Last week the Okotoks Town Council began the process of acquiring the Wedderburn land on the north end of town across from Holy Trinity Academy and the St. James Catholic Church. They want this to be an educational, recreational and cultural facility for the community.
Council has made it easy on the NDP in Alberta. In particular one man, David Eggen.
Eggen is the Minister of Education as well as the Minister of Culture and Tourism. In one decision, Council set the scene for Eggen to make his mark in our region.
10 days ago I sat in an audience listening to Eggen speak to a conference of teachers who all gave up their summer time for the teaching profession. At that conference, Eggen told us that he had “found” funding for all 232 school infrastructure projects the former PC Government had announced.
Two things on that; first I must never forget that the PCs were in the habit of announcing and never providing all in an effort to save their own political skin. The former Education Minister is a perfect example of that.
Second, missing from Eggen’s announcement was how much he was banking on future generations to pay for it. He did say that the NDP were not borrowing for operations, but 232 infrastructure projects aren’t operational projects, they’re capital projects.
So I pulled him aside afterward (he was in a major rush to move on, but to be clear it was obvious he’d rather stay and have a depth of discussion). We had 60 seconds, but in that 60 seconds we covered a swath. The first thing he said to me was that he had to borrow through the nose to get that money.
That made the fiscal conservative in me cringe. I asked him if he really was willing to fund 232 projects that might not fit his philosophy. That peaked his attention.
“Mr. Eggen, there are school projects approved to be built outside of the communities, sometimes as far as 10 minutes outside of communities. And you just funded them.”
At that he asked for an example, and I gave him the planned school near Aldersyde which is to serve Okotoks students. I told him it is in an industrial area, it has inadequate infrastructure for traffic, which will also impact the 10-minute response time the closest firehall will have. He balked at the idea, and asked me to contact him with more details. That was the first 40 seconds. The last 20 are for another blog.
So here are the details. Okotoks has no water. It can’t get a commitment on water. As a result it can’t develop, and that includes schools. Yet its 26,000 residents keep having babies. So the Foothills School Division starts looking. It finds space in the open arms of the M.D. of Foothills by the Legacy Fieldhouse.
This would be the third school project designed to be built outside the Okotoks community. Davisburg has two schools, one in each school division, and while it could be argued that they serve a different community, that is prime agricultural land that has been eroded to form dots of acreages all over the countryside. Further, is some instances busses are covering or expected to cover areas on the outskirts of Okotoks. Much like a crosswalk, the lines separating Okotoks from M.D. do not stop cars, and those people are just as much Okotokians as on the other side of the road.
One outlier is an anomaly. Two raises an eyebrow. Three is a trend. The trend to break up communities is beginning to show. This is a trend toward shipping students out of a community, and away from the concept of schools as community hubs. It's a trend to put so much space between neighbours that they no longer need to talk to each other. So Minister Eggen needs to either agree with this trend the PCs set for him, or stamp it out. But if he stamped it out, where would this new school go?
Here comes the Okotoks Town Council to save the day!
Not only did they find a site, but they seem to be appealing to both Eggen’s portfolios. As Minister of Education, he should be thrilled there is now a site that would be basically inside town (remember, those town borders do not a blockade make). He should further be thrilled with the idea of a cultural space adjacent to it. It meets the philosophy of kids staying in the community they live in, and studying in a place that is a community hub.
So what’s the problem? One minor hurdle is that the M.D. needs to agree. That should be a minor issue, but there are some political issues at play that make it a slight challenge. Another is our Wildrose MLA; will he be more interested in the fact that money is being borrowed to build this school, something that is completely anti-Wildrose, or will he see the necessity of having kids go to school in town and give Eggen a thumbs-up? My feel of the current Wildrose opposition is it’s the same as the old one; opposition for opposition’s sake.
Those aren’t the deciding issues, though. Its whether or not Eggen has the political will to stop something he’s already funded. Its whether or not Eggen is just trying to tie up the PCs loose ends, or if he intends on righting the ship. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to stand for something. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to make a stand now, because the Foothills School Division cannot wait for a school for five years. They need it now.
