Red Deer, Alberta (Canada) has just had a municipal election. For those readers outside of Canada we have three levels of government, municipal (can be a city, town or county) provincial (in our case the province of Alberta) and federal. Red Deer is a city that has just hit 100,000 people, we are a city in a wealthy province, but it is also a city containing a lot of hard working people with many in the oilfield and construction industries.
I was going to write a post with regards to the election right after the results came in, but then I thought a few days of reflection and analysis may be of benefit. I have decided to focus on a few issues we, the citizens of Red Deer, are facing rather than focusing on the election results and those who have been elected.
Before I get down to brass tacks I will say that I did take this election quite seriously. I actually attended the discussion on the ward system, the forum presented by Red Deer College, and the forum presented by the Chamber of Commerce. If anyone wishes to verify this, yes I was the one in the red cowboy boots (pretty hard to miss, like a party on your feet!). I will also say attending the forums was eye opening. At the forum sponsored by Red Deer College I went in thinking I would vote one way for mayor and came out voting a direction I would have never contemplated. The forum presented by the Chamber of Commerce presented a question and answer session between the public and 30 candidates competing for 8 councillor positions; at this event, which I attended with my husband, we actually scored each answer given by the candidate and essentially created a spreadsheet to decide on who we would vote for. This is taking things seriously. By the way only one candidate scored full marks, while 20 out of the thirty did not score at all. I will also add there were a few candidates who were quite impressive with their level of intelligence and knowledge. I just wanted to give this background to prove that what you are about to read is not a random citizen just “spouting off”.
Almost all of the issues that I am about to present were brought up at one forum or another. I discovered some new concerns in the city by attending, and I also discovered there are some VERY angry people out there. Forums are a great way for voters to see how candidates think on their feet, however issues are never talked about in depth, the voter gets to ask the question but can not quiz the candidate deeper and this is what needs to happen for situations to be solved or for voters to find an understanding.
I will also say many of the answers by candidates at the forums were extremely disappointing. It was like watching a hamster on a wheel. No new approaches to issues, just the same old politi-speak over and over, disappointing. I wonder how many times they have to take the same approach towards an issue before they realize, well, that they will get the same results…..and the results aren’t working. I was really hoping to witness a forward thinker, an independent thinker, a politician who isn’t a lemming, someone who could think outside of the box. This city is full of aspiring politicians, that is clear by the number of candidates, but what our city really needs right now are problem solvers. We don’t need people in suits and fancy dresses and expensive shoes to cut ribbons at events, we need people to fix the city. This is the start of the new term, everything is possible, time to change history and fix something instead of dragging the city’s issues around and around like a hamster on a wheel.
I am hoping that by writing this it will reopen some of the dialogue for further discussion and perhaps encourage others to be active in their concerns on a constant basis rather than just in the preamble to an election. Community input is vital. It is also vital for the councillors and mayor to reach into the community and see the people’s issues, they need to step into all the communities and all walks of life and not just for a photo op but to find out just what is REALLY happening in this city. I am amazed of how many people in a free and democratic country feel intimidated by government, they will not voice their opinions or concerns, but these opinions and concerns are valid. Perhaps it is time for a new era, perhaps it is time for the politicians to step up to the plate and reach out to the average citizen, let them know their voice is important, listen to them and then do something about it.
I am now going to discuss a few of the issues that came up over the forums, and I will warn you it will be long, but this is necessary. The issues are not listed in order of importance.
The 50 Meter Pool
The need for a 50 meter pool seems to be one of “those” topics. An expensive project to throw Red Deer into deeper debt, but beyond that one has to ask the question “Why does Red Deer need a 50 meter pool?” Now I’ll just give a little background before I launch into the issue, I have utilized all the pools extensively over the years, I basically lived at the swimming pools growing up, taught swimming lessons and lifeguarded at Dawe for four years so I have had a great opportunity to witness trends in pool usage. Now the ONLY reason Red Deer needs a 50 meter pool is for special interest groups, or shall I be specific and say “swim clubs”. Do I need a 50 meter pool to splash around with my children….no. Do I need a 50 meter pool for my children to take swimming lessons…..no. Do I need a 50 meter pool to swim lengths….no.
