Red Deer’s full potential not realized

Higher than average crime, a less educated than average workforce, and an under-diversified local economy all hinder Red Deer attaining its full development potential, according to a draft report commissioned by city council.

Downtown Red Deer continues to evolve.

Downtown Red Deer continues to evolve.

Higher than average crime, a less educated than average workforce, and an under-diversified local economy all hinder Red Deer attaining its full development potential, according to a draft report commissioned by city council.

On the bright side, Red Deer has many things going in its favour, including low tax rates, a positive business climate, a younger working age population, a reasonable cost of living, and a “highly advantageous geographic position.”

These were the findings of a draft Economic Development Strategy being prepared for the city by Urbanics Consultants Ltd. of Vancouver.

The consultants analyzed Red Deer’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities and threats to future growth in a report that was presented to city council on Monday.

One of the more sobering findings was Red Deer’s high crime rate.

This city has almost double the reported property crimes as the Alberta average and a third more than the Canadian average.

Local incidents of violent crimes were also about a third higher than the Alberta average, which is slightly higher nationally.

Phil Boname, president of Urbanics Consultants, told council that the perception by many Red Deer residents that crime is rampant — especially in the downtown — is a deterrent to the city realizing its full potential.

Besides clamping down on criminals, he identified a need for more local technical education opportunities. Red Deer has a lower percentage of residents with a post-secondary education than the rest of the province or the nation — only 42 per cent, compared to 51 per cent in Alberta and Canada.

Boname suggested that Red Deer should have its own Central Alberta Institute of Technology, a local equivalent to SAIT or NAIT.

Coun. Cindy Jefferies suggested it’s too easy for some students to leave high school and get highly paid jobs in the oil field.

Boname recognized this, but noted the correlation between higher education and more entrepreneurship.

Among the other weaknesses identified in the report were Red Deer’s higher rates of obesity, low birth weight babies, smoking and heavy drinking than the provincial or national averages.

It also lack an “iconic attraction,” in terms of drawing tourism, and a diversified economy that isn’t largely tied to commodity prices. Boname also found a local housing shortfall since the 2008 recession, with only about half the new units being created as are needed every year.

But among the strengths the city can build on is its high quality of life and relatively low cost of living. It has a younger than average population, the availability of diverse Red Deer College programs, and a lack of local business taxes.

The fact that an encouraging 91 per cent of focus group respondents rated the city as a good or excellent place to do business is very positive, said Boname.

In fact, 40 per cent of business owners surveyed indicated they want to expand their operations.

Boname believes much more should be made of Red Deer’s central location. Instead of companies having to decide whether to locate in Calgary or Edmonton, he said they could set up here and gain quick access to both cities. While the lack of major airport is something of a hindrance, he noted Red Deer Airport is Alberta’s busiest and fastest growing regional airport.

Boname believes this city needs a “brand,” or way of identifying itself to the wider world.

He would like to see more investment in the downtown, including more diverse housing, more restaurants, as well as recreation and culture opportunities.

Boname also believes the city is ready for an enclosed year-round public market.

Coun. Paul Harris liked the report’s suggestion of starting a Downtown Development Corporation to sell investors on the potential of building in the downtown.

More public and stakeholder input will be sought on the draft report before it’s completed in July.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com