because of ICE District, and that the area is changing people’s opinions of Edmonton’s downtown and the city as a whole. “As the Oasis Centre is a unique venue for comparably smaller, exclusive events, the downtown redevelopment did not really affect our business,” she says. “We feel that our exclusive venue and high-quality service complements the downtown redevelopment, making Edmonton an even more attractive meeting destination. The venues downtown challenge us to stay on the cutting edge of providing outstanding, flexible service to our clients.”

Overall, ICE District’s presence and impact is happening in conjunction with revitalization efforts all around the city, not just in the small section immediately around Rogers Place. In essence, it hasn’t happened in a vacuum. “I think you’ve got all the development that’s been happening all over downtown,” says Williams. “You’ve got things like the Royal Alberta Museum and all the development on 104th St. You’ve got Oliver and the Brewery District and the new hotel property opening up in The Quarters.”

Each of these areas are bringing people downtown, whether it’s a new art exhibit or museum exhibit, a new restaurant, or new conference spaces opening up that attract professionals and experts from around the world. All of it is making Edmonton a more significant player in events and conferences, and the entire city is benefits.

Williams concludes, “When you look at the picture holistically, you can see that downtown Edmonton has really become a destination. We have seen so much investment and development in the area that it’s only going to make the destination even greater.”

Over 10 years ago, when the new arena was first announced, many people in Edmonton were excited by its impact on a somewhat-sleepy downtown core. With its arrival and the accompanying ICE District, we are seeing tangible changes to the area. It seems Edmonton, through a focused development and opening up of its downtown restrictions, has avoided many of the issues that often come with new stadiums. With the many changes, Edmonton’s downtown has already become a destination like never before, and with more development on the way, its success will only continue.