Mayor Kevin Zahara sits in the middle of the council chamber absently adjusting his tie when the internet live-stream begins. Sitting beside him are six councillors, made up of equal parts men and women, representing the town of Edson, Alberta, as well as city staff members, including Mike Derricott, Chief Administrative Officer, who provides details on how city staff are implementing strategies as well as recommendations…
Despite the economic downturn Alberta has seen in recent years, the town of Edson has experienced minimal impact. In part this is because the town’s economy is diverse, with strong sectors like forestry, mining and gas, and not primarily tied to the Oil Sands like so many others. The rest stems from the actions council has been taking to invest in infrastructure, attract investment and use new technology to converse with residents.
Nestled in between the busy city of Edmonton and the world-famous Jasper National Park, Edson’s residents take full advantage of the many activities their community offers. In the woods on the outskirts of town, the lines of skidoo tracks can be seen crisscrossing through the snow. People here love their outdoor activities, and for that reason the council has zoned new housing with larger lots to accommodate vehicles like Skidoos and ATVs.
Of course, big machines aren’t the only way to get around. The town has many walking and bike paths that give access to the beautiful outdoors. They aren’t just a way to get out of town, but also a way to get across town and enjoy cultural attractions like the Red Brick Arts Centre and Museum as well as local concerts. In town, there is a vibrant farmer’s market full of fresh food. Just minutes outside of Edson are numerous campgrounds, hunting grounds, ski hills and an 18-hole golf course.
While the economic downturn shrunk the size of most natural resource-based towns across the province, Edson’s population has remained relatively stable. One reason for this is recent public investment. In 2017, the new $198 million Edson Healthcare Centre, a senior’s centre and a school opened. These facilities contribute to the total healthcare and education employment in Edson, accounting for 15 percent of all jobs. A new multi-use recreation facility is going through an approval phase, in a joint partnership with the county. The council is also wisely cutting costs. They have recently changed all the road lights to be dark-sky certified LEDs, successfully halving their electricity expenses.
While public investments continue to pour in, there hasn’t been large-scale growth in the private sector since 2015. This trend is about to change. “We have a number of projects being planned over the next five years,” says the Mayor, “including a power plant and a synthetic fuels facility, which is really, really exciting. If the Trans Mountain Pipeline gets going that certainly would be a very positive thing for our community.”
While large private investments are certainly welcomed, small businesses keep the local economy healthy. Fifteen percent of Edson’s population work in retail, and to help them get a jump start, the city has almost zero red tape for new business startups; the application form is one page and accessible online. The annual business fee ranges from $50 to 100 and is reinvested back into the business community through initiatives like the Beautification Grant, a matching grant that gives up to $5000 to businesses that wish to paint, renovate, improve signage or undertake other creative initiatives to beautify areas of downtown.
As with all things the council engages in these days, there is an active consulting process used to shape policy. In an online survey, businesses rank the importance of initiatives the town should take on. Examples include new standards for development, core business revitalization, industrial land development and workshops for businesses. This data is combined with larger regional data and used to inform current policy, providing inside knowledge for new businesses entering the community. Indeed, the key to much of Edson’s success is its ability to use diverse communication channels to dialogue with the community.
Here, it’s normal for councillors to run into community members walking along the wide streets, enjoying a coffee, or taking a stroll down one of the lush walking trails. Residents will tell their representatives their thoughts on how the town is doing, how their kids are doing in school, or the latest house league hockey game. However direct these encounters are, the Mayor is quick to not draw conclusions on what council priorities should be. “One of the challenges is that we’re all in the same circles,” he explains. “We need to hear from a broader portion of the population.”
To this end, kiosks with surveys and city information are set up at many municipal buildings, where city staff greet residents and garner their feedback. “If you don’t have a computer, you can still go to that kiosk and staff will be able to help people answer those survey questions and provide that feedback and fill out those surveys,” says Mayor Zahara. Council meetings are open to the public and regular coffee meetings are held to discuss the upcoming town priorities. For those who prefer to engage through technology, online surveys are available and council meetings are live-streamed. Edson has also developed a phone app where residents can access important information on government services, local businesses, meetings, workshops and walking trails. They can give immediate feedback (including pictures) to council and civil servants about any needed road repairs, snow removal or general suggestions. Everyone on council has a social media account and it is used as another means to communicate with residents.
Taking technology a step further, the town has developed an online budgeting tool that simultaneously lets residents offer suggestions on where to increase or decrease spending, as well as giving them insight into the big-picture decisions council has to make year-round. After inputting their housing value, they are shown estimates on where every single one of their tax dollars is being spent. Residents can use a slider to increase or decrease spending in various areas and submit their suggestions to council. They are shown the difference this would make in their annual taxes as well as to Edson’s annual budget. A few dollars spent in fire services, parks or waste by a single resident adds up to thousand-fold increases in that service. In an increasingly politically polarized hemisphere, the council are asking for the opinions of all political stripes. Citizens could opt to reduce all spending, or increase it, without judgement.
Council uses this feedback, along with statistics the administration collects to make evidence-based decisions.
While they all share a table, their approaches to town development come from different angles. Derricott and the city staff primarily focus on the long-term sustainability drawn from quantitative statistics while Mayor Zahara and Council focus on the desires and needs of the community. Derricott explains, “There’s what I like to call a creative tension. There are certain things the political realm puts pressure on the administrative realm to do. But there’s also a responsibility the administration has to make sure they look at the big picture: things that are less sexy to the voter, but provide for the long-term sustainability.”
The newly approved $17-miillion dollar wastewater treatment plant is a prime example. It would be tempting for a new Mayor to sign off that many tax dollars on something other than sewage in order to impress the community; but the plant is essential to smart, long-term sustainable development for housing, businesses and residents. This is not a ribbon-cutting, media glitz and glam council. It’s one that is always looking at the horizon, led by a Mayor who prefers to be called Kevin. “One of the first things Derricott told me is that you will always be addressed as ‘Mayor’ in the town office,” he reflects, “and I hate it, I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes,” he says with a chuckle.
For all the ways they get along, they don’t always agree, and this tension is valuable. Most recently, cannabis legislation has been a controversial topic across the country, and each town is able to restrict or encourage sales through local zoning laws. The civil servants’ recommendations were to restrict where cannabis could be sold and consumed. After spending hours debating and reviewing over 600 resident surveys on the topic, the council disagreed with the recommendations. Mayor Zahara explains, “the administration provides us with good information – not that we always are rowing in the same direction. Part of our job as a council is to give a little different perspective and a different pair of eyes.” The council moved to reduce regulations to allow cannabis stores to be able to open beside bars, for example.
Certainly, the strength of a town is in the sum of its parts, and this is evident in Edson. The collaborative way government, elected officials, residents and businesses work together has helped to keep the economy diverse, the infrastructure investments sustainable and the residents friendly and engaged.
In the council chamber, Mayor Zahara, the six elected officials, and civil servants sit at a circular table, with a small audience to their right and a larger one watching online. After three hours, the meeting comes to a close. For the past year this council has been working diligently to attract new public and private investments and to embrace new technologies while keeping stakeholders involved in the process. “We have a great council that is really digging deep in order to accomplish a lot of projects, [using] forward planning and evidence-based decision making,” says the Mayor. “I’m really excited for the future of our community; coupled with the work the administration is doing, I think we’re well positioned going into the future.”