Edmonton councillors call for accountability of city's economic agency

City councillors are insisting on more accountability from Edmonton’s corporations ahead of a tight four-year budget.

Council agrees to shelve idea of Innovation Corridor, asking for information, alternatives

Edmonton city council agrees to ask for independent review of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and its affiliates. (Lydia Neufeld)

City councillors are insisting on more accountability from Edmonton's city-funded corporations ahead of a tight four-year capital budget.

On Tuesday, council was asked to approve a new initiative called the Innovation Corridor, which spurred a spate of questions, including, "What is it?"

The Edmonton Economic Development Corporation pitched the initiative as a way to draw research, new tech and entrepreneurs to the city.

There was no outline or request for funding, which Coun. Sarah Hamilton noted would eventually come.

No business plan was presented. 
Coun. Sarah Hamilton called for shelving an Innovation Corridor initiative after the EEDC presented no concrete business plan. (CBC)

Hamilton raised a motion to put the Innovation Corridor on hold and explore alternatives.

"We haven't gotten a really clear picture of what we're going to do, how we're going to do it, who's involved and how much it's going to cost," she said Tuesday. "Those are pretty fundamental questions you need answered before you can make a really good decision on this.

"It's really hard to make a determination as to whether or not this is a good investment for this council in a tough year without having some solid facts in front of us."

Derek Hudson, CEO of the EEDC, described an Innovation Corridor as an "acceleration" of what another agency, Startup Edmonton, does — providing some money and mentorship to budding entrepreneurs.

"There are other mentorship possibilities," Hudson said. "But we don't believe that the innovation hub concept addresses all the needs of the community because we haven't completed the process of identifying what all those might be."

People who are entrepreneurs, they've got that empty-belly ethic- Coun. Aaron Paquette

Hamilton's motion includes an independent, third-party review of the mandate of EEDC and its affiliates, including TEC Edmonton, Startup Edmonton and Edmonton Research Park.

"I think a reasonable question is, are we duplicating our efforts? And we have no way of knowing," Hamilton said.

The motion passed, and the mayor said he will ask the EEDC for alternatives to the Innovation Corridor. 

Council was also asked to approve a preliminary initiative outlining support for a so-called "startup ecosystem," involving EEDC and TEC Edmonton, but no estimate was included in the report.

Coun. Tony Caterina asked city administration to work with the agencies and report back on how much in salaries and administration costs the city would be asked to pay for a start up ecosystem.

"We need to know what that cost is related to how much is going into the program, and how much is attributed to administrative costs."

Councillors first heard concerns from a group of entrepreneurs on Oct. 15 when a series of reports was presented to council for approval.

Kam Nemec, founder and CEO of a startup called GreenGreen, a company that provides alternative credit payment options for cannabis in the United States, said councillors were starting to get to the root of the conflict.

"Maybe the solution really is not to have the EEDC involved with the innovation ecosystem at all, and none of their sub-agencies."

However, he said having EEDC come up with an alternative to an Innovation Corridor is not the right way to go.

"Asking the failed organizations to come up with a better strategy and tell us why it's going to be different next time, it might work," he said. "But that would make me an insane optimist in that respect."

Coun. Aaron Paquette used an analogy to describe the conflict between entrepreneurs and the city's approach.

"The full belly is sort of more process-oriented and the empty-belly is more results-oriented," Paquette suggested. "People who are innovators, people who are entrepreneurs, they've got that empty-belly ethic."

Paquette said the city should listen to entrepreneurs.

"They want to be brand ambassadors for their city, for their community, and if that ethic isn't where we're starting from, my fear is that we're starting from the wrong place."

Mayor Don Iveson is expected to discuss the issues with EEDC next month and report back to council. 

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.