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.
Wildrose MLA Wayne Anderson, the DRP Advocacy Committee, and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark have all been upset about the supposed progress the DRP has been making.
I don’t believe they’ve been upset enough. I am so disappointed in this government operation that I am now calling for the resignation of the Director of the AEMA Shane Schreiber, and am joining the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association in calling for an independent review of the Disaster Recovery Program.
Minister of Municipal Affairs has shown how out-of-touch he is with the program in his latest statement to the press. It is obvious he is being fed manipulated information from the AEMA Director, and has no clue what actual progress on the DRP files actually looks like.
Allow me to review how I came to this conclusion.
I have kept a log of the various updates to DRP statuses, particularly for High River. Here are some strange anomalies I have found:
In early June, Mr. Anderson reported that the promise former Premier Jim Prentice made to close all DRP files by that time only referred to residential files. Even so, the number of open residential files have steadily increased since that promise was made, and even well into the NDP era.
Between mid-April and early-June, one High River Small Business file was lost. It was recovered between early-June and late-July along with another Small Business file and new residential High River files. This can be the only explanation for the discrepancy in the statistical reports, as the deadline to submit an application was way back in November of 2013.
That wasn’t the only time that happened. In fact, between mid-August and early-September, 4 more residential DRP files (including tenants) seem to have been found. This makes the total “found” files since Prentice’s promise to close all files by the summer add up to 11. Where have these files been since the deadline 22 months ago?
These are just the examples of mismanagement. Now I get to the anomalies that show misinformation.
Up to mid-April, an application may have been considered fully-funded, and therefore in progress, but it was not considered “open”. Yet every month following, fully-funded files were considered “open”. I have to wonder if this was done so that the DRP office could report, during an election, that only 6% of High River files remained open, even though a month after the election that number would suddenly jump to 16% after the NDP took office.
Stranger still is Minister Bilous’s explanation of what “fully-funded” actually means. He suggests that designation means a claimant has received all the money they are going to get. To be clear, I don’t believe this is his own personal definition, but rather a definition that has been handed to him. One has to wonder what the “paid” designation means, if not that the claimant has received all the money they are going to get.
In mid-August, across Alberta there were 1327 files still open, yet at the beginning of September suddenly 59 more files were categorized as “open”. 4 of those files had to have just been “found”, but where did the others come from? There have been 16 files that have been magically un-”withdrawn” over the summer, maybe they finally found their way into the “open” column? Even so, some files that were once “closed” suddenly were not anymore.
950 of those open files were fully-funded in mid-August. At the beginning of September, that number decreased by 83 files, despite having more open files. Where did those files go? Apparently into the “Administrative Processing” column, which according to Bilous’s latest statement indicates that they have cheques waiting to be processed. But I thought “fully-funded” meant they’ve already received all the money they’re going to get!
If you have observed the number of Small Business DRP applications in High River over the past 9 months, the number of “open” files have swung wildly, from 106 down to 62 back up to 100 and eventually down to the 82 at the latest report. According to members of the DRP Advocacy Committee, that number may drop drastically the next time we see it, as small businesses were given a 45-day timeline to respond (I don’t know what they are supposed to respond to) or their files would be permanently closed. That deadline has passed.
On July 24, the DRP Advocacy Committee indicated that there were 160 cheques that had been approved yet not delivered. Since then, the number of “paid” files has increased only by 18. Are we to therefore assume that there remains 142 cheques floating somewhere in Canada Post-land? Or that 160 cheques were only for 18 people, meaning each person received 8 or 9 cheques? Or perhaps, as Bilous suggests, the “Administrative Processing” column is for those cheques that need to be sent out, as he told the media exactly 103 cheques are ready for mailing. But if that were true, wouldn’t the statistics in July have had 160 in that column?
Between mid-August and early-September, 80 fewer closed residential files across Alberta were considered “paid”. Somehow, people whose files were closed and had been paid out in mid-August suddenly had not received money at the beginning of September. Unless Alberta has 80 Benjamin Buttons, I don’t understand how that’s possible, unless the definition of “paid” has changed.
Webster would have a field day with these problems. The word “defined” means “precise, fixed, or exact”. None of the definitions offered for the terms “open”, “closed”, “fully-funded” or “paid” have been precise or fixed.
“Open” doesn’t really mean requiring closure. Based on how DRP has been run, even a closed file can be open again without entering an appeals process. Interesting to note, while the PCs were in power, the number of “open” files got smaller more quickly. Once the NDP came to power, the number of “open” files suddenly spiked, and the only way to close them is to force the issue, such as with the small business deadline mentioned.
