Edmonton

How 4 Edmonton startups are trying to revitalize and reimagine space downtown

Office workers may not have returned to downtown Edmonton in levels seen before the pandemic, but four local companies are trying to use technology to bring more people back.

From parking to co-working, companies are trying to make downtown a destination

A woman looks at a cell phone screen outside a pub in downtown Edmonton.
Emily Craven's app Story City invites Edmontonians to spend time downtown experiencing free or low-cost choose-your-own-adventure stories and walking tours. (Submitted by Emily Craven)

Four local companies are trying to use technology to fill downtown Edmonton's streets and businesses.

The four startups have mobile applications in various stages of development. All try to offer downtown visitors incentives, from cheaper parking spots to happy-hour deals.

"We want to help make it easier for people to come back, and parking has, as long as I can remember, been one of the biggest hurdles that people point to for not going downtown," said Kevin Petterson, founder of the parking app Zipstall.

Petterson and other entrepreneurs used the pandemic to rethink how space is used downtown and develop creative ways to attract visitors.

Less painful parking

Zipstall helps drivers find and pay for parking spots efficiently, eliminating the need to circle the block and guess how much time and money a trip will take. 

"It became really apparent to me that essentially everybody was suffering based on how the industry was set up," said Petterson, who has a background in commercial real estate.

A man stands beside a City of Edmonton parking meter with a mobile phone.
Kevin Petterson's app Zipstall helps people find available parking in downtown Edmonton. (Submitted by Kevin Petterson)

The app, which uses customer-sourced and historical data to predict vacant spots, has been accepting payments since October. It recently linked up with the City of Edmonton's parking payment system.

Users pay a convenience fee of 10 per cent of the parking cost to book a spot through the platform.

Petterson said the city operates less than a quarter of all parking spots downtown and many private spots are hidden from public view.

He believes if parking deals were easier to find, more people would spend time downtown and patronize local businesses.

Exploring the streets through stories

When Emily Craven first moved to Edmonton, she visited downtown and was surprised to find its streets deserted on the weekend.

"It seemed such a shame to me that there was all of this wonderful infrastructure that had gone into downtown, but it was practically empty," she said.

She started the Story City app — a location-based platform with free and paid interactive stories — as a way to revitalize city centres and boost writers' careers.

A woman points to Edmonton's city hall while holding a smartphone.
Emily Craven uses her app, Story City, to experience Joseph Halden's puzzle story, A Hole in the Netaverse, which starts at city hall. (Submitted by Emily Craven)

"When you're looking at revitalizing something like downtown Edmonton, it's really key not only to give people events that may happen on a weekend, but something they can come and do at any time," Craven said.

Story City launched in 2016, using QR codes on posters. An updated version came out earlier this summer with a new batch of Edmonton-based stories.

Multiple stories are set downtown, including A Hole in the Netaverse, a cyberpunk story that starts at city hall.

The puzzle-filled story costs $5.99 on the app and takes about 75 minutes to complete.

Hal Friesen, an Edmonton author who writes under the pen name Joseph Halden, said his story is an escapist adventure but grounded in physical details downtown.

"I think that's one role that art can have — adding highlights to spaces that we otherwise would just ignore and neglect," he said.

Downtown deals

Kate Popiel took her deal-hunting app, What's the Deal? offline in 2020 to rebuild during the pandemic.

Seventy-eight restaurants have signed up so far for the upgraded platform. Scheduled to launch this fall, it charges businesses a subscription fee to list deals.

Popiel said she wants to give independent businesses an affordable way to reach new customers so they can compete against corporate giants with big marketing budgets.

"Our whole goal is to get people in the restaurant so the restaurant can do their thing and wow them, and hopefully they become recurring customers," she said.

A brother and sister in formal clothing sit on a ledge.
Leo and Kate Popiel plan to relaunch their restaurant-deal-finding app in the fall. (Ampersand Grey)

Popiel, who has worked in the restaurant industry for years, said she has noticed a lot of downtown businesses have stopped opening during the lunch hour because there are fewer office workers around. She has also noticed a shift in marketing strategy. 

"They're definitely focusing on making downtown a destination, so getting people out of their neighbourhoods, or if they're far from the downtown core, getting them to come downtown and making it more of an experience rather than just a quick bite," she said. 

She said her company has been working with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute to develop metrics for restaurants, which are looking to see a return on their investment in the subscription. 

Rethinking restaurant space

Robyn Paches is also trying to fill restaurant seats but with a different type of customer.

A man wears a black leather jacket and has his hands in his pocket.
Workspace co-founder Robyn Paches wants to connect remote workers with restaurants struggling to fill seats during the day. (Submitted by Robyn Paches)

The company he co-founded, Workspace, aims to partner with restaurants so remote workers can work there during slow times.

He said the arrangement could give remote workers more affordable office space and provide restaurants with an alternate revenue source.

The company plans to build an app prototype before the end of the year and is looking for a developer who believes in the idea.

Paches's idea is similar to the U.S. restaurant co-working startup Spacious, which WeWork bought for $43 million US in 2019.

Initially, Workspace's business plan was for co-workers to take over restaurants during certain times but local business owners told the company that model seemed invasive and they preferred sharing their space, not turning it over completely.

"We're trying to program those slower times where they would normally be open anyway, but they just might not be that busy," Paches said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.

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