I’d like to think he is. But the ball isn’t in my court, it’s in his.
Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants students to go to school in their communities, and not be bussed out. Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants schools to be community hubs. Your Alberta Party representative is giving the Okotoks Town Council a big fist pump.
So I call on the Alberta NDP Government, namely Minister Eggen, to endorse this shift to a school community hub, and to help Okotoks get the land to make it happen and quickly. After that, perhaps Minister Eggen should review all the school projects he just funded, and where construction or the tendering process hasn’t already commenced, review if they meet his philosophy of what schools should be. I’d suspect that he might find more than one that doesn’t meet his standards.
While he does, he should tell us how much we’re paying for it. Or rather, tell us how much the next generations will be paying for it. I won’t necessarily be opposing, but I want to hear the NDP plan for making it easier for the next generations to cover the tab. So far I haven’t heard it.
Oh, and I hope that while Eggen is talking about the need for this school that he also talks about why this issue came up in the first place, and help Okotoks get a commitment for the Water For Life program.
Kudos to the Okotoks Town Council for their progressive thinking. It’s time for everyone to get back to building community.
But let's be honest, it's been in need of a defibrillator for quite some time now.
A week and a half ago, I went to a meeting that discussed the downtown High River of old, the opportunities that the flood presented, and the vision for its future. Most of the attendees were either downtown business folk, people who have been advising such as myself, or area planners and politicians. The conversation was frank.
First in the presentation, a slide that showed High River's downtown from decades passed. Even then it looked more alive than it has ever looked in my near-decade of living here.
Then a photo of 4th Avenue, which looked, as our mayor put it, like a truck lot. Angle parking all the way down the one-way street. Storefronts were not visible, nor were shoppers. Sidewalks were narrow enough that the event-planners rule of being able to accommodate two wheelchairs was barely accommodated, if it was at all.
This is what made downtown High River dead. People came into town, parked in front of the store they wanted to visit, walked in, walked out, and drove away. People were not encouraged to walk around downtown much unless they were a visitor coming to check out the murals, which are in desperate need of some resuscitation as well.
This is not what makes a community. Communities in the physical sense of the word are areas where people gather and commune, sharing the same space for similar reasons. In the case of downtown, those reasons should be to operate a business, to participate in events and functions, and to have a place to gather and socialize. In High River, that last point is missing not just in downtown, but in the entire community. It is for this reason that downtown High River is dying.
Drive through it now, and you'll see that it's dead. A select few businesses remain open. Frankly, the 50's style restaurant is likely doing relatively decent business right now because it is located within a stone's throw of the Disaster Recovery office.
Landlords and owners are wondering why they should feel any pressure to rebuild it right now? It didn't have a significantly large economic function before, it certainly wasn't the town's economic engine (mind you, if it was, then that is a pretty significant indicator that a reboot is required).
Well at that meeting I found out why. The current town council is applying a significant jolt of energy to get the heart of High River beating again.
The images and descriptions that followed, honestly, scared me. They discussed Phase 1, which included adjustments to Macleod Trail, 3rd and 4th Avenues. Parking in these areas will be reduced to a fraction of what existed before the flood and exists right now. Instead, sidewalks will be widened significantly, any parking that does exist will be parallel, and storefronts will be visible. Even the roadways will not be paved as they had been before, but will rather have a "walking path" feel to it. 4th Avenue will easily be converted from a road with just enough space for cars to drive through in both directions into a place for any form of community fair, such as the popular Show 'n' Shine. I was reminded of Stephen Avenue Mall in Calgary, but with a much more small-town atmosphere. This is a complete and total change from what High River looks like now. The magnitude of the change itself is scary.