“Paid” doesn’t really mean applicants have received money. It means a cheque has been authorized. It hasn’t necessarily been printed, and certainly doesn’t mean it’s been delivered. I think.
I don’t believe the definition of the term “fully-funded” Mr. Bilous offered, although I suspect the definition was fed to him. None of the statistics up to this point verify his proferred definition. “Fully-Funded” is a particularly confusing term, because what it suggests to me is that those that are not fully-funded have no funding available for them, even though DRP currently has a surplus. Based off information I've received from the DRP Advocacy Committee, this is not far from true. Claimants submit their receipts, and hopefully 100% of those receipts get funded; or claimants who can't afford to pay up front submit quotes for work to be done, and hopefully 90% of these quotes get funded (matching Prentice's January Promise). Those that are in “Administrative Processing” therefore must be files that are open and for whom DRP must lobby government to fund. Those that are in “Eligibility Review” must be those that are being reviewed as to whether or not they are worth lobbying for. Those that have “Action Required” must be those that are waiting to enter into either category. I hope I’m wrong about these, but one thing is for certain; “fully-funded” cannot simply mean claimants in that category have received all they’re going to get.
There is also another designation that hasn't made it to the statistics reports, and that is the term "Complete". At one point in time "Complete" meant everything that could be done with a file was done, the only thing missing was the issuance of a closure letter. Why have this designation if not to delay sending closure letters so as to delay potential appeals?
But that's not even the best part; the term "Complete" has also changed as well, the biggest change surrounding then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes. At one point in time we thought he'd be running for the PC Leadership, and his announcement that all DRP files would be 90% "Complete" by March 31, 2014. When he realized that wasn't possible, he changed what the word meant; "Complete" now meant that DRP had sent out cheques for 90% of receipts received. Suddenly lots of small cheques backlog the system, and claimants get confused when they are told their file is "Complete" yet they haven't handed in all their receipts yet.
This is similar to the current issue around the term "Fully-Funded", it is a term that confuses claimants into thinking they've got all the money they're going to get, so why bother continuing on?
All of this results in the steady, albeit slow, increase in the number of “closed” files (to the tune of two or three files each week). At least that is true in High River, where the DRP Advocacy Committee continues to raise a stink. If you live anywhere else, your number of “closed” files are actually decreasing.
Meanwhile 2014 DRP files (for the floods that happened in southwestern Alberta) have been delayed by the 2013 backlog, and Calgary has been denied DRP funds to deal with “Snowtember”, yet DRP money is not being completely spent. I can only conclude one rationale for all these things.
Someone is trying to save their own skin.
If the 2013 DRP files appear to be closing, and the program manages to turn a surplus, your boss, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, is likely to let you to do your work. He might even give you some leniency for your high rate of staff turnover, the apparently complicated files being closed slowly, and the fact that almost 20% of files go to appeals (much higher than the 10% norm).
Frankly, I might be willing to do the same. Until I see how I’ve been manipulated.
And make no mistake, Mr. Bilous has been manipulated. I would bet certain staff are counting on the fact that Mr. Bilous may not fully understand the definitions of each category of claim, which is why those definitions keep shifting. He may agree with a staff member who says “snow is not an abnormal event in Alberta”, despite “Snowtember 2014” being the heaviest snowfall any September has ever seen in the past 130 years. But the fact is definitions are being manipulated, facts are being blurred, and staff members are keeping their jobs by doing it.
And through it all, somehow one extremely important fact has been lost in the reporting of statistics. At the end of each statistic is a human being.
A human being who has watched their file move from open to fully-funded to administrative processing to fully-funded to closed and paid back to open again to closed and finally to appeals. For over 2 full years.
I personally have lost patience, and I don’t even have a DRP claim. The Disaster Recovery Program is a Disaster in need of Recovery.
The lowest common denominator is not the government; it has changed and DRP has not improved. The lowest common denominator is not the advocates; they too have changed not only their personnel but their approach. It's also not the front-lines staff trying to process the claims, as even the Municipal Affairs Report to Legislature said that staff has had a high rate of turnover. The lowest common denominator is the staff leading the program. Only they could lose files, redefine categories, and manipulate data to make it look like work was getting done when in fact it hasn’t. The goal of a good DRP manager should be to work themselves out of a job. It seems managerial staff in this case are preventing their jobs from being lost, and they’ve managed to do so across a government change through confoundery.
