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Hackett: Red Deer doesn’t need to be a 1-million person city


One million people.

It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

A nice, good, even, solid round number.

Over at the CBC, the insightful and intelligent Jason Markusoff, showed off his brilliance this week by extrapolating comments that Premier Danielle Smith has made on multiple occasions about our fair city.

Smith has mused at least twice she has “challenged” Red Deer to be the province’s next one-million person city.

A challenge indeed.

I mean, anytime a city grows by a factor of 10, they have most definitely responded to a challenge. (Red Deer sits at about 100,844 people as of the 2021 federal census. The provincial government’s dashboard listed our population at 105,883 as of 2022.)

According to the same provincial dashboard, Red Deer’s population has increased 1.15 percent year over year and 2.42 percent in the last five years.

If those numbers are accurate, it’ll take over 100 years for Red Deer to have a million-person population.

I’ll be betting on some miracles of modern science to be alive to see that come to fruition at the ripe ol’ age of 135.

It’s doable in far less time — if you ignore the math and basic principles of population growth.

The 42-page Collier report that Markusoff quotes about Red Deer’s real estate growth projections from 2023, the city’s high growth target is about 158,000 by 2041, a rate of about 2.28 per cent.

“In the past 10 years, the rate of growth has not met previous projections,” the report notes.

“The 5-year reality is an average annual growth rate of 0.08 per cent, and the 10-year reality has an average annual growth rate of 1.14 per cent. Extrapolating based on these observed baselines, there is a projected population in 2031 of 101,703 (5-year reality) and 112,894 (10- year reality).

“The 5- and 10-year realities have been selected for use in this report as a companion to the medium growth scenario, as they better reflect the actual conditions of growth in Red Deer.”

The medium growth scenario puts Red Deer at about a population of 142,000 by 2041, at a rate of 1.76 per cent.

Avoiding being all negative Nelly for a second, there are ways Red Deer could get to a million people before 2050. If the city grows at a 10 per cent rate annually, it would get there by 2046!

According to the federal census, Airdrie grew by 20 per cent between 2016 and 2021, but only by 4.19 percent year over year. In 2022, the feds tabbed it as one of the top 25 growing municipalities in the country. Proximity to Calgary, along with housing prices/ demand, no doubt fueled that boom.

There are other examples. Milton, a town about an hour southwest of Toronto, right off a major highway, expects to triple its population by 2051. It is expanding in a similar way due to people’s desire to leave big cities like Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton for smaller communities.

Red Deer could be situated similarly, but it’s a long shot. And I think for the people living here, that’s a major sell. Red Deer isn’t Calgary. Red Deer isn’t Edmonton.

It’s a place with big city problems in terms of homelessness, rising rental prices, hospital overcrowding and crime. Those problems aren’t easily solved, and they certainly won’t be eased by adding 900,000 people in the next 50 years. The appeal here is that Red Deer still has the feel of a small town where you know your neighbours and you can get anywhere in the city in basically 10 minutes.

The million-person challenge falls into the idea that Alberta is positioned to balloon its population to around 10 million by 2050. Red Deer would have to be a massive part of that growth.

A more developed regional airport, which is on the path to growing and should be ready for full-time passenger service in the next couple of years may play a part.

A high-speed rail link, which has long been rumoured in this region would be a game changer.

A grand idea to connect Calgary and Edmonton, with Red Deer as a hub. The Prairie Link Rail Partnership is an ongoing project in the design phase, that could certainly make Red Deer more of a bedroom community to Calgary and Edmonton. If you could take a 400 km/h train to cut the commute, it would certainly make Red Deer a more desirable place on that population growth model.

As someone who recently rode the Go Train for 15 dollars from Burlington to Toronto, a 56-kilometre trip that took just over an hour, I would love that option to get to Edmonton or Calgary. (The GoTrain travels at about 95 km/h, much slower than what PrairieLink envisions). It’s certainly possible to have something like this in Alberta.

These are not concrete strategies, only musing of people with grand visions. Expanding modes of transportation doesn’t grow your population.

You still need to attract people to the community with affordable housing (which Red Deer has, just not an abundance of), amenities (which Red Deer will need way more of if the population grows to a million).

Red Deer has countless trails and an underrated trail system that can certainly help jolt some growth if properly marketed. But those aren’t game changing growth model type selling points. Those are half a per cent, maybe one per cent type growth properties.

In my mind, some of the growth for this grand vision comes in the jobs market. Job growth has been mostly stagnant over the last few years, while unemployment has varied in 2024 between 6.8 and 8.2 percent.

If a new $1.8 billion hospital expansion can grow the job market over the next 10 years, along with carbon capture projects that are set to grow in the region, or the potential for massive, untapped lithium extraction potential, there may be an avenue for three or four percent population growth in the next decade.

It’s a pipe dream more than a challenge and a challenge that, frankly, I don’t think too many people in Red Deer are all that eager to meet. If people in Red Deer wanted to live in a million-person city and felt limited by its size or potential, they would have moved up or down Highway 2 long before now.

Many of the people have settled here because a busy, one-million person city was exactly what they didn’t want.

Even if the growth brings more positives to the city, it comes with more challenges – or compounds the challenges that the city already faces and is having a difficult time managing as it is.

Red Deer can be great. It can be an economic corridor and a driver of the province’s economy. It can still be that without being a million person city and while still tackling the challenges of improved amenities, a desperately needed hospital upgrade, more affordable housing, improving downtown and reducing crime.

Red Deer can improve, and maybe I’m just a curmudgeon who doesn’t like change, but growing the population 10-fold just isn’t the way to get it done.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate and a Regional Editor for Black Press Media.

Byron Hackett

About the Author: Byron Hackett

I have been apart of the Red Deer Advocate Black Press Media team since 2017, starting as a sports reporter.
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