The energy slump has brought much of Alberta’s economy to a standstill, but in downtown Edmonton, construction cranes fill the air. Rogers Place, the city’s new hockey arena, opened this fall, while work on the Ice District sports and entertainment neighbourhood surrounding the venue is ongoing. All told, private developers, public organizations and the municipal government are investing $5 billion into the city’s core.
Overseeing this enormous undertaking is Don Iveson. “There’s a massive level of excitement about what it represents as a symbol of urban renewal, ambition for our city and recommitment to our downtown as the heart of it all,” says the 37-year-old mayor.
That optimistic attitude is a change for both Edmonton and Iveson. A decade ago, Iveson was seriously considering moving to Toronto for good. At the time, many of his peers were leaving the struggling city, attracted elsewhere to build lives, families and businesses. Iveson himself had spent a few years in Toronto, running the Canadian University Press, a national association of campus newspapers. But instead of leaving Edmonton, Iveson decided to try to improve it.
Following gigs as the business manager at the University of Alberta’s student newspaper and a government relations director at the students’ union, Iveson beat an incumbent for a seat on city council. He was 28. After two terms on council, Iveson mounted a campaign for mayor in 2013, focusing on a continued urban shift for Edmonton through policies like an expanded light-rail transit system and increased density. The then 34-year-old won handily.
Though the Daryl Katz–backed Ice District is an attractive symbol of the city’s regeneration, much work remains. Edmonton has a perception problem, the mayor admits. “People just generally don’t know what’s going on here,” says Iveson, calling his city the most underestimated in North America. He’s heard from recruiters that Edmonton is the hardest city to attract people to, but also one of the toughest to recruit them away from.
Generally seen as business-friendly and pro-growth, Iveson calls himself the city’s chief recruiter and brand officer. Edmonton is so much more than an oil and gas town, he emphasizes, citing the diversified economy, great quality of life, and strong entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. The pitch seems to be working. Iveson has noticed some of the same people who left Edmonton more than a decade ago packing their bags again. “The neat thing is they’re starting to come back.”