Mr. Bilous must recognize that he has been played, and ask the AEMA Director Shane Schreiber to step aside. Even he named Mr. Schreiber as the individual who has been the main communicator, so therefore the main manipulator of facts.
91% of Alberta Urban Municipalities don't trust DRP. This is why they have called for an independent review. An independent review will allow the rest of the staff to continue working on open files (preferably in a case-management format), and not interrupt their work too much. But more importantly, it will clarify what exactly is going on in those offices, where data has been manipulated, and what must improve so that those who suffer disasters in the future do not have to contend with a governmental disaster as well.
Thanks to the DRP Advocacy Committee, Mr. Clark, and most recently Mr. Anderson and their colleagues for never giving up. While we hope every Albertan never needs to use the Disaster Recovery Program, we must feel as though we can count on it if we do need it.
Alberta Urban Municipalities can't. Neither can I.
Mr. Bilous, fix the DRP.
Residents of the Hampton Hills in High River continue to be victimized, but not just by flood waters or sewage backup, but by the Alberta Government.
17 months ago, I attended a meeting in a small room with a number of residents from that neighbourhood and others from the nearby Sunrise community to discuss their ongoing issues with flood recovery with MLA Danielle Smith.
Smith then said that the government needed to fix this, and they need to get it done right. They simply haven’t, and Albertans are now suffering through yet another loss.
The homes regrew mould, only a year after the Alberta Government spent $45 million on a contract with Tervita to remediate them, among other things. Now many are being torn down, and those that aren’t are left with vacant lots dotting their neighbourhood.
It’s not Tervita’s fault. They were placed in a no-win situation. The onus is on the Alberta Government to help these people the first time, and they didn’t.
10 days ago, Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark called on Premier Jim Prentice to show leadership and take an active role to resolve DRP claims. I'm glad to see Prentice answer that call as he makes his way to High River to discuss the issues with that town’s Disaster Recovery Program Advocacy Committee.
But simply resolving claims might not be enough, especially when resolved claims seem to be inadequate, so much so that people keep going back to appeals. These people have been victimized time and time again by the Alberta Government. Mr. Prentice must show he values Albertans and their contributions, and correct the wrongs this PC government has caused.
I'm calling on Prentice to put Albertans first, especially these less fortunate, and provide them with adequate compensation to return to a life of normalcy. This meeting with the DRP Advocacy Committee this weekend, along with Municipal Affairs representatives and PC MLA Danielle Smith is a perfect opportunity to get this done right.
Smith has been having "high level" meetings about this, apparently. What the product of those meetings will be is yet to be seen. However, she had a high-profile meeting 17 months ago, complete with cameras and reporters. She heard these concerns, and even then residents knew that these homes should not be remediated. They should have been razed. I know this, because I was there. If her high-profile meetings didn't produce fruit, why should we expect her high level meetings to be any different?
Any movement forward has been at the hands of volunteers on the DRP Advocacy Committee in High River. We must also acknowledge the hard work and effort to bring awareness to these issues by the Disaster Recovery Program Advocacy Committee, and I strongly believe they already know the best method forward.
The fact that a committee was required to intervene on behalf of people dealing with DRP is disturbing, but these committee members have done an amazing job at keeping the awareness up, and the hope alive. No other representative, even our MLA, has been able to do that.
So now it falls to Mr. Prentice to listen to these advocates. Solutions are possible, but as has been said by many others, "it's going to take some political will to do it."
I expect that when Prentice meets with the committee this weekend, he will have to make some politically difficult decisions about how to help these residents and others in limbo with the DRP process move forward. Decisions that the PCs have avoided for 17 months.
These decisions would show a will to help the least fortunate Albertans, so he must make them, and he must make them now. Only then can these residents truly recover.
I spoke to a former PC supporter recently who voted for the new Premier. I've also read a blog by a PC supporter as well. Both indicated that the new Premier has given them hope that the PC party can lead the province again. These responses, only two weeks into Jim Prentice's Premiership, lead me to ask the question;
Do you like fishing with knots and kinks in your line?
Me, I'd prefer to fish with a good straight line. I have a better chance of getting the job done without the line breaking ... again.
Make no mistake, anyone who believes in the PC party's ability to govern is fishing with knots in their line. And there are a lot of knots.
Prentice was silent in his first week as Premier. He spent that entire week loosening knots so that he could unravel them in public in his second week, as a way of saying "look, I'm fixing things!"