But after thinking about it for a bit, I found myself being won over by the concept. Imagine a space in High River already built for outdoor community events that will help drive the economy because it is amongst the small businesses in town. Imagine that the businesses create their own small events because they have the latitude and real estate to do so both inside their building and on the street in front of it. Imagine a "High River Experience" bringing people off of Highway 2, and not just McDonald's or Tim Horton's.
I am not going to give away all the details. Honestly, townspeople should come out to the public information sessions and open houses to discuss it with the people planning it. However, there are a couple of things we should be careful of when it comes to this drastic change.
My first concern; we do not live in the Field of Dreams. Just because you build it doesn't mean people will come. There has to be a reason for people to visit. I'd like to say the "Mom and Pop Shops" will be the reason, but the truth is that it won't be. This is why, at the meeting, I shouldered up to the town's mayor, gestured at the artist's conception of the future 4th Avenue, and said "I see an Arts Facility complete with theatre, public art gallery and classrooms going right there!" (To my great delight, he said "I agree") People need to have a reason to come to downtown to check it out. If the design is done properly and the businesses are truly as on board as they suggest, then those things combined will keep people wanting to come back.
My second concern; public buy-in, especially when they realize they're going to have to walk a block or two to get to their favourite local shop. High River has lived in a state of under-exertion for a couple of decades at least, now. Thankfully, I share the mayor's viewpoint on this. When asked at the meeting about handicapped individuals, that concern was addressed and evidence that they had been considered and accommodated was in the presentation. When asked at the meeting about people who don't want to have to walk very far in the dead cold of February to get to a store they need to visit, mayor Craig Snodgrass made a comment that vaulted him near the top of my list of favoured politicians: "thicker coats and liquor". This tongue-in-cheek comment did not tell me that he would endorse more bars to move into downtown; it told me that High Riverites will no longer have the option of being idle. I don't think that this will be as difficult of a sell these days as it would have been a year ago, but there will be some people not pleased with this idea.
My final concern; parking. The one untied loose end discussed at the meeting was parking. Considering they are planning on reducing downtown's parking by a minimum of 50 spaces, this is a considerable loose end. Thankfully they are hoping to come upon some arrangement with the real estate historically owned by Canadian Pacific Railways. I'll buy into this arrangement, but really hope this loose end is tied up quickly.
So High River's downtown is dead. The Town Council is giving it a much needed jolt to get its heart beating again. We as High Riverites must encourage them not only to give it the jolt it needs, but to keep working to help it live, thrive, and grow. Council needs to deal with the issues of the Field of Dreams, public buy-in, and parking. Let's push Council to deal with these issues, and give them the high five they deserve for figuring out how to get the heart beating again.
I only know I'm a good man because my wife is incredible. Nobody as amazing as her would stick around with a guy like me unless she thought I was worth it. Therefore, I'm worth it.
Which leads me to introduce you to a wonderful lady who will be more in the spotlight in High River than ever before. While my amazing wife was giving birth to our second child (who is now 3 and a half years old), there was one nurse there who was the most incredible support for her throughout the labour. I was extremely humbled, as a father during childbirth should be. My wife took the process like a typical farm girl with all her strength, resolve, and work ethic. Very much "just get it done". And the nurse had such compassion and fed my wife such strength, it was as if she were family, encouraging her all the way. Both women made me realize how little a good man could possibly be without a good woman beside him.
That nurse's name is Lindsay Snodgrass. Wife to High River's new mayor, Craig Snodgrass.
That's how I know our town is going to be okay. Because behind every good man is the support of someone just as amazing (or in my case, someone even better).
Many people know I did not support Craig for Mayor. I was extremely concerned about someone with little experience taking the reigns of our town. Honestly, I'm still concerned about that, but I'm putting those concerns aside, because those concerns are for elections. The concerns we must deal with now are how a new council is going to help us recover and rebuild.
I know that Craig could be great for our town, if given the right support. And if it's one thing I've learned about High Riverites, they are strong and resolute, and can be the best support an individual can hope for. However, you certainly don't want to cross High Riverites, either.
