Can nonprofits influence economic development?

Edmonton_Skyline06-MThe other day on my way into work I stopped at a new coffee shop here in Edmonton. Besides the good quality coffee and tasty breakfast sandwich, the unique location of Burrow Central Station is what sets this cafe apart. It is the first business of its kind in Edmonton to be located underground, connected to Edmonton’s Light Rail Transit system (LRT). I think it represents a great shift for the city and demonstrates the evolution occurring in this urban space to make it more liveable. As I walked away sipping on a fresh poured cup I began to think about what some of the contributing factors might be that allowed for this business to open?

Of course, there are the obvious contributing factors; economic, entrepreneurial, political, and social. It is within each of these factors that I see nonprofit sector activities contributing to the opening of Burrow. Nonprofit economic development organizations and downtown community leagues have continually advocated that city administration should be open to possibilities and support opportunities that lead to a more vibrant downtown. This conversation influenced the last municipal election and many candidates included in their platforms ideas for creating a more livable city. Additionally, the owner of Burrow has acknowledged that LRT ridership levels were previously not high enough to make a business like this viable. Many nonprofit organizations have been at the forefront of advocating that increased access to public transportation, and that increased use will result in reduced environmental impacts, better use of resources, and increases in economic opportunities. Edmontonians are now choosing to take the train more and this is, at least partially, a result of the efforts of these nonprofits. Ridership on the LRT is now around 20,000 people per day, which makes businesses in LRT stations a growing possibility.

Burrow is also connected to arts and culture through a creative idea to put poems and short stories on the coffee cup sleeves from the Edmonton Public Library, another nonprofit. Every patron at Burrow takes with them a connection to the arts and culture talent in the community and helps develop a sense among the patrons that they are living in a dynamic and vibrant community.

When we say that the nonprofit sector is at the centre of community we often site the frontline services provided and tend to forget that the nonprofit sector also exerts significant influence in shaping community. Through advocating for causes and working to meet missions, nonprofit organizations are continually working to improve our communities. The more tangible outcomes of their work may be the clients served and services provided, but the complex outcomes are often expressed through the changes in behaviours and development of new opportunities. Although it is appropriate to applaud new business and entrepreneurs for their ingenuity, we should spend time to look at how different sectors, including the nonprofit sector, operate together and generate new potential. The Burrow Central Station coffee shop represents these cross-sectoral relationships and helps bring to light the nonprofit sectors subtle, steady impact.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager