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.
We are now passed the cross-roads. It is now over two months since the flood, and less than two months before we have a new Town Council. Very soon, if you haven't already, you'll see the campaigns begin.
Look at what has happened. Basements have been stripped out. Tens of thousands of tonnes of our former lives have been taken to the dump. Infrastructure has been moved, changed, remodelled, and rebuilt. Yes indeed, lots has been done.
However, there are still multitudes who feel like they are being left behind. Landlords, renters, small and mid-sized businesses, and residents who have nothing left and limited coverage are still in limbo.
Yet out of the receding waters comes opportunity. In High River, a building stands empty where a library once stood. An incredible opportunity to rebuild the arts and culture in the town now sits in that empty shell. Schools in town are undergoing slight modifications to better use the space they have. Serious consideration to mitigation efforts is being given, and various roadblocks to getting those completed are being removed.
2 weeks after the flood I saw the "For Sale" signs pop up, and I was worried. Within the past two weeks, many of those "For Sale" signs have been replaced with "Sold" signs, and I am encouraged. My neighbours, two wonderful people I've had the pleasure of sharing a fence with, are moving on, but our new neighbours hale from Calgary, which reminds me that High River, even in it's most significant need, is still a place other people want to live.
Yes indeed, there is opportunity in them waters.
We need clear communication to understand how every action helps our town.
We need decisions to be informed and to fulfill a long-term vision. No more band-aid solutions with short term gains, long-term consequences.
We need to stop doing studies that are already done, and start moving forward.
We need to spend smart. Rather than tear out a road to fix one problem, repave it, and tear it out again months later to fix another that could have been fixed the first time, we need to spend the resources we have in the most efficient way possible.
We need to redevelop all of High River, not just the location of berms. This community is rich in culture, even though there is minimal support for it. The character of our town resides in our Downtown core, and it must be retained. Developments must be smart, forward-looking, and with a 10-year vision, not a re-election vision.
Some people still fear how High River will recover. The answer is "it will". How it recovers is dependent on who leads the recovery. The best parts of democracy start with the right people for the job in the local government.
I've heard time and time again "it won't matter what Council does, because in two years everyone will forget." Do not allow yourselves to forget. Hold Town Council to account. Only then can we have any hope of avoiding June 20, 2013 again.
I implore everyone to really get to know your Town of High River Council candidates. The right people can make this Town a beacon of light in Alberta. The wrong people can cause a flood of problems that we will be managing for decades.
The right people are electable because they will do what's right. The wrong people are electable because they are the loudest.
I believe Richard Murray is one of those "right people". Murray will do what's right. He won't be the loudest, but his background knowledge, his "big picture thinking", and his vision make him the "right person". So while I know he won't be the loudest, I'll be loud for him.
While I've already told you why, I still believe you need to see for yourself, so visit his site at www.voteformurray.ca.
Because I love this town.
On Wednesday this week, I was surprised to find out that Premier Alison Redford had made another provincial proposal to teachers for a framework for their contracts. The Provincial Executive Council of the Alberta Teacher's Association has sent it on to locals for consideration. This could mean we'd be entering into another province-wide agreement very shortly.
Two things from this. If it takes the Premier to get involved everytime, such as when Dave Hancock was Education Minister when then Premier Ed Stelmach pitched a 5-year and got it signed, and now with Redford superseding current Education Minister Jeff Johnson, why bother having a Minister of Education at all?
But that's not the biggest thing I get from this. The biggest thing starts from the question "where was the Alberta School Boards Association in all this?" It seems to me they had no idea this was going down at all, trustees were never informed the conversation between the PC government and the ATA was even happening, and one blogger has even wondered why the ASBA even exist in the first place.
That's not deep enough. The ASBA has other purposes, just like the ATA is not simply a bargaining entity. However, trustees don't have too many other significant duties than good interactions with their teachers. Well, okay, they give direction to the implementation of education in their area as well.
Trustees have been sidelined for years now, starting most prominently with Stelmach. When he pitched a 5-year deal, ASBA was concerned then about funding, but much worse, trustees were not given the opportunity to bargain as much for local issues. Some boards didn't even have trustees involved at all, and instead had Employer Bargaining Authorities, like the one that my Board was a part of called the School Boards Employer Bargaining Authority. That means that trustees have been removed from discussing complete contracts with their employees for over 8 years. Some trustees have never even been involved in such discussions at all.
So why do we even have elections for them if they aren't given an opportunity to represent us? Well, okay, they give direction to the implementation of education in their area as well. However, if you were to ask Education Minister Jeff Johnson, the only direction required should be "Inspiring Education". So again, why do we even elect trustees at all?
Then I recall some of the recent goings on following the latest provincial election. Evan Berger, appointed (without a competition) to a six-figure post in the Alberta Government, despite being dumped by the electorate for a Wildrose MLA in Pat Stier. A police college that was expected to go into Fort Macleod because those citizens elected a mayor that would make it happen got cancelled. It makes one wonder ... if the PCs are in government, does it matter who we elect?
We want elections to count. We want our voices heard. So we vote for trustees who we think will represent our interests best. We vote for MLAs who we believe will do the same. We vote for mayors who will work to better our communities, but aren't able to anyway because their hands are tied to the Alberta Government's purse-strings. Our elections don't count. Considering our elections come up this October, the fact that who I elect doesn't matter bothers me significantly, because I firmly believe we need trustees who are empowered, and councillors and mayors who aren't going to have to worry about the PC boot falling on them.
If we are to see this change, we need to vote for a party who will make elections count. They'll give your vote an opportunity to work. They'll give trustees, councillors and mayors the opportunity to represent our interests to the better of our community.
Do you know of a party who has made it their platform to get elections to count?