Thursday, October 16, 2008

Looking for the 'Wow' Factor in a Renewed Downtown Red Deer

The city of Red Deer is currently undergoing a review and update of its Downtown Action Plan. It has generated much more interest and excitement than what would be expected, in part due to the soon-to-be-available prime real estate close to the Red Deer River.

The city is moving several of its departments from an area that was essentially industrial to a new location freeing up a considerable amount of land between the downtown and the river. This has created the opportunity for new development that could include high-density residential, commercial, office, cultural and entertainment venues.

For some, it also creates the opportunity to create a significant tourist attraction with a 'wow' factor big enough to be a destination and encourage people travelling along Highway 2 to visit downtown. A proposal to create a series of canals similar to those in San Antonio, Texas that would pump water from the river has been met with mostly ambivalence or opposition.

A draft plan was recently presented to the general public that included water features and waterways from storm water rather than canals pumped from the river, pedestrian links connecting various parts of the city centre to the Waskasoo Park system, a hotel and convention centre, an outdoor amphitheatre, a culture and arts centre, a pedestrian corridor with an interactive bridge across the river, a year-round market and an undefined attraction tentatively called 'the Ark' that includes an observation tower.

Future development of the downtown will include three areas: the central core where a civic square and heritage centre is proposed, the railyards district that could have significant high-density housing and the amphitheatre, and the Riverlands district that would include most of the attractions (including the Ark, water features, cultural centre and hotel/convention facility) in an environment of pedestrian-friendly mixed use development.

The greatest potential for an attraction with that 'wow' factor probably lies in 'the Ark' and the area around it.

The preliminary suggestion is that it contain a tropical garden/forest offering tranquility from the elements and the hustle associated with a busy downtown. However, as attractive as that might be, it is not likely to attract many tourists.

There are a variety of other possibilities. To have maximum impact and value, it should appeal to a variety of interests, not only for tourists, but for the local populace as well. There should be information, interactivity, excitement, fun and opportunity to explore, for all age groups -- perhaps as an indoor theme park.

One possibility is a Centre of Human Mobility, demonstrating and experiencing human movement and transportation of the past and the possibilities for the future. Or, it could be a little more focussed and concentrate on mass movement of people with emphasis on boats, buses, rail and aircraft.

Or even more focussed yet, exploring the social impact of rail movement both past and future. After all, the area to be developed was once a significant rail yard and it was the railway that brought the city into existence and the focal point of Central Alberta. In the future, the city could be the centre of one of North America's first high speed rail systems.

Another possibility, using the Ark and water theme, a Centre for the Appreciation of Water Resources, exploring the significance of the quality and quantity of water as a catalyst for changing ecosystems and human development with specific emphasis on the Red Deer River watershed from the Rocky Mountains to Saskatchewan, from the last ice age to the uncertain future of climate change.

There are many other possibilities as well. Whatever ultimately is determined, the 'wow' factor should be based on what shaped or is important to Central Alberta rather than borrowing something from somewhere else that has no real meaning here. However, to attract tourists, it needs to have universal appeal, have a definite uniqueness about it and be developed to a high standard. Just as important, it needs to be an ongoing attraction and a focus of pride for residents of the city and Central Alberta.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Regional Trails Will Become a Reality

After many years of indifference and some resistance, rural municipalities are warming up to the idea of regional trails linking urban municipalities, natural areas, historic sites and tourist attractions in Central Alberta. It may take several years for some potential trail corridors to become a reality but there are others that could be ready for public use in a year or two.

The concept of rural regional trails in the Red Deer region developed in the early 1990s with a strategy developed for a comprehensive regional trail network adopted in 1999 that involved active consultation with several urban and rural municipalities. A central north-south spine was envisioned that would ultimately become part of the Trans Canada Trail with a number of other trails branching out to the east and west.

Some municipalities embraced the concept immediately including the city of Red Deer and the towns of Lacombe, Innisfail and Sylvan Lake. The trails became an immediate hit with residents and today are viewed as the jewels of their respective communities. Unfortunately, there was considerable resistance to building inter-municipal trails from rural landowners who feared vandalism, trespassing, noise and liability issues. The resistance resulted in a cooling of enthusiasm among rural municipalities.

What a difference ten years makes!

Although there is still some skepticism and reservation on the part of some rural landowners, rural municipalities are seriously warming up to the concept as both a relatively inexpensive way of providing recreational opportunities for its citizens and an alternative environmentally-friendly form of non-motorized transportation, especially in some higher density corridors.

Lacombe County is helping to create linkages between the towns of Lacombe and Blackfalds as well as to its southern boundary with the recent announcement that it is contributing to the construction of a pedestrian/bicycle bridge across the Blindman River north of Red Deer.

Clearwater County is seriously considering an ambitious multi-year plan to create a multi-use trail linking Rocky Mountain House with the historic townsite of Nordegg along the abandoned railway right-of-way. Ponoka County is also seriously involved in having trails expand outward into the county from the existing system in the town of Ponoka.

Some of the most visionary plans for regional trails are being considered in Red Deer County. Although not yet approved by county council, administration has been working on an Open Spaces and Trails plan that would have several non-motorized trail corridors connecting most communities and recreational areas as well as major historic and natural features.

