The Edmonton International Airport expects to mark a major milestone before the end of this year — more people will be heading to the airport area to shop or work each day than to board flights.
That’s how much development around the flight centre has taken off.
The land surrounding the airport is a steadily growing cluster of tourist attractions, shopping outlets, technology developers, manufacturing facilities and shipping services designed to drive a regional profit.
“It’s really like a city in the way that it’s developed,” said Myron Keehn, the airport’s vice-president of air service and commercial development.
Growth is driven by international demand for rapid, on-demand movement of stuff as well as a growing number of passengers, he said. That economy demands such rapid connections, Keehn calls it the “physical internet.”
Speaking just outside this “airport city,” Rob de Groot said the biggest advantage of moving his company, Red Cup Distillery, to the airport was in shipping costs. He used to be in Vegreville, and the move cut both distance and time.
“When I’m getting bottles shipped from Vancouver, it’s next day. Just logistically speaking my costs went down huge,” said de Groot.
Beyond shipping, de Groot said there’s a productive relationship between the airport and its tenants. The management team and board introduced de Groot to chief executives in airports across the U.S.
“They see where the opportunities are. They really are an instigator; they want to be a city that lasts forever.”
The introductions have helped. Staff at Red Cup have been so busy bottling vodka lately that de Groot has worn out his sneakers.
Red Cup is packing up two pallets a week — about 3,000 bottles — to ship to the U.S. It’s been difficult to distribute his product in Alberta, partly because competition from imported alcohol is fierce and due to some of the regulatory and tax structures here.
“We got onto the Vegas strip before we got onto Jasper Avenue; into Houston before Calgary,” says de Groot. In the middle of a workday, he only needs to go a few blocks to the airport’s outlet mall to grab some new footwear.
Last year alone, Airport City and the airport were responsible for $3.22 billion in total economic output, supporting 26,000 full-time jobs, both direct employment at the airport and other jobs throughout the region. That’s almost double the 13,400 jobs it counted between 2015 and 2017. In 2018, investments at the airport created 2,000 new permanent positions.
While Airport City boasts low land costs and property taxes, the airport’s commercial development arm isn’t meant to be competitive with other commercial and industrial parts of Edmonton, said Keehn. “They’re meant to be complementary.”
“To see the vertical construction that’s occurred at the airport today with non-aerospace related tenancies is awesome. It can do nothing but help our economy and our region,” said Dave Young, executive vice-president at the commercial real estate agency CBRE Edmonton.
Within the 2,800-hectare area, planners aim to supply businesses with everything they need on site. Manufacturers have easy access to freight transport and air carriers, and those shippers all have secure access to jet fuel from the Shell Aviation fuel centre.
Airport officials also match up local companies that want to solve similar problems or develop products. “You end up creating things that no one ever thought of,” says Keehn.
For example, Soltare partnered with other tech companies to develop technology it calls iHear. It helps drivers detect when and from where emergency vehicles are approaching them.
Tech company Absolute Combustion International developed a more efficient portable diesel aircraft heater by working closely with airport staff and other businesses in the airport’s Alberta Aerospace and Technology Centre.
“Innovation feeds everyone,” said Keehn. In some sectors, quite literally. With its new Fresh Cargo Centre, the airport boasts 465 square metres of refrigerated warehouse space for handling perishable cargo like meat, fruit, produce and pharmaceuticals. The site also has a casino, Costco, Aurora Cannabis production facility, and a race track.
They have big plans for further growth. Just west of the outlet mall, next to the newly-built Fairfield Inn and Suites in a mostly empty plot of dirt and weeds, there’s a pond. It functions as a catch basin for rain runoff, but it’s fancier than most stormwater ponds in Edmonton. It looks like a section of Ottawa’s popular Rideau Canal has been transplanted into a no-mans-land on the prairies.
The plan is to create a multi-season attraction for paddle-boarding and ice-skating, an amenity for the hotel and planned new retail and office complex. But whether these amenities attract more eager tenants or not, it’s clear the Edmonton airport is no longer just an airport.