Edmonton City Centre Airport: its future is a subject for debate during the 2010 municipal election. Photo: mastermaq/Flickr

What started out as a sleepy campaign of shoo-in incumbents in Edmonton’s municipal elections has turned an unexpected corner this summer as — seemingly out of the blue — “volunteers” began appearing on street corners and canvassing major events for signatures to keep the Edmonton City Centre Airport open.

The airport has served as a secondary airport, mainly for private jets, pilot training and medevac flights. It has not had scheduled passenger flights since a plebiscite in 1995 consolidated scheduled traffic at the Edmonton International Airport.

Current Mayor Stephen Mandel has lobbied for airport closure in favour of a walkable, sustainable urban community with high environmental standards. This vision is now an international competition, with proposals to be submitted by five firms in November.

Nearly a year since council voted 10 to three in favour of closing the airport, a group called Envision Edmonton came forth with a petition to stop the closure. They called upon municipal election candidates to address the issue, and eventually endorsed a number of known pro-airport candidates, including David Dorward for mayor.

Another candidate, Daryl Bonar (whose macho campaign began at a UFC match and continued as a grassroots campaign targeting youth voters in bars) claimed that Envision Edmonton requested that he step down from his campaign in order not to split the pro-airport vote. This coincided with the announcement that another candidate, pro-airport Don Koziak, would be stepping out of the mayor’s race to run for councillor in Ward 2.

As a response to Envision Edmonton’s flashy media campaign, the Edmonton Airport Authority started Share the Facts, which started running ads to counter E.E.’s claims. Another group — Yes For Edmonton — created what is basically a list of prominent and not-so-prominent Edmontonians in favour of developing airport lands as well as other progressive views. A media bun fight has since ensued, with each side claiming the other to be in the pocket of various interest groups, with mini-scandals involving rogue emails, leaked letters, and conspiracy theories.

The downtown arena has also been another hot button topic, some may say a red herring, during this election. The owner of the Edmonton Oilers has made it no secret that he wants to move the team to a new arena, which he plans to build downtown. The current arena is in the north east. Mandel seems to favour a downtown arena, which promises public spaces and attractions, such as dining and casinos.

However, the battle over how much public funding will go into the project has been contentious as Oilers boss Daryl Katz has presented proposals that see almost no promised revenues outside of taxes. As a hockey town, this card is a tricky one to play: show too much spine against Oilers management brings up the spectre of losing the team altogether (Katz has indiscreetly been sniffing around Hamilton for prospective arena development), but appear too willing to cave into demands rallies the non-fans who balk at millions coming out of their pockets to fund a man who is already a billionaire.

It has been a strange one.

In Edmonton, city councillors and mayors do not officially identify with any political party (though some are active in parties provincially and federally), so the right-left labels are not necessarily obvious, nor consistent. What municipal politicians do, then, is to deal with issues.

What has emerged during the past month of campaigning are three major contenders to the mayoral seat. Incumbent Mandel has promoted a vision of Edmonton as a city of quality, (his “no more crap” policy on architecture, a focus on creativity and retaining young professionals, and the arts), as well as focusing on more nitty-gritty city issues (our aboriginal population, revitalization of older neighbourhoods, homelessness and urban sustainability). David Dorward is a chartered accountant (and former unsuccessful provincial Conservative candidate) whose claim to fame seems to be the building of the Go! Centre recreation centre, espouses the traditional conservative line of lower taxes through fiscal restraint. Daryl Bonar is a 31-year-old military officer whose aggressive stance (Fight Back!) is meant to attract young men. His platform is informed by a “grassroots” philosophy, resulting in a platform that runs from the sensible (urban revitalization) to the impractical(monthly neighbourhood meetings to supplement city hall forums). Other candidates are largely seen as being on the fringe.

The airport issue enrages many Edmontonians on both sides of the political spectrum, and is distracting. In the meantime, citizens have expressed their concerns on some less rhetorical issues.

Edmonton has adopted a 10-year homelessness plan. The concentration of social housing (which includes low-income affordable housing, halfway houses, and group homes) has been mentioned numerous times, and is one of Bonar’s pet causes. Bonar himself was raised in a low-income project in Vancouver, and claimed that they are best spread throughout the city rather than concentrated in the inner city; wards 6, 2, and 7 being the most affected. Mandel’s concern for social housing is in fact a concern for housing overall, he says, which ties into planning, development, and his homelessness efforts which have a housing-now focus.

And urban sprawl has become an ongoing concern: with schools closing in the inner city while infrastructure is scrambling to be built in the outer edges of the city, many are worried about the cost of our ever-expanding borders to taxpayers, not to mention the environmental cost. Urban sprawl goes hand in hand with the airport development issue — or does it? Dorward and Bonar, who both are in favour of keeping the airport open, take an anti-sprawl stance. Mandel’s plan for inner city revitalization and development of the airport (which would be an easy bike commute to downtown, if it were a residential area).

Perhaps the most interesting issue (and one people can agree on) is the threat of school closures and the lack of co-operation between council and both public and Catholic school boards.

An unprecedented number of candidates has stepped up for the school board elections, with 24 candidates running in the public system’s nine wards (two wards acclamated their candidates) and 20 candidates vying for the seven Catholic wards. Most candidates have expressed a concern over the school situation, and it is likely that this issue will end up at the top of the agenda with the new council.

Many Edmontonians have brought up public transit as a concern. Mandel during his three-term, nine-year tenure has pushed LRT development, with a major line running south to a proposed south University campus now complete, and lines to be built west and north, crossing the erstwhile new airport development and to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (which itself would likely expand onto airport lands). LRT development had been stalled for years, with no new development since the downtown line crossed the river to the university in the 1990s. However, Dorward feels that we cannot afford the planned LRT expansion, (“line-by-line” seems to be a favourite buzzword for this accountant), but feels that a zero-tolerance policy on transit safety should be adopted, even though such a policy already exists. Bonar is cautiously in favour of LRT expansion, although he feels that the western route must be re-debated. Cycle Edmonton has also been active in promoting policies that encourage safe cycling in the city.

Despite Alberta’s reputation for political complacency and heterogeneity, alternative voices are quite active in Edmonton. Two interesting surveys are an example of this. The Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton (PACE) runs its Artsvote campaign every election (city, provincial and federal) and quizzed candidates on their position on the arts, as well, a queer survey was taken by The Capital Club, a business network for queer professionals. Mandel has comfortably included gay rights into his tenure, finally overturning former Mayor Bill Smith’s stubborn refusal to sign the Pride Week proclamation. He has taken part in Pride parades, and is the patron of Camp Fyrefly, a summer camp for queer youth.

Mari Sasano is a freelance writer and the editor of The Rat Creek Press.