Lindsay is a great woman, and with her I'm confident that Craig is a great guy. However, Craig needs to be a great Mayor. So he needs a great town council, town organizations, and townspeople to stand with him.
Town Council will have to shift from campaigning in opposition to campaigning as a unit. It will take work, but they can do it.
I'm so pleased to have a colleague of mine, Bruce Masterman on council. I'm confident that his passion for High River will mean that not one individual gets left behind. He is a genuinely kind and caring man, and has an amazing "big picture" view. I truly hope he brings the balance to council that it will need right now.
I was very impressed with Cathy Couey's platform, in the fact that she had one. Not only that, her platform had multiple issues covered. I know she's put some thought into a vision for the town. She will carry it forward without a doubt, but as we were able to find with previous councillor Betty Hiebert, a lone woman on the council has challenges ahead. There was no shortage of good, strong female candidates, yet only Couey got in. She's going to have to be even stronger, more informed, and ready to speak the language of the common person to truly help council out.
I honestly know very little about Peter Loran, except for the casual conversations I've had with him during the campaign. I'm truly hopeful that his personality matches his abilities as councillor, because if that is the case, he might just be the peacemaker. More importantly, however, is that the new council's first job will be to deal with the new budget, and this is where we need Loran most. Loran's experience in banking and investments will be crucial, but must be backed up with vision. I didn't hear much about his vision for High River, so if he is lacking in that department, let's hope he can put his investment experience into play using others' vision.
Dragan Brankovich has an eye for engineering, but he's going to need to bring more to the table than just his ability to "speak engineering". If he keeps his eyes on the flood, I'm afraid that little else will move forward. He has shown that he might actually have a vision for things like the arts, culture, heritage, and recreation, but it is vague at best. I'm concerned he will get tunnel vision and ignore the long-term needs of the community. Perhaps time will prove me wrong; it would be wonderful to be wrong in this case.
Don Moore has been a very pleasant man for me to work with, and I have enjoyed my interactions with him. He has always had a vision for the community, and that vision has always progressed and changed along with it. He is meticulous in his work, and council could use that attention to detail and experience. My only concern for him is how he will work with this new team. It is my hope that he is ready to be part of a collaborative effort to get this town moving forward, and I'm sure he'll do it.
There is an advantage, and yet a danger, to having Emile Blokland on council. The advantage is that all those promises the Province of Alberta gave the town will still be in the memory of the council. Snodgrass will have Blokland in his court to remind the Province what they promised, and so the whole council will be able to make good on their campaign promise to "hold their feet to the fire." However, having the old mayor in one of the policy-makers chairs might be enough to pause growth in our town. Potential business owners might see it as being regressive, not progressive. I would hope that's not the case, but only Blokland's actions will prove to them otherwise.
If Snodgrass is going to be a successful mayor, he needs the support of every person on council. This does not mean that every idea he presents needs to be accepted unilaterally. Rather, it means that council must work together, something that was lacking a bit last time around.
Every councillor must voice their ideas, and no idea should be ignored. Each idea must be considered on its own merits. Each councillor must work with the best points of each idea to achieve consensus. With consensus, we will truly see a council working together. Snodgrass, who will be our town's main salesperson, will be the face of that unified council, and the town, province, and country will see it.
If at any time a member of council feels as though their ideas were ignored or ridiculed, the unity of council will fail, the town will lose faith, and Snodgrass' support will be gone.
Council is supported by many others as well. The various boards in town such as the Recreation Board, the Sheppard Family Park Board, the Arts and Culture Board, the Library Board, the Heritage Board and more all need to be included in the process. If at any time these boards feel as though their ideas were ignored or ridiculed, their support of council will diminish, and that will filter up all the way to the mayor's chair. This also applies to the many other volunteer organizations such as Minor Hockey, Foothills AIM Society, the many service organizations and many more.
Sounds like a lot, right? That's what High River needs, though. High River needs everyone to pull together, to put their two cents in, to know their two cents are being considered, and only then can they trust that council is truly moving forward.
