Blair Lebsack had scoured the downtown, looking for space to house his new RGE RD restaurant.

RGE RD is now open, just off 124 Street’s restaurant row. But downtown leases, Blair says, “just about doubled” during his 18-month location search.

Restaurants, pubs and clubs are an accurate, if anecdotal, indication of the downtown renaissance.

As Jim Taylor of the Downtown Business Association puts it: “Up until now it’s been ‘ready, set, wait a minute.’ Now we’re truly into the ‘ready, set, go’ stage.”

The new arena, to open early in the 2016-17 NHL season, is having an impact. The reality, suggests Colliers International realtor Perry Gereluk, is bigger than the arena. “Edmonton is growing, we have jobs, we have a vibrant economy.”

As it is, new storefront leases in prime downtown locations are closing in on Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver rental rates.

“There’s not much street space left,” says Taylor, “and we’re running out of old buildings for renovation.”

New prime storefront space will come from an unexpected source. “The ground floors of all the new condo towers, by law, must be for commercial/retail purposes,” says Jim. “That’s where the next wave of restaurants and retail will go.”

The arena may be years away, but smart hospitality operators are teeing up in its vicinity.

Here’s just a partial list of the confirmed and expected influx of reputable restaurants, pubs and clubs into the downtown, within walking distance of the new arena.

Got there first: Rose & Crown, Sherlock Holmes, Lux, 100, Café Amore, Caffe Sorrentino’s, Sorrentino’s Downtown, Bistro Praha, Ruth Chris, The Hat, Confederation Lounge (Hotel Mac), Spaghetti Factory, Creperie, Sabor Divino, Madison’s (Union Bank Hotel), Public House, The Pint, The Common, Social Club Central, and Hudson’s.

Recently opened: Chop in Sutton Place, Mercer Tavern, Kelly’s Pub, The Burg, Tavern 1903, Bistro Japonais, Bistro Saisons.

Soon to open: The Parlour, Craft Beer Market, Cactus Club, Daniel Costa’s new lounge and “rough Italian” restaurant right next door to his Corso 32.

A little further out in time: Joey Tomatoes coming to the Bell Tower, and the (unconfirmed) purchase of the run-down Grand Hotel by The Oil City Hospitality Group (The Pint, Public House).

The arena at this point is a confidence builder. It’s a catalyst, a signal to institutional (i.e. big) investors that Edmonton’s prosperity is now long-term, is no longer fragile: That Edmonton is a modern, stable city with a future and – bonus - it’s still possible to get in on the ground floor.

Retail/commercial storefront is crucial to the Katz Group’s redevelopment plans for its land south of the arena – everything but the Bell Tower from 103 Avenue to 104 Avenue, 101 Street to the alley between 103 and 104 streets.

Currently on the site is the now-closed Staples store on 101 Street to the east, the massive parking lot in the middle, and the to-be-demolished Greyhound station to the west.

As the plans now stand, on the Staples store site will go an office tower. The new Joey Tomatoes will be part of a new building connecting the Bell Tower to the new tower.

The tower will connect westward to a new hotel, the anchor of a plaza on what’s now the big parking lot. The hotel in turn will connect to residential hi-rise or hi-rises on the Greyhound site.

The plaza, built on an underground parkade, will have a public gathering space in the middle, an open-air skating ribbon around the edges, the hotel as an anchor with a ring of new buildings facing the plaza, to house restaurants and shops. The plaza is where the Winter Garden – the grand hall/entrance to the arena spanning 104 Avenue – will empty out.

It’s all quite mind-boggling. And exciting.

After too many years of “ready, set … wait a minute” in this town, it’s now “ready, set, GO!”

Why the downtown is undergoing a hospitality explosion, or it’s all about jingle in our pockets (Source: Conference Board of Canada) 

· Edmonton has been first or second among Canadian cities in GDP (gross domestic product) for years. In 2012, Edmonton saw its GDP grow by 4.2%, second only to Calgary.

· Edmonton’s population grew by 31,400 in 2012, second only to twice-as-big Greater Vancouver.

· Edmonton is way ahead of the pack (so far) for job creation in 2013. At 18,400 new jobs, we’re second only to six-times-bigger Greater Toronto.

· The still-to-be-built arena is creating competition for nearby restaurant/pub/bar space today. Smart operators are securing space and setting up their operations now.

· City planning regulations and guidelines have created a more attractive downtown (i.e. 104 Street) and hi-rise storefront space suitable for hospitality operations.

· Nobody cooks or entertains at home anymore!

Graham Hicks