A golden era of growth?

For a number of years now, my wife and a group of her female friends have allowed me to tag along on their weekly walking date on Thursdays. We generally gather at the parking lot of the Michener Centre curling rink and set off from there.

For a number of years now, my wife and a group of her female friends have allowed me to tag along on their weekly walking date on Thursdays. We generally gather at the parking lot of the Michener Centre curling rink and set off from there.

When it’s too cold or too icy to walk around McKenzie Trails and back, we take the simpler street route around the far end of the north campus of Michener. Over the years, we’ve been able to observe the lights going out on that section of the once-thriving campus.

The last of the 60 buildings on the north site will be emptied this summer, when an addictions and mental health project using one of them is vacated. After that, we will walk, watch and wonder at what is to become of this huge swatch of beautiful real estate, all within a five-minute bike ride from downtown.

As all Red Deer will also be watching and wondering what is to become of a total of seven acres of land, plus the buildings that have sat empty for about five years now, at the former Red Deer Nursing Home site and the Valley Park Manor.

Alberta Social Housing Corp. is a Crown corporation that uses public money to amass land and buildings for public housing. They are reported to be looking at acquiring the sites. By doing this, the government ensures that cities have the social housing assets that modern cities need — low-cost housing, assisted living units for seniors — developments that do not generally attract the attention of residential land developers.

For a city growing as fast as ours is, the former nursing homes, Michener north, plus the renovations at Riverlands adjacent to downtown, represent opportunities to completely remake the culture and feel of our city.

I’m guessing here, but I see potential to add perhaps 20 cent to our total population without growing our borders at all, without sacrificing one farmer’s field to urban growth.

Catch the right angles on these opportunities and Red Deer could accommodate years of infill growth, while adding the amenities we need to support low-income families, the elderly and disabled who cannot afford for-profit care centres. Plus a new generation of urban residents who have money but don’t want to live in the suburbs.

Do this right and Red Deer is poised for a golden era of growth and development. That’s why it has been best not to rush things.

Despite our much-lamented shortage of long-term care or assisted living suites for seniors, Red Deer is a youthful city, albeit one that holds a well-defined aging demographic.

Our median age is reported at around 32 years. Alberta is distinctly the youngest of the provinces, with a median age of about 37. Only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are more youthful.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, for instance, you’ll find half the province is over 44 years old. In 1982, that province was the youngest in Canada with a median age just over 25 years. Now it’s the oldest. Where did the young adults all go? Welcome to Alberta.

So in Canadian terms, we are generally a young city, in a young province.

One Statistics Canada chart I was able to find, though, showed an alarming shift in demographics. Between 1982 and 2012, Canada’s median age had shifted upwards by a full decade, as did Alberta’s. That is just the beginning of the rush into senior citizenship of the boomers.

Not all of them will be hale, hearty, wealthy and able to take care of themselves as they age.

So city planners need to plan. That is also why provinces need to provide some resources to cities like ours, so we are not caught short of either affordable housing for young families, or care centres for seniors.

One one hand, failing to provide a good supply of basic housing for families on the low-income end will hurt employment prospects for Red Deer businesses. Failing to supply long-term care centres for seniors — in crudest terms — means seniors will take their money some place else.

And that’s overlooking all the social and ethical considerations that go into city planning.

So if it’s taken five years now for Alberta Social Housing to act on notice that there are at least two excellent locations for either low-cost housing or seniors projects, at least we’re moving when there’s still time to get things right, in advance of a crisis.

Assuming our Alberta down economic cycle will end in due time, the city centre we have today will be vastly different — and improved — in 10 years.

Assuming the province will not be letting the low-cost, low-profit housing supply be filled and managed by charities and non-profits who operate on shoestrings helter-skelter, Red Deer really does look poised for a golden age.

Crime rates, education, public health and social services are all directly affected by the supply of appropriate housing for all strata of society.

We’re looking at a chance to plan for this, on large, park-like properties close to the city centre. Hardly any other city gets a chance to do this.

The future is taking its time to get here, but I feel us on the cusp of watching something wonderful happen.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.