Let’s set aside throne speeches, Parliaments, taxes and frozen windrows of snow for a while and think about something really important: a model rail museum and theme park for Riverlands.
The first time you hear of a tourism-themed idea like this, the normal reaction is: “What the heck are you thinking about?”
If the idea cannot climb over that first reaction, it is dead. Witness the proposal for a set of canals running through the downtown area.
Now, if I had to make a choice between living in a city with a waterpark extending several kilometres through our city core, surrounded by greenery, shops, restaurants and festival sites, or a transportation-themed museum surrounded by greenery, shops, restaurants and festival sites, I still like the canals.
But that’s just me. The majority definitely rules here, and I realize I’m more likely to be tossed into a canal than to canoe along one in Red Deer.
However, quite early after the public defeat of the canals option has come another, with different options and appeals, and it’s worth spending time thinking about the possibilities.
Of all cities, Red Deer is in a unique position. We have a major land redevelopment opportunity on some rather pretty waterfront, that happens to be physically connected to the economic and cultural heart of the city.
We have recent planning agreements with our two neighbouring counties to preserve our joint riverlands corridor as a connected and protected greenway stretching many kilometres both upstream and downstream of the city. We are at the south end of a major public trails initiative that will quite soon traverse many kilometres of rather pretty countryside and farmland, all the way to Ponoka.
Given the size of these tourism assets, and their natural connection to our downtown, we’d be fools not to think big, when we think about Riverlands.
Our opportunity to remake and re-think our very self-identity as a city makes Red Deer the envy of virtually all others. We’ve been talking about downtown redevelopment for more than 25 years now and pretty well all we’ve been able to produce are award-winning plans.
Well, that’s as much — and probably more — than most Canadian centres have accomplished. It is extremely hard to do this work.
But history has afforded Red Deer a chance to redevelop a very large parcel of riverfront land that connects to downtown, which is something no other city has at this stage. There just isn’t any more new space to develop in city heartlands— especially in a reasonably natural setting.
So we can’t let this opportunity pass. We need to make this redevelopment into something the whole world can look at and not say: “What the heck were they thinking?” but rather: “Gee, I wish we had the chance to do something like that.”
It became clear fairly soon that a canals option wasn’t what we had in mind.
Might it be a model railway museum and transportation theme park? Don’t say no right away, just because it’s novel or unusual, or might cost you some money up front.
If links can include a future riverlands greenway, as well as other attractions outside the city limits, there are huge possibilities in this.
We want something to showcase our city and our new downtown area for visitors, but we also want something that enhances our lives here every day.
Believe it or not, our downtown is still the major economic engine of the city. It is a high-density employment zone, and it is becoming increasingly attractive as a high-density residential zone. A huge portion of Red Deer residents live within a 20-minute walk of the downtown.
So we owe it to ourselves to think long into the future when we think about Riverlands, Alexander Way and the whole downtown area.
This opportunity will never come again.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.