Actually lets examine the whole “swimming lengths” phenomenon as this is truly the only scenario where having a 50 meter pool over a 25 meter pool could possibly matter. I decided to do a little experiment. I looked in the “Fall 2013 Community Services Activity and Program Guide”, produced by the City of Red Deer, and located the times available for lane swimming. I discovered all the pools in town had lane swim on the evening of October 23rd at roughly the same time, so I decided to visit each pool to witness, for myself, just what the demand for lane swimming was in Red Deer. All the swimming sessions were in full swing. The results are as follows:
Recreation Centre – 18 swimmers
Total number of people in 4 separate swimming pool facilities – 41 people
Total number of people SWIMMING LENGTHS (as in those that would possibly use a 50 meter pool, not including swim instructors) – 26
I really don’t have to elaborate on this, the cold hard truth is 26 out of 100,000 people were swimming lengths the evening of October 23rd, 2013. Can someone please tell me why the other 99,974 citizens should pay for this? The fact of the matter is that this is the whole “Million Dollar Bike Lane Fiasco” all over again. This is a project where only SPECIAL INTEREST groups will benefit but ALL the citizens pay. (For the non-Red Deer readers, a million bucks-ish to install bike lanes in a city buried in snow for 6 to 8 months of the year, plus our roads are infested with massive trucks carrying quads doing at least 20 km/h over the speed limit which will surely result in imminent death.)
Now I am going to go off on a couple of swimming pool related tangents here:
Has anyone looked at the times for lane swimming in Red Deer? I’m not going to itemize as that is just too tedious, but generally speaking you have the choice to swim at the crack of dawn, squeeze in a lunch time swim and drip through your afternoon, or swim in the middle of the night (9-10 pm). These are the adult swim times, the times for lane swimming. If you are under 18, attending school, and want to lane swim during the week you have ONE option….the Recreation Centre on Fridays has lane swim from 3:00 pm to 5:30 pm. That is it. Has anyone ever noticed how we the tax paying citizens get the dregs, the unwanted time slots, left over by special interest groups? Why are the “PUBLIC” last on the list of priorities? It doesn’t seem fair, does it. It wasn’t always this way. Look back into the swim schedules of the 1980’s and the 1990’s, at Dawe and Michener you could lane swim, alongside public swim, every weekday between 3:30 and 5:00 pm. I know, I did it, I was a pool rat. This is when kids could actually SWIM FOR FITNESS. Staggering concept. (“But now you have bike lanes!” is the City’s response ….anyone want to see the mayor try a shallow dive in the middle of 39th Street…….oh quit nodding your heads you all know I’m being sarcastic!)
At one time, about two years ago, I actually thought the recreation department had done a wonderful thing. At this point in time The Recreation Centre pool offered City run swimming lessons in part of the pool with two lanes in for the public to swim lengths at the same time. I truly thought someone had had an epiphany where they provided a situation where you could place your children in swimming lessons AND the parents could swim lengths at the same time. This was fabulous. The whole family exercising at the same time. I loved it. Swimming lessons were well taught. The kids learned and progressed. I got a workout. I thought “What a great concept to let parents exercise while the kids take a lesson.”. So the next year I sign the kids up again for swimming lessons hoping for the same positive experience. First discovery is that the lane swim had been cancelled. Second discovery is that they have packed so many swim classes into the pool that the kids can barely move. These are swim lessons offered by the City of Red Deer. Each class had 8 kids in it. On top of “Swim Kids” classes they also squeezed in baby and parent classes. Each class pretty much went like this, get in the water, stand at the edge, shiver, get two or three chances to try and swim (in a 40 minute session I might add!), go sit in the hot tub. And you get all this for $74.00 per child, per session. So in my case, for $222.00 for that session (3 kids in lessons), I got to watch my children not learn to swim and freeze to death at the side of the pool. This is a program run by the City of Red Deer. This is how important swimming is to the City of Red Deer. Why do we need a 50 meter pool again? Our youth isn’t even going to LEARN to swim, let alone 50 meters. By the way, our kids haven’t gone back in the lessons, and I know others in the same classes opted to no longer put their children in swim lessons (there were many kids from our elementary school in lessons together). Of course I also wonder if the Recreation Department has intentionally made the group swim lessons unproductive to force parents to place their children in the private swim lessons that they offer. After all a private lesson is $200.00 per child for 8 half hour lessons. I am going to leave this topic here, but there are issues.
