Michael Dawe: New indoor shopping mall boosted city’s spirits in 1970

As another year, and another decade, draws to a close, it is interesting to reflect back 50 years to one of the more challenging times in Red Deer’s recent history – the year of 1970.

Most of the 1960s had been very good for Red Deer. The population of the city jumped from 18,000 to nearly 27,000. The community continued to be transformed into a modern urban centre.

However, as the decade drew to a close, the wonderful economic boom began to lose steam.

The agricultural sector was hit hard, with such things as a significant decline in grain prices. In contrast, the oil and gas sector had not faced too many fluctuations in prices over several years.

However, by 1970, the price of a barrel of oil had slipped to around $3.40 ($22 in current inflation-adjusted dollars).

That was not enough to sustain any kind of continuing boom in exploration and related energy service sector activity.

The Penhold Airbase, which had contributed greatly to the local economy since its reactivation in the early 1950s as a NATO flying training school, was steadily downsized. The first big shift came in 1965, when a decision was made not to have jet training at Penhold.

Part of the Penhold base was transformed into the Red Deer Municipal Airport. That provided some economic boost, but nowhere near the economic contribution the former NATO flying training school had provided.

The signs of the growing recession were everywhere. Unemployment rates shot up. The annual value of city building permits, which had exceeded $10 million per year in the early 1960s, barely budged over $6 million per year by the end of the decade.

The local brewery (Carlings) closed. The Polymer Corp., which had announced plans in the late 1950s to build a multimillion-dollar synthetic rubber plant northeast of the city, sold off the 400-acre site it had purchased for the project.

Other big projects, such as a planned $4-million hotel and shopping centre complex in downtown Red Deer, were quietly shelved.

The greatest indication of the economic malaise came with the official population statistics.

In 1970, the number of residents in Red Deer dropped from 26,924 to 26,907.

While not large, it was the first decline recorded since the great economic bust that accompanied the First World War.

Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Red Deer’s population had managed a slight rise, albeit by only a few dozen people.

The blow to civic esteem was immense.

The Red Deer Advocate editorialized Red Deer was “suffering from a lack of confidence” and that “screeching and squabbling has too often been mistaken for effective hard work.”

Nevertheless, the editor of The Advocate wrote Red Deer was “still a beautiful little city, still (with) great potential and still a marvelous place to live.”

Fortunately, the community did get one great boost with the construction of Red Deer’s first indoor mall, the Parkland Mall, on the brow of the North Hill.

A project of the A.D. Gelmon Corp., it cost $4.5 million to construct (approximately 75 per cent of the total value of all of the building permits issued in the previous year).

The new mall contained 40 indoor stores, with the anchor tenants being the Woolco department store, as well as Safeway and Super City Drugs. The mall had parking spaces for an impressive 1,400 cars.

The managers estimated 25,000 people turned out for the official opening Nov. 3, 1970. That may have been a bit of an exaggeration, since that was only slightly less than the total population of the city.

Nevertheless, the merchants reported literally thousands of opening day sales. Overall, the Parkland Mall had a major impact on the retail sector in Red Deer. The estimated annual value of sales jumped by 10 per cent to more than $100 million.

This provided a very welcome sign that the economic recession might be finally lifting. Even more importantly, Red Deer’s position as the retail and commercial hub for central Alberta was greatly enhanced, thereby creating a firm base for future economic growth.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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