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.
Back in University, I had adopted the slogan “carpe nocht”. Thinking I was being relatively clever with Horace’s quote “carpe diem” and the approach to life the phrase espouses, the idea of seizing the night became more than what I ever thought it would be. You see, it was really just a way of justifying my desire to party all night long.
Little did I know that I would take it up as a mantra, and have it end up being a metaphor for my life.
You see, to me, December 21 is not the longest night of 2013. Sure, scientists will talk to you about the winter solstice, and they’d be right. But other nights in 2013 have been far longer.
The night following my wife’s diagnosis with pericarditis. That was a bloody long night.
The night after we discovered the piano component of the High River and District Lions Music Festival had a significant scheduling flaw, and I had to review and reschedule 250 entries. That was a very long night.
The night I discovered that I was no longer part of a profession that the Alberta Government was willing to negotiate with. That was a very long night.
One of the longest nights of the year was June 20, a night I spent until 2 AM in the Blackie evacuation centre following one of the most significant events in Canadian history, the 2013 flood. What made it longer was the hour and a half drive to my parents’ place in the dark, wondering what Waterworld looked like. And the thing that made it even longer yet … the dreams I finally had once I did get to a safe and warm bed.
The first night sleeping in my bed in my home in dank- and dead-smelling High River thinking about the thousands who still had no idea when they’d be returning home. That was an incredibly long night.
The night after a massive hailstorm that almost wrote off my car trying to convince my boys they were safe in our home. That was a long night.
The night I learned I had no classroom, and realized I wouldn’t for weeks, maybe months. That was a long night.
The night after a meeting with business people in High River where I learned that one of our more prominent businesses was struggling to make even a tenth of their regular income, 5 months after the flood. That was a long night.
No, December 21 is not a long night. Not even after an intense day of Christmas shopping is December 21 a long night. It does not compare to the Dylan Thomas kind of nights that we avoided going gently into this year.
But through my “carpe nocht” philosophy comes one realization; after each one of these nights came a day. Each day brought new rays of sunshine, new hope.
These days came because we wouldn’t go gently into that good night. My wife was very diligent in her recovery from her heart condition. I rescheduled the piano classes and made everything work for the festival. Teachers kept teaching. I helped wherever I could after the flood. My family, and many other families, worked tirelessly to clean up homes so people could return, and others who haven’t yet are still working hard to do the same. I found a hall to teach in while I waited for a classroom. Business people of High River are not hoping for handouts, they are working to return to success. Even our boys got involved in High River's recovery. In each case, we are all working to see a brighter day.
Then, perhaps after we’ve seized the opportunity that night has given us, we can then seize the day.
So, in this season of hope, I look back at 2013 as a very long night. And 2014 is going to be a very bright day. I know this, because it starts with my brother marrying a wonderful young lady, and the beginning of a new life together brings with it hope for the future.
I wish all of you for whom 2013 was a long night to seize the night and the opportunities it presents. Don’t go quietly into it. Then, having seized the opportunities, may the future days be yours to take.
Carpe nocht et carpe diem.