But a trust is broken. The line is kinked. That makes the line weak. And Alberta is a big fish.
Not only that, but he has ignored some fairly significant knots that remain, and have no glimmer of hope that they be untied.
The Disaster Recovery Program, or DRP (which in flood-affected communities is now a three-letter swear word) is not even on Prentice's radar. He mentioned nothing of it to Diana McQueen, who is now the fourth minister in 14 months to be in charge of the program. The program is in shambles, and hundreds of people still remain displaced from their homes.
It was one place former Premier Alison Redford tried to keep the line straight, by telling flood victims that they would be helped to full recovery. Then other ministers like Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, and lastly Greg Weadick tied it into the DRP knot. And this isn't just some shoe-tying knot, this is a Gordian knot, and Prentice is no Alexander the Great.
Another knot made bigger since the 2012 election was patronage appointments. Starting with Evan Berger, who was ousted in the last election but given a sweet management position in the Agriculture Ministry, this knot was made bigger by the appointments of Stephen Mandel in Health and Gordon Dirks in Education. Nothing suggests that Mandel and Dirks can't do a good job, it's just that no Albertan chose them. Prentice might be able to untie the patronage knot, but that kink will always be in the PC line, making voters wonder if they just can't see the trough for the pigs.
A kink sits where the government aircraft knot once sat. Just because government officials can't take advantage of planes anymore doesn't mean there aren't other ways. That kink can still knot up again, but it might not be airplanes doing it.
The entire Education portfolio is tied up in knot after knot. Former Education Minister Jeff Johnson started by bargaining in bad faith (knot 1), compromising teachers' private emails (knot 2), legislating instead of negotiating (knot 3), trumpeting an uninformed taskforce on teaching excellence (knot 4), usurping teacher conduct review unnecessarily (knot 5), and attempting to force Boards to provide information that had no chance of being compiled properly (knot 6).
Prentice had a chance to start loosening these knots back in August at a gathering of some of the most influential teachers in the province. He skipped it. Instead, he appointed someone nobody had the opportunity to speak to about Education. To teachers, that equates to appointing someone with no intention of listening. Teachers will say they hope that's not the case, but they have no proof. Not only that, but Jeff Johnson was given another portfolio, but rather than the defenceless youth, now he's in charge of the defenceless seniors.
Prentice also made an attempt at untying a knot when he announced the opening of four starter schools in Calgary. But have you ever tried to untie a knot using mittens? That is in effect what he's doing when he builds makeshift schools with no gyms, libraries, music rooms or other specialty spaces. Taxpayer dollars will be spent on sub-par temporary buildings that will direct resources away from the permanent facilities that are meant to replace them. That's like using 4-pound test line to fish for tuna ... after dark.
Am I taking the metaphor too far when I say schools of fish will never be caught with this tangled line?Albertans need a hook. Albertans need a straight line. And Albertans need a strong angler to reel us in.
The PCs have no hook. Their line is so kinked and knotted it looks like it's been braided by a four-year-old. And Prentice is no fisherman.
There has been a great deal of good news coming from High River. Our presence has never been more noticeable at the Calgary Stampede, what with our float getting so much coverage and awards, and a chuckwagon with our logo on the side running every night. Shortly a book will be released sharing some of the stories of the flood; stories of immense challenge balanced with unyielding persistence and survival.
If that were only the way it really was. For many High Riverites, the nightmare doesn't ever end.
Recall Richard Murray, given full approval to remediate his basement, only to have that approval swiped away from him after he sunk every last dollar he had into it. With three separate Associate Ministers managing the portfolio, all answering to three different Municipal Affairs Ministers in the past year, it's no wonder the DRP changed multiple times. The process stole his home from him as a result, and now he is no longer a resident of Alberta.
Introducing Jim Morgan, owner of a small business in High River, and a passionate High Riverite. His Facebook and Twitter feeds are a treasure trove of one-liners and insightful knee-slappers mixed with musings about the awesomeness in High River. He is known for his positivity.
Except when the Disaster Recovery Program, the system whose primary purpose was to help people get back to what they once were, offered him $702 to cover the costs of all things lost in his business. They demanded 350 photos, reams of itemized lists of things lost, and even 3 years of business statements, only to tell him that they were covering half of the labour for cleaning his business. Why only half? Because DRP expects insurance to cover the rest. Morgan is being shirked by insurance as well. Again, as I have asked for from the very beginning, where is the event-specific ombudsman that would have negotiated these nebulous lines?
