With theatrical parents who acted, directed and created costumes for the stage, Craig Curtis could have been a set designer.
But he preferred to create more lasting legacies — and Red Deer has been shaped by this decision in multiple ways.
Curtis, who retires as Red Deer city manager in March, started out as an urban planner who helped design Red Deer’s beloved parks system, Later, he helped steer the construction of the Centrium, and more recently, helped pull together the winning bid for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
The London-born, Cape Town-raised Curtis has had a long, diverse municipal career that stretches back nearly four decades.
Other highlights include helping move the rail yards out of the middle of Red Deer’s downtown, turning the Old Courthouse into a cultural hub, and planning for growth in a city whose population has more than doubled since he arrived here to avoid South African apartheid in 1980.
But the accomplishment Curtis takes the most pride in is helping design the Waskasoo Parks system. The greenbelt that follows the Red Deer River and scenically snakes along creeks with bike trails always tops the list of what people love most about this city, says Curtis.
There were only old gravel pits and dirt access roads back in 1981, when Curtis began working on the master plan that plotted the development of Bower Ponds, Three Mile Bend, McKenzie Trails, and most recently, Maskepetoon Park, and connecting trails.
Curtis went from being an urban planner with Parkland Planning to becoming Red Deer’s director of community services before leaving the province for a dozen years of managing the City of Owen Sound, Ont. He recalls much belt-tightening was needed there under former Ontario premier Mike Harris.
When Craig returned to central Alberta in 2007, it was to assume the Red Deer city manager’s position — from which he will step down this spring.
“I want to leave while I still have energy and excitement for the job,” says the 69-year-old.
Curtis was only three when his artistic parents moved him from the deprivations of post-war London, England, to sunny South Africa.
As a young man, Curtis briefly entered his parents’ theatrical world, where he designed elaborate sets for plays. But he always felt a pang of regret when the sets were struck down at the end of each run.
“It was so transitory… I wanted to make a more lasting legacy,” he recalls.
He opted to study architecture and urban design at the University of Cape Town, and later created a historic walking tour guide for Port Elizabeth that’s still distributed by the Nelson Mandela Tourist Association today.
In the process, he made friendships with black South Africans and became increasingly bothered by their treatment under apartheid. Curtis also struggled with the planning challenges the discriminatory system presented.
He says he’s never regretted moving to Canada. He later sponsored his parents, who worked for many years at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. (Curtis’s mother also earned an international reputation as a premiere designer of ballet tutus, and travelled the world — from Denmark to Texas — working for different companies.)
“I love this city,” says Curtis of Red Deer. He cites our location, proximity to larger centres, ample green spaces and amenities.
When he returned here in the mid 2000s, the possibilities seemed endless: Red Deer was in the middle of a boom. The provincial economy has since fallen into a protracted recession, which will make the 2019 operating budget the most challenging in a decade, says Curtis.
While he’s pleased with recent legacy projects — such as the Servus Arena rebuild, and the pending move of city’s cultural services back into the downtown into the old Central Intermediate School (benefits of the 2019 Canada Winter Games), Curtis feels it’s time to start marketing Red Deer more actively.
This approach wasn’t much needed in the past, since good times brought new opportunities without great effort, he adds, but it should be a priority now.
Curtis, who first arrived in the city to see grain elevators still standing near the river, north of what’s now Riverlands, wishes he could stay on the job as the area is transformed into a commercial/residential hub.
But there would always be a next project on the horizon, and he wants to travel while he can.