It has been five years since work began on Edmonton’s ICE District. With it came bold predictions for the downtown core.

Now, despite the COVID-19 pandemic putting a wrench in the plans, expectations are still high.

Tim Shipton, executive vice-president of corporate affairs for ICE District, remains optimistic and believes the area is the heart to revive the downtown core.

“ICE District is going to lead the recovery for Edmonton for sure,” Shipton said. “If Phase 1 is the excitement, Phase 2 is the sustainability of a residential base.

“We’re looking at over 2,000 residential units (and) a blend of amenities in a mixed-use concept.”

WATCH: Bold prediction on ICE District development

ICE District expects parts of its Phase 2 village to open at some point in the first or second quarter of next year. That also includes a new CityMarket grocery store and Canadian ICEhouse (Brewhouse).

In December, the ICE District Plaza skating rink will open to the public.

The downtown is slowly coming back to life, with the return of fans to Rogers Place for Oilers home games and businesses opening their doors again.

“(At) the battle of Alberta on Oct. 16, downtown was humming, the ICE District was packed,” Shipton said.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen that many people in the downtown core in at least a year and a half, and so, I think some of those shots of optimism are coming.”

But for many downtown leaders, the pandemic has been a healthy reality check on the need for more than just entertainment to bring and keep people in the core.

“All downtowns are in a tricky spot and I really do think that we’re at a disadvantage right now because of fewer residents,” said Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association.

“It is about building a community, a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week community where people live here, work here (and) spend time here for all kinds of different reasons.”

Shipton doubled down on ICE District’s vision remaining the same, of being a place to live, work, play and stay when asked if the pandemic changed the outlook on how to get more people downtown.

“In order to get that, you need to have amenities that people want to come and enjoy,” he said. “And obviously you have to have jobs for people to work and be able to sustain themselves.”

Pre-pandemic, McBryan said there were roughly 13,000 residents living downtown.

“(The area’s number of residents is) something that we’ve been working on for a while, and then COVID(-19), it was just like driving into a brick wall if you’re looking at downtowns and any progress that was being made,” she said.

A change that’s here to stay because of the pandemic is working from home and many expect that to result in a permanent hit to downtown foot traffic. Take Stantec, for example, in Edmonton’s tallest tower. The company said half of its employees are heading back to the office in the coming months full-time and the rest will work a hybrid model which will be one to four days a week in the office.

But McBryan doesn’t think the hybrid workflow will deter commercial leases or the downtown population.

“It’s not the majority of workers, and the difference it will make when everyone is back, which is now looking like January, it really will feel like the tides are turning,” she said.

For downtown’s new city councillor in Ward O-day’min, safety is the top priority.

“So, ensuring that we find the budget to have teams that are on the streets and these are community outreach teams, folks who work in mental health and social services to create safer streets for all of us,” Anne Stevenson said.

The expectation is the perception of social disorder will also start to decrease when more people return to the downtown.

READ MORE: Edmonton Ice District will be home to new temporary off-leash dog park

The Capital City Downtown Community Revitalization Levy helps support ICE District and the city said despite drops in revenue during the pandemic, all of its projects will still be funded.

“As of February 2021, the Capital City Downtown Levy was projected to generate between $710 million (low scenario) and $825 million (high scenario) in revenues,” the city said in a statement issued to Global News. “This is a decrease of $36 million (low scenario) and $77 million (high scenario) from the 2019 forecast, but is sufficient to fund all currently approved projects and most or all of the unfunded downtown catalyst projects.

“For the current year, we are in the process of updating the CRL revenue forecast and will not be able to share any new information until the report is presented to council in Q1 2022.”

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