High River's painful post-flood rebuild

Five years after floods that devastated the southern Alberta community, its downtown is transformed—though not without friction

High River’s downtown is back in business. At least it appears that way on a recent sunny Sunday. It finally feels like spring after a snowy Alberta winter, as residents come on foot and on bike and by car to Art and Soul Studio Gallery. Some stop to say hello to gallery owner Annie Froese, or to admire her floral watercolours. Most head to the back kitchen to buy Herb Froese’s homemade pie for $5 a slice. A trio of local musicians, two on guitar and one violinist, jam at the front of the gallery.

On “Pie Sunday,” as these afternoons are known, between 50 and 80 people visit Art and Soul. The downtown bustle is welcome. Almost five years ago, this gallery was under water after the Highwood River overflowed its banks on June 20, 2013. Two High River residents drowned that day, 13,000 people were displaced and large portions of the town were submerged for weeks. Economic recovery is an ongoing challenge for the town. More than 100,000 sq. feet of downtown retail space sat vacant immediately after the flood. Add the 2015 Alberta recession, and many businesses didn’t return.

The downtown looks much different now, which is either a delight or a huge mistake, depending on whom you ask. After the flood, all downtown water and sewer pipes, some of which were 100 years old, needed to be replaced. The streets and sidewalks in front of banks, doctor’s offices and the town’s community centre would be torn up. “The decision was: do we want to put it back the way it was before, or do we want to change things?” recalls Mayor Craig Snodgrass.

READ MORE: After the High River flood

Snodgrass, a funeral home owner and born-and-raised High Riverite, was elected four months after the flood. He opted for change. “Change is hard for people, especially when you go through an event like that,” he says. “People just want to see something normal come back. There was a lot of pushback.”

The town adopted what it calls people-first planning. “The overriding guiding principal was that the community is built for people, not for cars,” says Duncan Scott, a long-time High River resident who sat on a citizen committee for redevelopment. The town replaced angle parking with parallel stalls and moved parking off streets and into lots. Sidewalks became twice as wide and streets were narrowed. The town added trees on the sidewalks, along with bike racks, garbage cans, benches and street lights in a shiny black finish. Fourth Avenue became a modified woonerf, a Dutch term for a street that puts pedestrians first and automobiles second. (A true woonerf would have no parking.) The street is easily closed to vehicles for weekly summer farmers’ markets and a September outdoor dinner.

High River, however, isn’t a Dutch town; nor is it Portland, Ore., another city cited as inspiration for the downtown plan. It’s a southern Alberta town where the winters are long, the trucks are big and residents have always been able to park directly in front of businesses. Candace Gillanders recalls the “ridiculous” process of visiting her doctor’s office smack in the middle of that modified woonerf when she had two kids under age two. “Trying to find a parking spot made me angry,” says Gillanders. “Young kids don’t always listen, and you’re trying to wrangle both of them to keep them on the sidewalk. The one bonus is the sidewalks are so large there’s lots of room for the kids to run.”

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Tempers flared as noisy, dusty construction continued for four years. One Facebook post from 2016 complains about the narrower roads and says planners “should go back to playing with their Hot Wheels.” A headline on the local country radio station’s website about a ticket blitz read: “High River goes all big-city on parking.” Irate residents would come to Snodgrass’s house, or to his business, to complain. “During all this change, people said, ‘You’re never going to get re-elected,’ and, ‘This town is done,’ ” Snodgrass says.

This will be the first summer since the flood that entire blocks of downtown High River won’t be closed off and ripped up. There are signs of renewal and acceptance. Commercial vacancy rates are down roughly 60 per cent since 2013. High River’s population increased by five per cent between 2011 and 2016, according to the most recent census. In the 2017 municipal election, five of the seven councillors who oversaw the controversial people-first development kept their seats—including Snodgrass, who was re-elected with 70 per cent of votes.

Back at Art and Soul, Froese talks about the future of downtown High River. “I’m hearing there might be more stores closing, because it’s still not busy enough,” she says. “We’re looking good. We still need more businesses.” In 2016, before Pie Sundays, Art and Soul was at risk of becoming another one of those High River buildings with a for-lease sign. Only one or two people came into the gallery each day. The business, like the town, tried a new strategy. For Art and Soul, Herb’s pies—redolent of home and hospitality—made the difference. Their sales help cover taxes and utilities, and art sales have seen a slight bump. “I feel fortunate that this also helps with our sense of community,” says Froese. “It feels like family.”

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