Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston pledged to make progress on resolving some long-standing local issues in 2022, including downtown crime. (Contributed photo)

Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston pledged to make progress on resolving some long-standing local issues in 2022, including downtown crime. (Contributed photo)

Red Deer mayor wants to put shelter matters and other long-standing issues to rest in 2022

Ken Johnston expects to see hospital expansion money in next year’s provincial budget

Red Deerians should expect to see progress on long-standing issues in 2022 — including Red Deer hospital’s bed shortage and downtown crime and vagrancy, says Mayor Ken Johnston.

He said both matters are at the top of his agenda for the New Year.

During a year-end interview on Tuesday, Johnston pledged to quickly “make some movement” on resolving issues related to the mental health, addictions and homelessness in the city’s core so the focus can shift towards creating an economic revival in the downtown.

Johnston said he and other city officials are keen to meet with local realtors, developers and investors to generate more interest. But he realizes that before commercial and residential investment can be attracted to the Gaetz and Ross area or Capstone, “having a sustainable social fabric is key.”

Johnston believes the best solution is starting to build the permanent shelter with wrap-around services to help people get the help they need — “something we intend to address early.”

Red Deerians will, meanwhile, get a chance to comment on council’s initial approval for keeping the homeless shelter at the downtown Cannery Row site for two more years — until the permanent shelter is built — at a public hearing on Jan. 17.

Johnston said the ambulance issue remains a “huge challenge” and the city will keep fighting to restore local ambulance dispatching in 2022. But he’s heartened to see progress starting in the area of local addictions treatment, with the privately funded Dream Centre and the provincially funded north-end treatment centre under construction — as well as the Justice Centre that will replace the too-small provincial courthouse.

The mayor next expects to see tangible steps taken towards solving Red Deer hospital’s chronic bed shortage in the provincial government’s 2022 budget

“Six years ago, I started pounding the drum on hospital issue,” said Johnston. While a business case has since been drawn up for the hospital expansion, staff at the facility continue to struggle with too few operating rooms, patient care beds, and no cardiac catheterization lab.

”It’s an emotional issue for me,” said Johnston, whose wife died in 2017 from complications from a heart attack.

“I look for a lot of traction on this… I am knocking on the door of our provincial partners and saying, ‘Hey guys, where is our money (for a) planned hospital expansion?’”

The mayor admitted the last pandemic year has been challenging for the City of Red Deer, as well as all Red Deerians contending with the impacts of a prolonged COVID-19 crisis in the community, schools and businesses.

As the city grapples with lower revenues, many citizens are feeling like they are in social isolation, he said, encouraging all Red Deerians to reach out to their neighbours by phone or any safe way.

“COVID is testing the strength of our social fabric, but in Red Deer, that fabric remains strong,” added the mayor, who praised public resilience and the strength of first-responders in the health care, emergency services and social service fields.

With Christmas coming this weekend, the provincial government recognized the desire for get-togethers with extended family members. Restrictions around indoor social gatherings were loosened, although the government retains a 10-person household cap.

Johnston said he trusts health care experts and hopes people will stay as safe as possible to keep hospital admissions from rising steeply in January.

Although the Omricon variant is starting to send more people to hospital with COVID-19, the mayor feels more hopeful because of the availability of vaccine booster shots, and since crowd events such as the Canadian Finals Rodeo and Agritrade have happened at Westerner Park without large outbreaks occurring.

He remains optimistic that the corner will be turned on the virus in the spring of 2022.

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