Michener Centre leaves big footprint in Red Deer

In 1990s a plan was drawn up for land around Michener Centre to become an accessible neighbourhood to seamlessly blend the developmentally disabled into the larger community.

In 1990s a plan was drawn up for land around Michener Centre to become an accessible neighbourhood to seamlessly blend the developmentally disabled into the larger community.

Had it become a reality, the neighbourhood would have been another example of progressive approaches in Red Deer to assist people with developmental disabilities that started with the Provincial Training School that later became known as Michener Centre.

Gail Surkan, 66, mayor of Red Deer from 1992 to 2004, remembered it was an interesting plan and a challenging way to approach land use.

Barrier-free infrastructure was to address mobility challenges and roads and sidewalks were to form loops so if someone wandered, they would circle back to where they started.

Recreation and educational facilities would also encourage other citizens to visit and move in.

“At the time, conceptually, it was a very imaginative way to think about what a community might look like that had a very diverse citizenship in it including people with all kinds of disabilities or different capabilities. In many ways I think it’s too bad that things changed and it never really got any traction. It had some real possibilities,” said Surkan, who was first elected as a city councillor in 1986, later running for mayor.

Not only was the plan shelved, the Michener Centre Board was also disbanded in favour of a regional board to address all services for developmentally disabled in the area.

Surkan said at times it was frustrating not knowing what would eventually happen to Michener property, which is provincial land, as the number of residents declined and would eventually no longer be needed.

“More than once there was a long-term physical plan developed for the area. One would get developed and it would seem to fall into disuse and another one would get developed with perhaps a different perspective.”

Over the years city administrators also put in place a process for the growth of community group homes. Red Deer was always unique because of its acquaintance with the developmentally disabled, she said.

“(Michener) brought a community of citizens into Red Deer that became just an integral part of our community and we grew very accustomed to seeing them on the streets, and in transit (buses), and at our events, and in our sports arenas and I think that added positively to our sense of diversity and our appreciation and understanding of what it was like to have people of all levels in our community,” Surkan said.

Both Surkan and Morris Flewwelling, Red Deer mayor from 2004 to 2013, agreed that Michener Centre made Red Deer one of a kind.

He recalled how his children were “a little stunned” the first time they visited Roland Michener Recreation Centre pool, but it turned into an opportunity to explain developmental disabilities to them.

“David called them the crooked people and he grew up knowing the crooked people all his life,” said Flewwelling, 72.

As much as Michener was part of Red Deer’s identity, and did attract workers from different countries, the city has always had a diverse economic foundation, he said.

“We had many strings in our bow and Michener was one of those in its heyday. It hasn’t been for some time.”

But Flewwelling said closing Michener’s older buildings, which the province has planned for this year, will still impact staff and their families and those who benefit from the economic spinoff from maintaining its buildings and serving its residents.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe, said at one time probably one out of every four people in Red Deer either worked at Michener or was a resident there.

Growing up in the Michener Hill neighbourhood, Dawe, 58, often saw people wearing white medical shoes and the string of vehicles entering or leaving the grounds at shift change.

At its peak in the late 1960s, Michener had more than 2,300 residents. Today the number of residents is about 210.

“Michener Centre was pretty self-sufficient for a long time. They even had their sick bay. They ran their own power plant, their own fire department. A lot of their infrastructure was done by them,” Dawe said.

“For a long time you could get a job there. You would never get rich on it. But it was stable job and it came with a pension.”

And as residents began to move out of Michener, many stayed in Red Deer, he said.

“They stayed some place where it was familiar, so they are living in group homes or maybe living independently. For a lot of them, (Red Deer) was their life-long home. Familiarity builds a certain level of security and builds a feeling of comfort.”

Surkan said long-time Red Deerians remember Michener as a huge employer with “a big physical footprint, a big impact, a big voice.”

“For those who come now, it’s a very small institution really with very few people. Though there’s a big physical chunk of land there, there really isn’t a high profile of the institution itself. Maybe that’s a part of healthy evolution,” Surkan said.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

Coming Tuesday: The final story in the series looks at what might become of the Michener lands one day.

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