The latest in the long line of Ministers of Municipal Affairs is perfectly positioned politically to connect with this conservative constituency. But it’s going to take more than announcements to truly connect. If there is to be a redeemer for this infamous ministerial position, it might just be Danielle Larivee.
Larivee, recently minted Minister of Municipal Affairs, becomes the sixth Minister of Municipal Affairs since the 2013 Floods, and the latest to inherit the DRP Disaster. That is a new boss every 4.5 months, or 19 weeks. Marginally longer than the average probationary period for a job at Tim Horton's.
Newly appointed Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee, who made an announcement in High River this morning about fixing the many issues still unresolved after the 2013 Floods, stands to the right of Premier Rachel Notley. On Notley's left is the most recent victim of the infamous ministerial position, Deron Bilous.
Following the provincial election in the spring we were expecting the NDP to appoint a saviour for the flood victims who would oversee DRP’s repairs and the completion of mitigation projects. Apparently the title Minister of Municipal Affairs is filled with bad joo joo, and Deron Bilous was shifted out of the job, just like his four predecessors.
It’s this premonition I am most worried about. Thankfully Minister Larivee is actively combatting those bad omens.
Today she announced $30 million in funding for the various mitigation projects on the Highwood River, the most significant of which is the southwest berm, a project High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass has deemed of the utmost importance. In addition, she has also committed to studying upstream and downstream mitigation to prevent further disasters. The Deltares reports have been used to reaffirm that diversion is not the best option, and represents a good decision and initiative started by the previous PC Government.
Minister Larivee has also stated a number of fixes to the DRP program. One of those fixes was that every file that was paid a little too much (likely from the 90% advance promised by Jim Prentice) will be able to keep that money if it was under $5000. For those who were given over $5000 too much, other arrangements need to be made. Larivee also said she was looking for complete closure of all DRP files by June 20, 2016. She indicated that DRP will take “a proactive approach to establishing contact with” the people whose files have remained inactive, likely because the applicant isn’t calling the province back. There are plenty of reasons why they wouldn’t call the province back, all of them legitimate, so it is great to hear that the government will seek them out rather than waiting for contact themselves. This should also allay fears that DRP will close files prematurely, and show care, consideration and compassion for the remaining applicants.
Much of this is good news. It means her hands are on the files, and she is actively seeking completion in this area of her ministry. I feel the need to apply a bit of pressure, as she is after all the sixth person tasked with this. To be clear, after having talked with Minister Larivee briefly, she is very aware that nobody wants yet another person in charge, and she wants to be the one to finish the job. That in and of itself is a huge plus, and if she gets it done, she could be considered the redeemer of that infamous ministerial position's bad joo joo.
The pressure has to be on three issues.
Time will tell how serious Minister Larivee is about getting this job done. The metric to be watching for is how hands-on she remains. Her predecessor didn’t. Maybe Larivee can rebuild some bridges, both literally and figuratively, and while she’s at it, make connections between the NDP Government and people out here in conservative country.
We want to trust our government. We need a reason to. Minister Larivee is perfectly positioned to give us that reason. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs is in big need of redeeming. So I’m watching.
And I’m hoping.
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!