( I will also add that the Recreation closes on statutory holidays plus posted this year on a sign that the outdoor pool may not be open if temperatures are below 18 degrees Celsius. This does not sound like swimming pools in Red Deer have a huge demand.)
I have one last tangent to tackle with regards to swimming, recreation and child fitness, and that is …………..
The Collicutt Centre
We in Red Deer have a very expensive swimming pool THAT YOU CAN”T SWIM IN. Brilliant. This isn’t a matter of “opinion”, it is proven by the one sad person attempting to swim lengths in a weirdly shaped wave pool, during my little investigation into pool usage. If the City of Red Deer truly believed children needed to be fit (bike lanes!), why did they spend millions on a pool designed for kids to float on mats riding on waves? Not exactly fitness. Then it gets better, this pool has a “lazy river”, it serves NO PURPOSE, none. A “river” that you walk through from water mid-calf depth to chest depth, and in one section there are a few bubbles. Pointless. This is another of the City of Red Deer’s projects where they did a lot of research. Sigh. This is a recreational facility designed for fitness, this river is very close to the length of a 25 meter pool and about two lanes wide, did it never cross the minds of those planning the project to actually make this a swimmable area? I know I am being unreasonable but being able to SWIM in a pool just seemed to make sense to me. But let’s not stop there, let’s look at the play pool designed for children, the pool where they have a play structure so large that you can’t actually see your children if they are utilizing the structure in the pool. Small children, lots of water, no sight lines…….for the parents or the lifeguards. The fun doesn’t stop there, lets go upstairs to the running track. We used to use the track several times a week in winter, we’d walk, we’d run, we’d take our kids to keep fit in the winter. I know we are unusual but we do a ton of sports and activities with our children. This all came to an abrupt end. Our eldest is 15. Did you know we were reprimanded by staff at the Collicutt and told that in order for him to run the track, by himself (keep in mind we are still on the track running too) he had to attend a class and get some sort of tag to wear on his shoe. We were also told that we had to keep all our children “at arms length”. So evidently the City of Red Deer, who feels fitness is so important for children that they spend $1,000,000 on bike lanes, also feels it is inappropriate for a 15 year old to put on a set of headphones and run a couple of miles on the track. They feel that a 15 year old should be kept “at arms length” of his parents. He is 15 years old. Bizarre. Needless to say we haven’t been back. Clearly the City of Red Deer would rather have 15 year olds doing something different, rather than running distance around a track perhaps doing drugs behind 7-11 is a better activity. Good plan.
I am going to keep on a similar theme, one brought up by a gentleman at the forum sponsored by Red Deer College, …….
New North End Recreation Centre
Now I will admit I did not realize this was a concern until attending the forum. This is the great thing about forums, you learn things, you learn about other neighborhoods, you learn about other issues. There is great value in that. More facilities is definitely a need that comes with growth, but are we there yet? I started thinking about this topic, but also about how there must be solutions that don’t cost several million dollars. There have to be “outside-of-the-box” solutions that can economically fulfill a need, and I truly think a fiscally responsible council needs to start thinking in these terms. So here is my thought. If certain areas of the city are lacking in access to a recreational facility, why don’t we create a situation to make it convenient for these areas to utilize the lesser used facilities? In plain English. Public swimming at the Recreation Centre on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon has 15-30 people in the pool at most at one time. Why doesn’t the City run a shuttle bus from the areas that need access to a pool to an under used facility? Have 2 or 3 pick up spots, two runs to the pool and two runs back, two days a week. So easy. So cost effective. So easy to implement. We are in an age of re-use, recycle, repurpose. This is the same concept. Take something that is under-used and create a high use scenario. An existing facility gets used to capacity and users are transported en-mass which is better for the environment.
Several people mentioned issues revolving around the downtown area. Again these are issues that could easily be solved with some alternative thinking.
Ross Street Patio
Ross Street Patio, for those not in the know , was an outdoor event held downtown, throughout the summer, which showcased musical talent in an outdoor environment. The “patio” was actually a parking area repurposed for the summer with tables, umbrellas and planters.
