Revitalization has a firm grip on downtown Red Deer.
And Red Deerians who regularly shop, eat and do business in the city core are devout. Local business owner Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer calls them “full of the holy spirit of downtown.”
Gone are the tumbleweeds — no kidding — that Watkinson-Zimmer saw rolling down the street in front of her shop 24 years ago at a time when businesses were moving out and shop windows were covered over in paper.
She said that ghost town atmosphere has been replaced by a lively, urban energy.
Now when she looked out the window of her shop Comforts the Sole on Little Gaetz Avenue, she saw a woman with a girl who was posing for a photo and sat at the table in front the shop.
“I love it. This is what it’s all about,” said Watkinson-Zimmer about the happy family enjoying the street.
“This is what the downtowns are. This is exactly what people do.”
She said people are relaxing on benches, using outdoor tables, sipping coffee, meeting up with friends and lunching outside. Parents with young children are strolling along the streets and joining in the special events like Centrefest and the outdoor Red Deer Downtown Market held Wednesdays from spring to fall.
She gets a big kick out of seeing guys in business suits from nearby offices juggling chicken and vegetables after a visit to the farmers market.
“It is the most fantastic place in the city. It is alive, vibrant, the festivals, the Ross Street Patio. I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Watkinson-Zimmer said.
Amanda Gould, executive director of Red Deer Downtown Business Association, said compared to other cities, Red Deer’s downtown is ahead of the revitalization curve as communities refocus on their downtowns.
“We have 502 businesses within the Business Revitalization Zone so there is always a lot of activity going on. If it’s not event-led, it’s just people getting on with business,” Gould said.
She said fluctuations occur with businesses closing or changing names or opening, but overall the number is climbing.
The city’s core offers variety. While there are not enough businesses to have distinct districts, Ross Street is naturally evolving as a place that attracts hungry people in search of good meals, she said.
Hudsons Canada’s Pub on the main level of the Executive Place building was a welcome addition earlier this year that has helped increase foot traffic on downtown streets to the benefit of many businesses, she said.
“We’re definitely seeing more people out past that 5 and 6 o’clock mark. (Hudsons) definitely had an impact.”
Gould said the seasonal Ross Street Patio, developed by the city near Veterans Park in 2012, has become a go-to place for coffee breaks and meals, business meetings, hanging out after work, and resting with shopping bags.
“We love the patio. The patio is so wonderful because it puts people out on the street and when people are out on the street enjoying themselves, it encourages other people to sit outside.”
A parklet pilot project launched in August on Alexander Way near Little Gaetz Avenue also has outdoor seating and tables extended onto parking stalls for pedestrians.
Gould said future commercial and residential redevelopment of Riverlands area, located between the downtown and Red Deer River, will bring even more people to the downtown because they will easily be able to walk back and forth between the two areas.
Red Deer resident Michael Didrikson, who took in the patio’s final free concert of the season on Wednesday, said the city’s downtown has steadily improved with the potential to be even better.
“It would be neat if it turned into it turned into a Whyte Ave. sort of atmosphere. It would be nice to have something like that in Red Deer because it’s getting bigger and we need something like that,” said Didrikson who lived in nearby Waskasoo.
He said getting rid of the old hotels and bars like Rancher’s Valley Inn, the Arlington and Buffalo hotels made a huge difference to the vibe in the downtown. Hudsons is bringing a lot of young people, and new shops are worth the trip downtown.
Red Deer Downtown Market, that stretches two blocks from 48 Street to Ross Street on Little Gaetz Avenue, continues until Oct. 5. The accredited farmers market requires 80 per cent of vendors to make, bake or grow their wares.
“It’s wonderful. I love this market. When we pull in on Wednesday, there are people already wanting our product. We’ve done really well here,” said Margaret Bowes with Innisfail Growers.
She said the market attracts office workers and after-school folk. Even the rain didn’t keep shoppers away this summer.
Shopper Jody Dreeshen, who works at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, said a lot of co-workers visit the downtown market.
“It’s a quick in and out market. I just enjoy it. It’s easy to get to,” said Dreeshen who carried bags of fresh produce.
Alexandra Zanussi, setting up baked goods from Cafe Millennium, said she has a lot of regular customers.
“People know we’re here and they just scoot from work usually so you don’t get a lot of loitering like the Saturday market. People get in and get out.”
Tonight from 7 p.m. to midnight, Red Deer Downtown Business Association presents its annual night time arts and culture festival Nuit Blanche. The family-friendly event features art, music, artisan vendors, food trucks and craft beer gardens.
Over a dozen activities and installations will be in place throughout the downtown, with the main hub at the parking lot on the corner of 49th Street and 49th Avenue, across from City Hall Park. Admission is free.