Blatchford is more than a development. It looks to be an election battleground.
If Thursday’s BOMA Edmonton-sponsored debate between the four front-running mayoral candidates is an indication, the former City Centre Airport lands may soon have a large FOR SALE sign on them. Both Michael Oshry and Cheryll Watson, as part of a plan to get the City out of land development, pledged to sell off Blatchford as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, former councillor Kim Krushell said she is leaning towards moving the development away from the City. She said she campaigned hard in 2010 to shutter the City Centre Airport, and had high hopes for the development, but admitted that the lack of activity is a suggestion that it “hasn’t lived up to the opportunity” and may need a “private-sector approach.” But, she warned that the City selling off hundreds of hectares of land at one time could flood the market, and disrupt land values.
Amarjeet Sohi, the former federal cabinet minister and city councillor, did not present many specifics during the debate, choosing instead to lean on his resumé as the former Minister of Natural Resources, and his work in helping build the Canadian Infrastructure Bank. While Oshry and Watson generated the most applause from the developer-and-builder heavy audience, Sohi stuck to campaign points.
After the closure of the airport, the City took over as the developer for the lands, planning a community that would house 30,000 people. But it wasn’t until 2020 that a handful of housing units were available for sale. Most of the over 500 acres remains undeveloped.
Oshry said it was an example of why the City should not be competing with private developers. He said that the development has netted the City zero dollars in tax revenue, yet $200 million has been sunk in the project. He also suggested private developers are needed for West Rossdale.
“Before attracting investment, you need to create something to invest in,” said Watson, who doubled down on her promise to sell Blatchford, stating she’d also sell off the exhibition grounds amongst other city-owned land.
According to moderator Ryan Jespersen, the four candidates were selected by two criteria, that they were leading in the polls and that “they agreed to attend.” Candidates Mike Nickel and Augustine Marah were not present. Candidate Brian Gregg was outside the Westin Hotel, playing guitar, while candidates Diana Steele, Abdul Chukwudi and Rick Comrie were in the room.
When it came to taxes, Watson pointed out the fact that, while she ran Innovate Edmonton until last year, she hasn’t been an elected official. “I am the only one on the stage who has not raised your taxes.”
Sohi talked about how his family struggled when they first arrived in Edmonton, and he’d carry that same frugality to the mayor’s chair. “Every dollar mattered to us. That’s the kind of discipline I will bring to the city.”
But without specifics, he left himself open to an attack from Oshry, who was able to accuse Sohi of wanting to increase taxes by eight per cent, without rebuttal.
“We need to be competitive with the region, which we’re not,” said Oshry, noting that businesses are choosing to place themselves in other areas of the Edmonton region, rather than Edmonton itself. He said he supports holding the line on taxes in year one, while bringing in a two per cent decrease in year two.
Krushell also pledged to hold the line on taxes. She agreed that Edmonton was the “hole in the doughnut” as it was losing business to the outlying regions, and needs to become more tax competitive.
Oshry said there’s “so much money floating around” globally, and that “none of it is coming to Edmonton.” His solution? To get government to “stop picking winners” and letting the private sector do what it does best.
THE EDIFY VERDICT: Judging by applause from those in attendance, and we need to stress that this was an audience invested in the real-estate business, Watson and Oshry had the biggest impact. Krushell found her feet as the debate went on. But it’s not really about who won — it might be more about who lost.
Sohi has to be seen as the big loser. He needs to stop speaking like he’s still campaigning as a federal politician and simply telling us how important he used to be. He needs to show some specifics going forward, rather than simply telling everyone how Edmonton has potential and how he’s a consensus-builder. He needs to start meeting the other front-runners on the issues, rather than playing from what comes off as a pretty strict playbook of platitudes.
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