The change of decade from the 1980s to the 1990s

The 1980s

Another change of year and change of decade is now upon us. It is a time to reflect on the past few years and to muse about what the future might bring. It is particularly interesting to look back to the start of 1990 (i.e. 30 years ago) when another decade came to an end and the last decade of the 20 century commenced.

The 1980s had been generally been very tough years for Red Deer and most of Western Canada. The great boom of the 1970s came to an abrupt halt in the fall of 1981 with the implementation of the federal National Energy program.

Some of the harsh consequences of those policies seem to ease a bit by the mid-decade. However, another collapse of energy prices struck in 1986, with the price per barrel of oil plunging by more than 50%.

The agriculture sector also suffered from a crisis. Commodity prices plummeted. At the same time, farmers and ranchers faced phenomenal debt problems, made worse by interest rates which spiked as high as 20%.

The Central Alberta economy, which relies heavily on the energy and agriculture sectors for growth and prosperity, took a huge hit.

The population statistics of the City help indicate the depth of the problems. Red Deer had been growing by 8% to 10% per year in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That slumped to 1.6% in 1984. After a brief revival, the population growth numbers dropped to less than 1% per year in 1987 and 1988.

All kinds of businesses went bankrupt or else closed their doors. The construction industry really suffered. With a lot fewer people moving to Red Deer, the demand for new homes collapsed. Moreover, with the very high interest rates, many people found it impossible to keep up their mortgage payments on their existing homes.

If there was one bright spot, it was the continuation of a number of major projects, mainly financed by government and commenced before the great boom abruptly ended in 1981. That included the construction of a brand new Red Deer Regional Hospital. There was major spending on the move of the Westerner Exposition grounds from the old site in Downtown Red Deer to a new, much larger one on the south side of the City.

One of the best projects was the development of Waskasoo Park along the Red Deer River and Waskasoo/Piper Creeks. This urban “corridor” park provided a diversity of new recreational facilities and attractions, as well as the preservation of large amounts of natural areas, linked by an extensive trails network. The Red Deer Advocate editorialized that Waskasoo Park was “a jewel” and was “[Premier] Peter Lougheed’s gift to the region that will keep on giving”.

Things seem to finally improve by the late-1980s. Population growth increased to 2% per year with the number of residents in the City nearing 60,000 by the end of the decade. Residential and commercial construction picked up. However, because of the long lull in new rental construction, vacancy rates in the City dropped to less than 1%.

One major boost came with the relocation of the C.P.R. rail line from the heart of the community to the west side. After the Provincial Government announced major assistance through a payment of 90% of the project costs, Red Deer’s M.L.A. Jim McPherson predicted that Red Deer’s employment numbers would improve by at least a percentage point with tens of millions of dollars being spent by the Province, the City and the private sector on new construction.

The retail sector reported a strong uptick in sales during the traditional Christmas and Boxing Week shopping season at the end of 1989. After temperatures had dropped to as low as -35° in mid-December, strong chinook conditions set in. This helped to buoy the festive feelings at both Christmas and the start of the New Year.

5000 to 6000 people turned out for the annual family New Year’s celebrations at Bower Ponds. The crowds were bolstered by the decision to have the main fireworks display at 9 p.m. instead of midnight, making the event even more attractive for young families.

People consequently greeted the start of the New Year and the new decade with cheerfulness and optimism that a prosperous new era was finally underway.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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