The new face of downtown

The risk of building Executive Place in downtown Red Deer was apparently always acceptable for the developer.

The risk of building Executive Place in downtown Red Deer was apparently always acceptable for the developer.

For the average investor, even with deep pockets, putting $40 million into an office building project and then waiting a year for your first tenant would probably seem like too big a risk.

But the payoff — which came this week in the form of a major tenant for the 12-storey building at the corner of 49th Avenue and Ross Street — rewards both Executive Place’s owners and Red Deer in general.

For downtown boosters, this has been an exceptional week.

Red Deer College showed off its new downtown Donald School of Business campus, which will open in September on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the Millennium Centre, on Monday.

Bringing 550 students downtown, plus faculty and support staff, is a huge injection of confidence and cash into the core.

The $2.8-million project creates a stand-alone campus that will have significant social and economic spinoffs.

“When the streets are alive and vibrant, there’s less crime, there are fewer problems, there is less vandalism,” said city councillor and downtown retailer Paul Harris.

Notably, the project also helps to halt a significant siphoning of young talent out of Red Deer.

By offering expanded programming, the college can now keep students at home, instead of losing them to universities in Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere.

And that pays off for businesses in Central Alberta, and particularly downtown, while the students are in the program and after they graduate. Suddenly, quality candidates for jobs are close at hand.

For businesses like Stantec Inc., which will occupy the top five floors of Executive Place after operating in cramped and disjointed quarters elsewhere downtown, staying downtown is a sign of faith.

“We understand and we see the vision of the city to revitalize this area and we want to be part of it,” said Stantec vice-president Russ Wlad.

That confidence is being shown elsewhere as well, in smaller but equally committed and important ways.

Projects like Central Alberta Theatre’s renovation of the former Uptown Theatre space give credence to the belief that downtown can become a cultural hub.

And condo/retail developments at the south and north entrances to downtown, on 49th Avenue and 45th Street and just south of the river on Gaetz Avenue should be the seeds to a new willingness to live and do business downtown.

The new Veterans Park adjacent to Executive Place shows the city’s intent to make coming downtown a more pleasant experience, as does the presence of red-hatted ambassadors and bike-and-Segway-riding police officers. The Alexander Way project, and the plans encompassing everything from Riverlands to Barrett Park, show the city’s intent in spades.

Increasingly, we should expect other businesses and institutions to follow the lead of today’s pathfinders, and a greater number of services will pop up downtown in lockstep.

Certainly there are still areas of concern downtown. A stretch on the north side of Ross Street, east of 48th Avenue, has been vacant for years, after a fire.

And bringing more people downtown puts more pressure on parking and other services.

But it will also be a catalyst for positive change, encouraging people to use public transit and foot power to get downtown.

People will need to be convinced that they are safe downtown, particularly in the evenings.

That will take time, but less time than most of us would have imagined even a year ago.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.