Let me say right off the bat that I LOVE Ross Street Patio. Seriously, all summer long I scheduled my Thursday lunch hours around it. I work from home, I raise my children from home at the same time, this was a great diversion for me. I do think this is a wonderful thing for our community, and I think Red Deer needs more of that, people getting out and interacting with people. Now that being said, it appears that some people do not share the same love I have for the project, mainly because it takes away a fair amount of parking in a downtown area that really doesn’t have that many parking spots for the size of the community. I agree, parking is hard, that is why I mostly walk from home if I need to go there, but the fact of the matter is most people do not live a walkable distance to downtown. So I have been thinking about this, looking at the area, and again there is a simple (and cheap) solution. Actually two solutions. First solution, move the venue 200 meters south into Veteran’s Park. It is still on the same block and as a bonus people might actually read all the history boards regarding the citizens of Red Deer involved in the various wars. The second solution, build a permanent stage into the staircase on the west side of city hall so that concert goers could lunch on the lawn of City Hall Park while listening to the artists. This stage could also be utilized for all the other festivals that happen in the downtown core through out the year. This still only moves the event only 300-350 meters away from the current venue (I haven’t measured, it may be less). This is the way to keep the event and the parking.
Parking, Traffic and Alternative Transportation
Parking in Red Deer seems to be an issue with many. Let’s face it, we live in a climate of pretty severe winters. We live in a city that has embraced urban sprawl (the City has not tried to encourage the development of a proper new family neighborhood in the core). We lead lives run by deadlines and obligations and commitments. We lead lives, like it or not, that require cars. When the issue of parking was brought up at the forums, it was at times diverted to the topic of alternative methods of transportation, and the topic of traffic was also a concern, so I am going to address all three of these issues.
Since attending the forums I have been consciously looking at downtown, and Red Deer does need more parking if they want businesses downtown. At the forums some candidates mentioned that we have a parkade, others mentioned that private industry could build a parkade (which is quite a reasonable solution). But if you look downtown there is a huge piece of real-estate, absolutely wasted, that could have been parking. Now bear with me because I am going to have to walk you through this thought process; let me take you “out-of-the-box”. The huge piece of wasted real estate is the bus depot. (I imagine there are a whole lot of people freaking out at me at the moment, but hear me out!) The whole bus depot design could be tweaked to fulfill more than one purpose, and serve more of the Red Deer population. My first question is, why do buses need to drive inside? Why was it not designed with the heated shelters on the perimeter, with buses utilizing the easternmost side for the pick up of passengers. Take a look at where the little shop/café is and imagine waiting areas. The road is four lanes of traffic at this point, reduce it to three. If traffic slows down, it is a good thing, this is downtown, not a freeway. The interior of the bus depot could then be utilized for downtown parking, essentially gaining an extra floor in a parkade. Bus passengers still have a warm place to wait. Motorists have a place to park their cars. Businesses can reconsider downtown as an option for a place to do business.
As I just touched on the topic of traffic, I may as well continue. Traffic is a problem and will continue to be a problem if growth is encouraged. At the forums there were discussions about traffic lights and stop signs and traffic tickets and the quantity of traffic. Traffic is a monster issue. Just a few thoughts here. Downtown is one of the most congested areas. My take on some viewpoints is that it seems some think it might be beneficial to make downtown less of a “car destination” (encourage carpooling, public transport, etc.). If you want to make downtown less of a “car destination” perhaps the first step is to discourage the traffic that isn’t actually stopping in downtown. “How do you do that?” is the next question. Very easily. Reduce the speed limit. Lower the speed limit to 30 km/h in the core. Put rumble strips on all the arteries as you approach the core. Having to putter along like Mr. Magoo at 30 km/hr will deter those with a need for speed. Honestly, Red Deer has a lot of options to travel north to south without going through downtown. A lot of people just travel through downtown out of habit. My husband works just off 67th Street, when he needs to get to the office from the south end of town he takes the highway, from the east he takes 30th Avenue then 67th.
Deterring traffic and slowing down traffic in the downtown core brings other benefits. First, those who want to be in downtown will not have some huge truck roaring up behind them at 70 km/hr while they try to park. Those actually wanting to use downtown might be able to without the aggressive drivers. Secondly it will make it quieter. Less traffic, less speed, less noise. This will create a more pleasant atmosphere. This will make it more walkable. This might make people think “I don’t have to park right in front of the store, I can walk three blocks from my parking spot, it’s kind of nice to walk downtown!”. And lastly less cars mean less pollution, and better air quality is better for everyone.
