Building a place to stay

Investing in innovation a key strategy for Edmonton’s downtown core according to Alberta School of Business alumna.

Over the past year and a half, downtowns across North America have faced a reckoning. Though COVID-19 continues to have devastating impacts on people and businesses, it has presented a unique opportunity for cities to reevaluate what a downtown is — and who it’s for.

“People have known for quite some time that the traditional, historic model for a central business district doesn’t work anymore,” said Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association (DBA).

“The downtowns that are going to truly recover from COVID-19 and reimagine what they are in a way that’s sustainable and resilient for the future are the ones that are prioritizing inclusive and equitable spaces for everyone,” said McBryan, who graduated from the Alberta School of Business in 2012.

Puneeta McBryan, '12 BCom, is the executive director of Edmonton's Downtown Business Association.

Rethinking how we live and work

Recently, McBryan and the DBA (along with other community leaders and urbanists from across the country) collaborated on the Case for the Core, a report released by the Canadian Urban Institute that makes the case for why downtowns matter and how COVID-19 presents a radical opportunity to rethink them. The report outlined three different scenarios for the future: a worst-case scenario in which downtowns are stretched to their breaking point and left a shadow of what they once were, one where cities attempt to return to the status quo pre-COVID-19, and one in which the pandemic catalyzes an innovative, sustainable and future-driven core.

With the release of the City of Edmonton’s Downtown Vibrancy Strategy and the recent announcement of its two-year, $5-million commitment to businesses, visitors and residents, the city is currently invested in the latter.

Among the action items in the DBA’s portfolio are thinking about public spaces, “not as a nice to have, but as an absolute necessity,” and investing in active and public transportation infrastructure, said McBryan.

From pop-up public spaces like Root 107 — a summer initiative that converted an unused gravel parking lot into an inclusive space with public art, food trucks and live music — to Brick and Mortar, an exciting art and design festival rethinking the retail experience, McBryan said it’s all part of the effort to create inclusive and equitable spaces.

“I really do think that what happens in our downtown over the next two to five years is a key piece to our ability to attract and retain talent and investment into our city’s economy,” she said.

Though there is a long way to go in the transformation towards a vibrant, intentionally designed neighbourhood, these steps are key to attracting progressive, future-focused companies bringing both talent and innovation to the downtown core, along with Edmonton’s affordability compared to other North American big cities.
Also key is ensuring the city’s outward public face be diverse, inclusive and young to demonstrate to the rest of the country what Edmonton truly looks like, said McBryan, who is the first woman and person of colour to hold the executive director position at the DBA.
“I can easily brush that off and say it’s not really personally significant to me, but on a bigger scale, it is important that our leaders represent the future generations and what they're looking for in a city and a community,” she said.

An unpredictable career

McBryan — like many students who graduate from the Alberta School of Business — could never have predicted her career path.

Coming from a family business background (her family owns furniture stores in Alberta and B.C.), she initially enrolled in the school because it felt familiar. She tried both accounting and finance majors before deciding on strategic entrepreneurship and management and marketing because they aligned most closely with some of the aspects of business she most enjoyed — business strategy and people.

Now, she works in place management, a field committed to the process of making places better. A profession she didn’t know about until she took the job with the DBA, it exists “at a really cool intersection” of the public and private sectors, said McBryan.

“My hope is to reassure students that not being great at goal setting and not being able to look into a crystal ball about your future has no bearing on your future success.”

Puneeta McBryan’s Book Suggestions: 

A Promised Land: Barack Obama

Born a Crime: Trevor Noah

Dare to Lead: Brené Brown

Naked: David Sedaris

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