Alan Watson

Alan Watson

Watson brothers chronicle lifetime of building

In 1934, a destitute Saskatchewan farmer threw a piece of canvas over a hayrack, loaded his young family and abandoned his drought-stricken homestead in favour of greener prospects in Central Alberta.

In 1934, a destitute Saskatchewan farmer threw a piece of canvas over a hayrack, loaded his young family and abandoned his drought-stricken homestead in favour of greener prospects in Central Alberta.

Among the passengers in the horse-drawn wagon were a pair of infants who would do much to shape the appearance of Red Deer.

Now 82 and 80 respectively, Alan and Gene Watson have had a hand in dozens of local development projects — including Morrisroe subdivision, Village Shopping Centre, Checkmate Court, Centre 53, Watson Towers, The Watson Centre and Plaza 52nd Street.

They remember growing up on 40 acres of farmland near Pine Lake, where their father settled after arriving in the midst of the Depression.

“Apparently, he was heading for Sylvan Lake and he got lost or some damn thing and ended up at Pine Lake,” said Gene.

He and Alan recounted how they and two other siblings rode horseback 4 1/2 miles to the Pine Lake school, including on frigid winter days when the ink wells in their uninsulated school house would freeze.

Alan quit school in Grade 9 to do farm work. Gene stuck it out to the midway point of Grade 12, and then followed suit.

By the early 1950s, both had found work with local plumbing companies: Gene at Burnett Plumbing and Alan at Hayhoe Plumbing. Soon after, they took their first tentative step into the development business, buying a pair of vacant lots in Blackfalds for $100 each.

Gene recalled having to negotiate terms with town council after he and his brother realized they only had $100 between them. They started building a house on one of the lots, working evenings and weekends.

“It took all summer to build the basement,” said Gene, adding that framing proceeded as they scraped together the money for lumber.

Proceeds from the sale of that first house financed a second, and the Watsons were on their way.

In 1957, Gene started Watson Plumbing after earning his plumbing ticket. Alan joined him after doing the same, and Watson Bros. Plumbing Ltd. was the result.

They began building in earnest in the early 1960s, with several multi-family residential projects and a small commercial building. They also bought Marshall Wells Hardware Store in Sylvan Lake, reasoning that the business would generate plumbing work for them around town.

Their days often started at 6 a.m. and didn’t wrap up until 8 or 9 at night. But they continued to build, and in 1965 obtained a 50 per cent interest in construction company Swell Investments Ltd., later buying the balance of the company.

Subsequent projects included commercial buildings, apartment buildings and townhouse complexes. In 1975, the Watsons bought 20 acres of farmland from Jim Morrisroe and subdivided it into 75 residential lots.

They soon realized that land development could be a risky venture, with builders reluctant to buy lots from them.

“Alan and I were so down,” said Gene. “We had millions tied up in these lands.”

A critical point came when Gene met with an official from a large construction company, who seemed cool to the idea of investing in the Watsons’ subdivision.

“Pretty soon he says, ‘I’ll take about 35 lots.’ I could have jumped across the desk and kissed him.”

The Watsons might have dodged another bullet a few years later, after purchasing the land where Checkmate Court now stands. They intended to build a pair of 15-storey residential buildings there.

“We were just ready to get the permits out,” said Alan. “We were all ready to go.”

But, nervous about the huge financial commitment, they postponed the project in favour of Michener Manor condominium, and ultimately sold the property to another developer. It went bankrupt during construction of Checkmate Court, and a subsequent developer lost the building to foreclosure — a victim of Alberta’s economic collapse in the early 1980s.

The Watsons ended up buying the apartment building in 1986 and eventually condominiumized it.

They weren’t so lucky when they bought what appeared to be a prime piece of land west of Red Deer’s downtown, with plans to build an eight-storey condominium. It turned out that soil on the property had been contaminated by fuel from a nearby service station, rendering it unsuitable for residential development and forcing the brothers to sell at a loss.

“That was a real kick in the ass,” said Gene, describing the situation as the worst he and Alan encountered during their more than half a century in the development business.

They also faced some adversity in the early 1980s after developing Village Shopping Centre with two other business partners. The economic downturn pushed the cost of their financing to around 25 per cent, and chased many of their tenants away.

“We’d go up and have coffee and talk to them; next morning, you’d go there and they’d be gone,” said Gene.

The Watsons eventually secured a more favourable loan, and in 1984 traded Village Shopping Centre for a number of other commercial and residential properties.

The brothers have now sold their real estate holdings, with Watson Centre the last to go in 2012. They still have an office in that building, but aren’t sure how long they’ll remain.

Recently, the Watsons produced a 52-page book chronicling their days in the development business. Most of the 125 copies are being delivered to many of the people Alan and Gene worked with over the years, but several have gone to the Red Deer Archives, where members of the public can view them.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Marcus Golczyk, with Taco Monster, hands food to a customer during Food Truck Drive and Dash in the Westerner Park parking lot in Red Deer Friday afternoon. The drive-thru event will run every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through June. Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff
Food Truck Fridays, Food Truck Drive and Dash return in Red Deer

Red Deerians are able to take in a drive-thru food truck experience… Continue reading

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault chairs a premiers virtual news conference as premiers John Horgan, B.C., Jason Kenney, Alberta, and Scott Moe, Saskatchewan, are seen onscreen, Thursday, March 4, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Several provinces bring in new restrictions as high COVID-19 case numbers persist

Several provinces are gearing up to tighten public health measures once again… Continue reading

Members of the RCAF take part in a Royal Canadian Air Force change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Friday, May 4, 2018. The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open its doors to military pilots from other countries as it seeks to address a longstanding shortage of experienced aviators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
RCAF turns to foreign pilots to help with shortage as commercial aviators stay away

OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open… Continue reading

An arrivals and departures information screen is seen at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The chief executive of Atlantic Canada's largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers "sooner rather than later," as an added measure to combat the province's third wave of the virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Halifax airport CEO hopes for more on-site COVID testing ‘sooner rather than later’

HALIFAX — The chief executive of Atlantic Canada’s largest airport is hoping… Continue reading

Shoppers wear mask as they shop at a nursery & garden shop on Mother's Day weekend during COVID-19 pandemic in Wilmette, Ill., Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Tearful reunions mark second Mother’s Day under pandemic

Last Mother’s Day, they celebrated with bacon and eggs over FaceTime. This… Continue reading

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, standing, watches the game during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. The Wild won 5-2. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Tocchet won’t return as coach of Coyotes after 4 seasons

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes and coach Rick Tocchet have mutually… Continue reading

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella shouts at an official after a fight between Columbus Blue Jackets' s Gavin Bayreuther and Florida Panthers' Sam Bennett during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tortorella out after 6 years as Columbus Blue Jackets coach

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Tortorella is out as coach of the Columbus… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Most Read