Introducing D and L, High River residents who have not spent a single night at home for 13 months. Their full names are not shared because they don't want anything jeopardizing their work with the DRP. DRP is not offering them even a fraction of the cost to remediate their homes, because they determine whether or not the home is in flood fringe or floodway based on the elevation of their front door - not their walkout basement. Their walkout basement is clearly in floodway (and as Jim Morgan explained in the Facebook post listed above, that should never have been allowed to happen, but because it did, Government now needs to deal with it), yet this tiny piece of fine print the DRP has arbitrarily decided to create is preventing the Sundby's from affording to live at home. They hold out, hoping to move back to the town they love soon.
Interestingly, the government is still using outdated maps for determining where floodplains are. Observe the two maps below. The first was the one I demonstrated shortly after the flood as grotesquely out of date.
The second is what is currently posted by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. The changes are only in roadways and town boundaries. When we asked for updated flood maps, we didn't ask for something Google could produce for us; the floodplains were supposed to be updated long ago and they haven't been.
By the way, if you are a Cardston resident or business owner who got flooded this year, do everything possible to get your recovery assistance to ignore flood maps, because your maps are horribly inaccurate as well.
If it's not changing leadership, confusion with insurance, or maps, what other reasons could there be for people to be denied DRP funding? Introducing Chuck Shifflett, High River luthier. As a single example in his saga with DRP, he was told that his heritage home needed to have the foundation completely fixed, and to mitigate against future floods they even raised it two feet. Then DRP chose not to reimburse him for his foresight or care for parts of our heritage. The reason: the house is too old.
If these four people were in the buyout territories known as floodway, they would have cost taxpayers approximately $1.5 million. They aren't looking for buyouts, so really their combined costs are actually half that, if not even lower. Still sounds like a lot, right? So if the government is saving that money by not giving it to the homeless and businessless, where is all this money going?
To golf courses. $18 million that will fix a golf course that will likely be damaged again in the next high rainfall event.
They say it is to help encourage the tourist economy in that area of the province. What they didn't divulge is the link to another Progressive Conservative party sole-sourced contract to PC friends.
But let's look passed that little nugget for a moment and consider the 150 jobs lost when the golf course closed, and the 51,000 rounds of golf Albertans play there each year.
I guess the 120 people still living in Saddlebrook, homeless, and with no certain resolution on their homes is less than 150 jobs.
I guess the many businesses, like Morgan's, that have to close up shop, or the dozen businesses that will be left homeless when their temporary structures get torn down this summer (their original locations are still under heavy construction or in lease agreement disputes) is less than 150 jobs.
I guess rounds of golf are more important than people.
If each damaged home in High River cost $200,000 to remediate (not an unrealistic number), that $18 million would fix 90 homes. So I ask you, 600 rounds of golf, or a place for a family to sleep?
This argument, however, ignores a problem the government is having to deal with; inappropriate developments in inappropriate places. Homes are built in floodplains. Thankfully the local government is trying to deal with this by undeveloping certain areas. It might be wildly unfair to people who purchased those places hoping to stay until their mandatory relocation to Heaven, but hopefully even they understand that those developments are costing taxpayers year after year. However, in saying this, people in these areas, like Jamie Kinghorn, need to be compensated for the loss of their homes due to undevelopment (and any money they unwittingly spent fixing them prior to the undevelopment announcement).
But a golf course with links to the PC party is too important to relegate to undevelopment.
All development in the foothills causes problems in the watershed. In a natural state, the water gets slowed down, spread out in the groundwater, and doesn't gather anywhere near as much in rivers to cause high water events.
When development occurs, it packs down the ground, making it so that water doesn't seep, spread out and slow down. Rather it gathers in gutters, ditches, and eventually rivers, and causes high water events.
But don't you dare suggest undevelopment when it comes to a golf course. High River homeowners can be shunted to ... well, wherever, but PCs need to make sure Albertans get their 36 holes in.
How many of those golfers at this golf course were High Riverites, I wonder.
Please don't fall into the trap of thinking High River is on the road to recovery. It's not. It's not even on a paved secondary highway getting there yet. There are too many golf courses in the way.
The Alberta Party has a plan for the following things that would be of interest particularly to flood victims still dealing with DRP;
This is just a smattering of how the Alberta Party views proper management of the disaster recovery, and all of these measures can still be put into place after the PC government is gone.
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.