A European Take on Rice Howard Way

Edmonton's Rice Howard Way will be converted to a more European-inspired entertainment district starting June 1.

Jordan Beatty’s spent a lot of time in the core. As operations manager with the Sherlock Holmes Hospitality Group’s downtown location for more than a decade, he’s intimately acquainted with the city’s core and he’s seen what can go right and what can go wrong.

“I’ve saw it pre-COVID-19, through COVID-19 and I’ve seen it post-COVID-19,” Beatty said. “Truthfully, it’s been a real emotional ride for me. I love downtown and I’m saddened by some of the stuff I see on a regular basis now.”

That emotional connection to downtown prompted Beatty, and a handful of other businesses, to throw their support behind a plan to turn Rice Howard Way into the City’s first impromptu entertainment district. After council signed off on amendments to the City’s Public Spaces Bylaw on May 14, that plan officially launches on June 1.

“I just want downtown to get back to the fun, safe, great environment I know it can, and should, be,” Beatty said. “This is a real opportunity to showcase exactly how great downtown is.”

Under the new bylaw, Rice Howard Way from 100th Street to 101st Street will be designated as a new entertainment district, enabling pedestrians to consume alcohol throughout the area from 11 a.m to midnight each Saturday from June 1 to Aug. 24. through a partnership with the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, there will also be scheduled programming — starting with the launch of the Downtown Spark festival — each Saturday.

This type of designation is the first of its kind in Edmonton, and only the second in Alberta, after a similar space in Red Deer.

“We’re definitely the largest city to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Tom Girvan,  the City’s director of downtown vibrancy.

The move is intended to create a more European ambience than you would get from a pop-up event with a cordoned-off beer garden or drink tent.

“The focus is on having a more European feel as it relates to space, while ensuring safety and security,” Girvan said. “It’s focus isn’t about being able to purchase a beverage and drinking it on the street. It’s about creating a really vibrant area that doesn’t have those restrictions.”

But the real benefit to the neighbourhood is the district’s ability to spread the economic love that will come with the increased foot traffic and sales. Under the previous bylaw, having an outdoor event that served alcohol required a single business to obtain what’s called a catering extension whereby it would be responsible for serving (and profiting from) those sales. That created a lot of disparity between the haves and the have-nots, according to Beatty.

“What that did is … if you closed Rice Howard Way and have a catering extension, one business does really well and all the others look on and go ‘man, I really wish I was responsible for the liquor for the whole street and activity,'” Beatty said.

Under this new designation, each restaurant in the area will have equal opportunity to share in the economic boon.

“We want everyone on the street to succeed and I think this is a great opportunity for that to happen,” Beatty said.

But not every business on Rice Howard Way is a restaurant or bar. The area counts galleries, florists and post-secondary institutes all nearby, many of them open on Saturdays. Whether they’ll share in the fruits of the area’s new designation isn’t clear.

Still, EDBA executive director, Puneeta McBryan, said the organization did consult with non-restauranteurs in the vicinity of the entertainment district, noting they seemed support of new plans.

“There are a couple of office-based businesses in the area that are very excited to just see an overall life for the area,” McBryan said. “We’re hoping that our retail businesses, like the Artworks on Rice Howard Way, see a lift in foot traffic and spending from the [extra] volume of people who will be spending time in the area.”

While not officially a pilot project, Girvan said the outcome of this summer’s events will be used to inform whether to continue the district in future years.  It could influence discussions about whether or not other areas in the city could accommodate entertainment districts of their own, though he said no formal discussion on that idea has happened yet.

McBryan, however, said the EDBA has heard the desire for the formatting to be implemented in other parts of downtown, like 104th street.

“We’ve heard a strong appetite to introduce a similar format for 104th Street on Saturdays with the Downtown Farmers’ Market returning,” she said. “I think a case could also be made to do this on 103rd Street as a sort of continuation of the ICE District Plaza, but we haven’t done any consultation or engagement with the businesses on the street.”

For his part, Beatty hopes the event will help to influence people to give downtown a second chance and potentially serve towards restoring its reputation.

“Right now, I talk to people and they go ‘oh, downtown, it’s pretty scary’ and sure, there are element of that … but I’m downtown every day and I don’t think it’s as bad as people think but when there’s a perception of it being scary, they don’t try or have a reason to try [coming downtown],” he said. “Let’s use this. Let’s get people downtown and make sure they have a safe, enjoyable time and go back and tell their friends.”