Westerner Days’ next step

As the trucks load up and roll out after another successful Westerner Days week, and the taste of fair food is a fading memory, what should we take from Central Alberta’s biggest summer celebration?

As the trucks load up and roll out after another successful Westerner Days week, and the taste of fair food is a fading memory, what should we take from Central Alberta’s biggest summer celebration?

First, we should take some pride of ownership.

It is a great spectacle, in a tremendous venue, and it captures the imagination of Central Albertans young and old — and in between.

Westerner Days organizers work hard to bring in quality entertainment and great variety — and they are well served by Westerner Park, which is the most complete, progressive and ambitious such venue in Western Canada, and probably beyond.

The variety of facilities allows the fair to flourish despite anything that Mother Nature can throw at it.

But there are always growing pains, and there are always areas that need refreshing.

Take the parade, for example. The annual parade that kicks off Westerner Days on Wednesday morning has lost much of its lustre.

This year, it attracted the usual thousands to the parade route through downtown Red Deer.

But the parade ran, by our estimate, a mere 52 minutes. And it was short on music, horses and genuine floats.

A parade filled with local dignitaries (read: politicians) in polished cars and semis honking their horns hardly tells the story of Westerner Days, nor does it put the crowd in the mood for five days of fun.

Parades depend, for the most part, on the community. They require the volunteer efforts of many, the creativity of at least a few, and the participation of several local groups and businesses in order to be successful. Over the years, all of those ingredients have become less plentiful.

Parades should not be about advertising or politicians smiling at voters. They should be about groups, businesses and individuals joining the community in a week of celebration, good will and fun. And the floats should reflect that sense of celebration, good will and fun.

There are also aspects of Westerner Days that demonstrate that growing pains are inevitable.

The sold-out crowd drawn to the Johnny Reid concert on Saturday night at the Centrium may not have all been fairgoers by nature, but they were all at Westerner Days, and they were there by design.

Fair organizers have taken to booking big name entertainers and charging separately for tickets to see them. It’s a great strategy and, as Saturday night proved, it draws a crowd.

But despite knowing that Reid’s show would bring a huge crowd, based on advance ticket sales, the fair folks didn’t seem prepared for the crush that evening. Too few parking spaces, slow entry into Westerner Park and other complaints have surfaced.

It is probably time for organizers to examine a park-and-ride solution to traffic problems at the grounds — and not just for Westerner Days (on Rebels game nights the parking situation can be a quagmire, particularly if other major Westerner Park events coincide).

Westerner Park officials are exploring the options.

The city runs an efficient park-and-ride system for Canada Day celebrations at Bower Ponds. A similar plan for Westerner Days would avoid congestion and, ultimately, create more space for exhibits and entertainment.

No major event is without its hiccups. And Westerner Days, and Westerner Park, have been meeting challenges head-on for years.

As planning for Westerner Days 2012 begins, the shortcomings this year will no doubt be tackled in similar fashion.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.