Then Snodgrass will have the support he needs to be mayor.
Lindsay is the woman behind the man. High River, let's be the town behind the mayor.
Congratulations, Craig! Let me know what I can do to be a support for you.
I can't do a wrap-up to the municipal election without mentioning the man who I chose to stand behind. Richard Murray, it was a pleasure to work with you on this. I'm obviously disappointed that you didn't get in, but I'm very pleased with what you accomplished. The Minister of Culture has seen a vision for Arts and Culture in High River. The Emergency Management Act will be reviewed, and I'm positive you will be a part of making it better and more effective. And I know the new (and experienced) faces on council have been influenced by your passion.
You may not have gotten in, but you made one heck of a difference. I know that I have learned a lot, and am a better man for it. Keep moving forward, sir!
I've been doing a lot of research for this municipal election. I gotta tell you, I'm not as impressed as I think I should be.
With 23 active council candidates and 2 mayoral candidates in High River, each of them with a deep pool of talents, skills and experience, you'd think there would be some well-developed platforms.
Again, that's my youthful naivety showing through.
So begins my rants of what I can't stand this election. The first thing I can't stand ...
"When it comes to [insert issue here], I believe we need to listen to [insert list of stakeholders here] to see what their needs are, and how it will affect [insert list of related topics here]. Only then can we make strides that will be the best for the town."
Thank you for just describing the role of council. I forgot what job it was you were applying for.
Here's the word you must be careful of in an election: Listen. When you say "I'm going to listen to ...", what you're telling me is you haven't a freaking clue what those stakeholders want, need, or in some cases, who those stakeholders are. The word "listen" is a cover for your lack of understanding.
Don't get me wrong, listening is a skill that I believe every councillor should have. It's part of the job. If you don't do it, don't expect to be re-elected in four years.
But please don't use "listening" as a crutch for not understanding the needs your community.
In High River, I've heard the "listening" argument from a mayoral candidate (in the mayoral forum, and not just once, but 5 times), and I've seen the "listening" argument published on Facebook and discussed in the councillor forum more times than I can count on my extremities.
It disgusts me. It shows to me how much you don't understand our town, or the job you're applying for.
The ones who make listening a habit aren't going to tell you they are going to listen. You'll never hear them say it. They just do it. Better yet, in the future those candidates ARE going to listen, it's part of who they are, and they recognize that it's part of the job they are applying for. In many cases, those candidates don't even need to say they are going to "listen", because they've already done it.
It's how they came up with their ideas. It's how they've come to understand our town and they job they're applying for.
It's really hard to vote for someone who has no ideas. Unless you don't have any ideas of your own.
Oh, now I get it.
Well, here is one voter who is informed. Now, voters, I beg of you, everywhere, but most especially in High River: unless you want a council who is a vacuous hole for ideas, don't elect a self-professed "listener". Elect someone who already has a clue, because they've already done that listening. In High River, it's those people we need, because we need our town back on track.
And don't worry, they'll keep listening. Because that's what they do without having to be asked.
And if we can't slow this cart down, I may have to sell my house.
The cart, of course, is the massive load of mitigations that we all know must be done if High River is to remain in any state.
The horse is the labor required to pull this load properly and in the right direction. That horse (we'll name him "Informed Decision-Making") in this case should be built upon science, study, experience.
But gravity is ramming that cart up that horse's rear.
The gravity of the situation is that there is massive pressure on government and elected officials to do something, anything, to show that High River will still be standing when the next flood season ends.
Gravity is pushing us downhill. If we can't sort out some way of getting this horse back in charge, we're in serious trouble.
Above you see the latest recommendations from Town Council sent to the provincial government asking for money to do it. Your legend: Navy Blue is a berm. Yellow is a reinforced embankment/berm. Cyan is a dike. Fuschia is a dike. Green is a dike. Orange is a dike. White is the Little Bow Canal.
Let's analyze this, shall we?
