I had lived in Red Deer for years before ever making a serious effort to explore downtown.
The big box stores in the city’s south end are within throwing distance of my home and provide just about everything one could ever need.
I’d only visited the downtown a few times for errands and the occasional news assignment.
To be honest, I had a few misgivings.
With a mishmash of one-way and two-way streets, the traffic system can be a bit confusing for newcomers and weekday parking is often a frustrating ordeal.
During one my first trips downtown, I was aggressively solicited by two presumably homeless characters within seconds of exiting my vehicle.
There are several shabby, unsightly areas still in desperate need of attention.
While there are plenty of problems, there is also plenty of charm and allure for those willing to give Red Deer’s downtown the time of day.
Over the past year or so, I’ve been spending a little more time (and money) in our city’s core and have grown rather fond of the quirky, neighbourly ambience.
Last week, my parents were in town for a visit, so to kill a Saturday afternoon I took them downtown for a little shopping and snooping.
With no particular destination in mind, we parked on Ross Street and started wandering.
My Dad engaged every unsuspecting shopkeeper in animated conversation, while my Mom browsed through clothes, knick-knacks and home-decore novelties.
One especially gracious shop owner asked what stores we’d been to, then gave us a list of other ‘hidden gem’ shops to check out.
I earned myself a few brownie points by purchasing a gift for my wife — some flashy bling crafted by a local artist.
We stopped at one of Red Deer’s top coffee shops, where we were treated to an education in exotic beans and blends, then spent the next half-hour talking about life over a delicious cup of coffee.
I made an effort to observe my parents as tourists visiting downtown Red Deer for the first time.
No doubt they were enjoying the excursion, but I wondered if there was enough appeal to leave them wanting more?
My question was answered as soon as we got back to the car.
“Very cool,” Mom said. “We should come back in the summer and do more shopping.”
With dozens of downtown buildings now around the 100-year mark, City Hall has demonstrated a strong commitment to keeping the downtown looking as fresh and attractive as possible.
In recent years we’ve seen the demolition of a few historic buildings, but realistically you can’t save them all.
Mayor Morris Flewwelling said the city continues to set the stage for a healthy, vibrant downtown.
“Just a few years back, we had many buildings with boarded up windows,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by the significant investments — both public and private — we are seeing.”
Flewwelling points to a few major new developments such as the Donald School of Business, Executive Place and the new parkade and bus terminal. “To me, this signifies confidence and strength,” he said.
One of the mayor’s frustrations is a lingering perception of danger some people hold.
“People say they don’t go downtown because they are afraid and I think to myself, ‘What are you afraid of?’ ” he said. “Perhaps they might have had their reasons a few years ago, but today, I just don’t see it.”
There will always be a few bad eggs in the bunch, but for the most part Red Deer’s downtown displays tremendous pride and warmth.
In contrast to your standard, generic shopping mall or box store, each shop is like its own sovereign little nation with its own set of colours and customs.
There are those who say our downtown is dying a slow death, but if those naysayers bothered to familiarize themselves, they’d see a bustling place where historic meets modern.
A place where struggling young artists and wealthy professionals work next door to each other.
A place with heart, soul and a bona fide sense of community.
Perhaps I’m seeing our downtown through rose-coloured glasses these days, but so help me, the optimism is contagious.
Leo Paré is the Advocate’s online editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter — www.twitter.com/LeoPare