Some of the corridors include:
1) the north-south Calgary-Edmonton Trail corridor linking the Blindman River with Red Deer, Gasoline Alley, Springbrook, Penhold, Innisfail and Bowden. The Springbrook-Penhold section has already been approved and is expected to be completed next year;
2) the east-west Alberta Central Railway corridor linking Benalto, Sylvan Lake, the Red Deer River and the city of Red Deer using portions of the abandoned historic Alberta Central Railway right-of-way that was operated by Canadian Pacific until the early 1980s;
3) the north-south Scandanavian-Medicine River corridor linking Glennifer Lake with Dickson, Spruceview, Markerville and Benalto. The Dickson-Spruceview section has been approved and is expected to be completed within the next year or two.

Other corridors would link Penhold with Pine Lake, Red Deer with the Joffre bridge on the Red Deer River, Red Lodge Park with Bowden, Glennifer Lake with Innisfail, and Elnora with Lousana and Delburne along the Boomtown trail.

On another front, the city of Red Deer and Red Deer County are planning for the ultimate expansion of the much loved Waskasoo Park into future annexation and joint planning areas around the city, especially along major waterways and tributaries including the Red Deer and Blindman Rivers, Waskasoo and Piper Creeks and other local streams.

All of these initiatives will ultimately lead to the protection and appreciation of natural and historic areas, provide opportunities for agri-tourism, recreation and hospitality businesses and encourage people of all ages to enjoy the many features the region has to offer. In the more populated areas, it will also provide a transportation alternative to driving our vehicles to get to employment, educational and recreational attractions.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Regional Approach to Public Transit

Growth throughout the province in recent years has shown the need for a regional approach to transportation, particularly in the realm of public transit. Most cities in Alberta have their own transit systems, mostly conventional buses, with Edmonton and Calgary also having successful light rail transit (LRT) systems. The challenge in recent years has been the growth in areas outside the cities but in close proximity to them.

In the immediate Red Deer area, there has been significant residential and commercial growth in Red Deer County, the towns of Sylvan Lake, Blackfalds and Penhold and the hamlet of Springbrook. Only slightly farther away, growth has also been significant in the towns of Lacombe and Innisfail.

The city of Red Deer continues to increase its significance as a regional centre but growth in the areas surrounding it has increased the need for effective, efficient and environmentally-friendly transportation other than the automobile to accommodate the increasingly inter-dependent relationships between the various communities.

Red Deer County and Red Deer Transit recently agreed to work together to serve Gasoline Alley to the south of the city as well as Springbrook and the Red Deer Regional Airport. This is a major step forward in a regional approach to public transit.

Perhaps it's time for the towns of Sylvan Lake, Blackfalds and Penhold to initiate public consultation and engage the city of Red Deer and Red Deer County to examine the viability and practicality of developing a regional transportation system similar to recent regional approaches to water supply, wastewater and garbage.

In the future it could be expanded to include Lacombe and Innisfail or even further beyond to include Olds, Stettler and Ponoka. Such a regional system would prove indispensable when high speed rail becomes a reality whether that is 5, 20 or 50 years in the future. With sufficient population growth, it could even evolve to include some form of rail transit such as tram, commuter rail or LRT.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time for High Speed Rail Corridors in Alberta

The time has come for the provincial government to protect a corridor for high speed rail connecting Alberta's two largest cities.

Whether or not it is viable now, and I believe it is on many levels, a ROW needs to be established before continuing development makes the process more difficult and more expensive. When the time is right and a competent private operator is determined, the government should build the infrastructure in the same way it builds infrastructure for roads, airports, schools, hospitals and economic generators.

The Calgary-Red Deer-Edmonton rapid passenger corridor would ultimately form the backbone of a larger system that includes extensions to Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and possibly Canmore. The system will also need to seemlessly integrate with the major citys' LRT systems, regional transit, conventional passenger rail and airports.

Such a system would solidify the Calgary-Edmonton corridor as a world-class economic powerhouse, reduce congestion on the busy Highway QE2, reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, provide an opportunity for significantly greater productivity, delay or eliminate the need for increased highway capacity that in itself would cover the capital cost of building the high speed line and provide an alternative to those who either don't have cars for whatever reason or choose not to use their cars or air travel between the two major cities.

An extension to Fort McMurray, and ultimately other high traffic generators in the province, would further expand the benefits to the economy and increase the safety of the Edmonton-Fort McMurray corridor.

The benefits of the system to Red Deer, assuming a terminal is built here, is very significant, in that the city and region could attract new residents that frequently travel for business to the two major cities (and ultimately Fort McMurray) and even attract companies that see the strategic value of a location mid-way between the two major cities.

It's admittedly a visionary concept not unlike the vision to build the four-lane Highway 2 almost 50 years ago or the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway 120 years ago. The number one objection to building high speed rail now is that the population isn't great enough to support it but almost all visionary transportation projects in the past that we seemingly couldn't live without today suffered the same objection. Far more important is its potential value to the economy, overall mobility and transportation system, environment, lifestyle, health and freedom of choice.

Even if it is proven that such a system is not viable in the short term, it surely will be in the future and it's only common sense that the corridor be secured now.

Also see 'The Vision for Inter-Urban Rapid Passenger Transportation Corridors in Alberta'