If you put a wall up that is perpendicular to the flow of water, that water will stop, spread, and go around it if possible. That's the blue line. So if enough water comes up against that blue berm, it will spill around to the north into Riverside where, because there's a yellow berm in the way, it will have nowhere to drain. It will continue to pool up into a new lake, and my home would be in the middle of it.
The second they approve this is the second I put my home up for sale. But I will not be able to sell it, because anyone with half a brain will be able to figure out that I'm trying to sell a 3-season houseboat.
Further, the blue berm doesn't take into account the fact that the Town has been working on a development encircling the northwest corner of town called "Spitzee Crossing". This blue berm will not only pool up into currently existing residential neighbourhoods, but will negate the possibility of developing Spitzee Crossing.
Maybe that's the point, as that development has been in the works for over a decade, and has been stalled at every opportunity. The development, for that matter, has purposely avoided and given a great big buffer-zone to the Highwood River. It's one development that might actually make sense after the flood.
A further problem with this plan is that it is old. It was presented to the Alberta Government 4 years ago based on 10-year-old flood maps, and rejected. It hasn't changed, it is still built on old flood maps.
When we will get the picture? Nothing is the same!!!
The Town of High River and the M.D. of Foothills has sunk multitudes of taxpayer dollars into developing a cutting-edge piece of software that helps them plan flood mitigations. Not only does it map where water goes now and where it would go if the flows increased, it also gives planners the opportunity to say "what would happen if we put a berm here or a bridge there," and see the results.
But this request was not made in consultation with that software. It was made on old defunct maps.
I want to scream "stop being stupid!"
It's not the first time since the flood that knee-jerk reactions have cause harmful impacts. A Bow River guide explained to me today that the Highwood River, where it dumps into the Bow River, was crystal clear for the first half of August. On August 18, that changed, and it was black with mud.
Just days before, upstream about 20 miles, "scalping" of the riverbanks in High River had begun.
Making new berms, making old berms bigger, and making old dikes deeper, have absolutely no impact on flood control. Using old maps to determine solutions to new problems is like trying to install a carburetor on a Chevrolet Volt.
That same river guide pointed something out to me today. The Mississippi is relatively straight. Downstream of Calgary the Bow River is straight. The Sheep River is relatively straight. They were made that way by floods.
In High River, the Highwood River still "snakes" through town. In town limits alone, it turns 20 times. Why hasn't the flood straightened it out?
Because it hasn't been a fast and powerful flood. It certainly got to High River in a hurry, but once there, it was stopped up, and so the flow wasn't fast enough to actually allow the river to cut a straight line. This has to have happened in every flood for decades, or else the river would be straight today.
So what has existed for decades that has stopped that river up? Bridges. The first one; a railroad bridge whose efficacy at blocking the river is enhanced by a road bridge. That bridge causes the water to back up and spill into downtown every time a few trees gets caught on it. The second one; a new bridge on the Tongue Creek extension known to many as the George Groeneveld bridge. While its impact wasn't as significant, it definitely causes some backup when debris hits it. The third one is east of Aldersyde, where Highway 2 goes over the Highwood River. It got heavily backed up by debris, so much so that it spilled back into the east side of High River.
Bridges act as bottlenecks in the first place. When those bottlenecks get plugged, the water pools back, affecting everything upstream.
If there is an immediate solution that will alleviate issues, it is to fix the bridges. In the case of the rail bridge, get rid of it, it's not even in use anymore. The centre-street road bridge, it needs to be a four-lane road anyway, so raise it up and make it longer. The Highway 2 bridge by Aldersyde needs to be raised and widened so that debris cannot get hung up on it as easily.
If you give the water a place to go without bottlenecks, floods are far less likely to be as devastating. If you berm it in and try to "stop" the water from going somewhere, Mother Nature will just laugh at you as she bulldozes your berm with thousands of cubic meters of water.
Now I'm not the most brilliant hydrologist in the world, but even a layman like me can figure out what's going to happen here.
And the horse is starting to get scared.