I also need to tackle the concept of public transport that was brought up as an area to examine as a solution for traffic issues. While public transportation is a lovely politically correct idea, I think all the candidates at the forums really need to take a realistic view of life before even mentioning this as an option. I am going to give you my schedule for the other day and I want to see if someone can come up with a public transportation option that will work for me so that I can meet my commitments on time, please remember to take into account I have a 3 year old in tow for all these trips and that our children do not qualify for bussing as our designated school is an “arts school” so we had to go with a different school option :
– take bus from Woodlea to Morrisroe, kids must be in school by 8:50 am (no, I won’t let my tiny 5 year old ride a city bus on her own)
-return home (Morrisroe to Woodlea)
-pick up daughter at school by 11:30 am (Woodlea to Morrisroe)
– return home (Morrisroe to Woodlea)
– go to speech therapy, 1:00 pm appointment (Woodlea to Downtown)
– return home at about 2:15 (Downtown to Woodlea)
– pick children up at school at 3:23 pm (Woodlea to Morrisroe)
-return home (Morrisroe to Woodlea)
By the way, for our whole family to ride the bus paying cash it would be $22.20 per trip or $301 a month for bus passes. When all the children are over age five it will cost us $26.40 per trip or $415 per month……to travel in an inefficient way.
I would also like a solution for grocery shopping when it comes to using public transport. We are a family of seven. We go through a minimum of 14 gallons of milk a week alone, let alone food, how do you bring your groceries home on the bus. I guess what I am saying is that all the candidates need to really think before professing that public transport is the way to go. It is insulting to those of us where it is completely not feasible. Perhaps choose a target demographic where you think it may work, but do your homework, I suspect you will find very quickly why the buses run empty.
I am also going to take this opportunity to tackle a pet concern of mine, which is the area at the bottom of Ross Street Hill. The area near the white metal sculpture. I really have to mention this because it is only a matter of time before someone is killed here. The scenario is we have cars flying down the hill much too fast with a pedestrian crossing at the base of the hill linking the walking/biking path system that runs through the Waskasoo park system. It isn’t a matter of opinion that the cars come down too fast, fact of the matter it is one of the favorite radar spots in town. I have personally been responsible for three separate accidents at this location. Want to know how I caused these accidents? By standing at the pedestrian crossing waiting to cross. This is what has happened each time, car #1 comes flying down the hill and slams on the brakes at the crossing, car #2 doesn’t notice and slams into car #1, followed by car #3 hitting the other two. Glass flies, air bags go off, same old, same old. But believe it or not there is a scarier scenario, and this happens every few weeks. A person stands waiting to cross at the intersection, the car in the right hand lane stops for the person to cross but the car flying down the hill in the left hand lane flies through. This is where there is going to be a death. We need to slow down, or stop cars at this location. The other side of the road, right by the carved Parkvale sign, has it’s own set of problems. This spot wouldn’t be an issue if people drove the speed limit, but they don’t. I challenge you to go stand by the Parkvale sign facing traffic and see how many vehicles come close to losing control, and when they lose control they are going to kill anyone walking on that sidewalk. We need to slow down traffic, be it lights, rumble strips or speed bumps. I am sorry but the excuse I heard at the forum about frustrated drivers was ridiculous, not reducing speed is just fueling their aggression. The types that speed will never have enough speed, will never have enough aggression, it isn’t a question of timing lights perfectly, or having the perfect combination of stop signs. No councillor can fix this traffic issue because you can’t fix the stinking rotten attitude of these drivers.
If you are still with me I congratulate you on your amazing stamina as you have already read 4758 words. Unfortunately I still have more to say. No one can say I wasn’t listening at the forums. On to the next topic…………….
Did anyone keep count of how many times at the Chamber of Commerce forum that someone said “We’ve just reached 100,000 and soon we’ll be at 200,000 people.” Seriously. But beyond the bizarre nature of the comment did it ever occur to any of the candidates that perhaps not all growth is good. When is too much growth too much? When does growth become detrimental rather than beneficial? At what point does a council take into account a reduction in the quality of life due to unchecked growth? I know in municipalities it isn’t a popular notion but still it is a concept that I feel needs to be contemplated. Listen to many of the things brought up at the forum. Parking shortages, traffic problems, inadequate policing capacity, need for more social and housing resources, a need for more recreational options. The writing is on the wall. We as a city have hit the threshold. This growth isn’t coming for free. I know that and everyone of the candidates speaking at the forum SHOULD know that as well. We pay for it with a decreased quality of life, we pay for it through a need for more social programs and we certainly pay for it through any needed infrastructure. I had a very interesting conversation this summer with Robert Kohn. Robert Kohn is the representative for our district for our place in Lac Ste. Anne County , essentially the same as what a councillor is in a ward system. We were discussing a situation regarding a proposed development in the area and as the discussion went on some of the price tags for infrastructure (roads, sewer, intersections, etc.) came up. Quite fascinating yet quite staggering. The discussion somehow evolved into conferences he had been to and the redevelopment of inner cities (it was a long discussion, can you tell!) and then he said the phrase that sticks in my head …..”There is nothing more expensive than urban sprawl.” Urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is what we have. One little non-descript neighborhood popping up after the other with all the charm of east block housing projects before the wall came down. This urban sprawl is not coming for free.
If one was to look at memorable places, the “quaint” places, the cities and towns with “character”, often their growth has been limited. They have followed the philosophy of quality over quantity. Perhaps it is something to consider. Do you want a city to be a big as it can be or as great as it can be? It is a question worth pondering.
The councillors, the mayor , and the people of Red Deer, do have within their power the opportunity to shape our community. We don’t just have to let the future of our city happen. We can have a say in it. We can mould it. At the forums we heard a lot about the past (bike lanes), a bit about solving existing problems, but very little of an inspired future. I said to my husband I would love to hear what each candidate’s vision is. How will Red Deer be a different place once their four year term is up? I really wanted to know are any of the candidates visionaries or are they all just going through the motions? Who’s in it to make a difference and who’s in it to stroke an ego or bear a grudge? I guess time will tell.
This evening, before I started writing, I mentioned to a few people I was putting up this post, and asked “do you have anything you wish me to tackle?”. The answer was communication. No one feels the city communicates effectively with the residents of Red Deer. Communication is easy. So easy. First lets talk about the City of Red Deer. Why do we not get weekly emailed updates from City Hall? A huge proportion of the Red Deer population have access to electronic media, we have the easiest way to reach the people. Why isn’t this happening? Schools do it. Why can’t City Hall? Let us know what is going on. I seriously do not know why everything has to be such a great mystery. The mayor and councillors are voted in by the people. You are our representatives. You should be our representation and our voice. You should keep us informed. The Facebook feed is “fine”. Sometimes it is timely, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is informative, and sometimes…..well, you get the picture. I actually read it every day but there is definitely room for improvement.
I will say that in the past some councillors have been quite good with communication, one in particular I would rate as “above and beyond”. I want to share a little story. I sent an email out the night before the election thanking the existing councillors and mayor for the return of our community skating rink. Three councillors responded. One councillor already had my vote , but I had yet to finalize my full roster of eight choices. Two of the councillors secured my vote with just a simple acknowledgement . They were on my list of ten that scored at the forum, but they secured the vote because I knew they were open to communication. I knew they would be the peoples voice. Communication is vital. Communicating with members of the public, no matter how big of a pain in the ass they may be, is a mayor’s and councillors’ job. It is what you signed up for. It is your responsibility.
The people’s voice is the final issue I wish to discuss. It is time our municipal government gives the people of Red Deer a format to be able to voice their opinions and concerns on a regular basis. We are not stupid little peasants entrusting our lives to the hands of our municipal government. We are a population of smart, educated, experienced and concerned citizens. We can help make Red Deer a better place, a place where we can love living rather than merely exist, but our municipal government needs to start listening to us NOW. This needs to be a partnership. You need to work with the people. You need to interact with the people. You need to actively go out there and reach out to the people, find out what needs fixing and work together in fixing it. It isn’t an odd concept, it’s the concept of working as a community. In my opinion it is time to create a system of neighborhood representation, not even necessarily through the ward system (that will be a whole other post!), but engaging people of different neighborhoods to get together with councillors several times throughout the year to discuss problems, to brain storm , and to find a few solutions. Let’s lose the “us vs. them” mentality. It’s time to wok together. It’s time to fix Red Deer.