Red Deer business owners eye former nightclub as one solution to city's growing drug problem

Fed up with waiting for provincial help, a group of Red Deer business owners is pushing to convert an old downtown nightclub into a long-awaited addictions treatment centre.

Addictions treatment centre would offer faith-based treatment program

A group of five Christian business owners purchased the former Lotus nightclub in downtown Red Deer in April 2018. They hope to open a 20-40 bed addictions recovery facility modelled after the Calgary Dream Centre. (Google Street View)

Fed up with waiting for provincial help, a group of Red Deer business owners is pushing to convert an old downtown nightclub into a long-awaited addictions treatment centre.

The central Alberta city has no residential treatment facility, despite ongoing pleas from the mayor and city council.

And a recent provincial report revealed the magnitude of the opioid crisis in that city continues to grow.  Red Deer had the highest rate of fentanyl-related deaths last year and the sheer number of fatalities doubled between 2017 and 2018.

"It's a dark place," said Red Deer commercial real estate agent Wes Giesbrecht, who represents a group of Christian business owners trying to take Red Deer's drug problem into their own hands.

"And the darkest place needs the light."

The business owners, who are opting to remain anonymous for now, bought the former Lotus nightclub and strip joint in April 2018 and are working on plans to convert it into a 20-40 bed, non-profit addictions facility modelled after the Calgary Dream Centre.

According to Giesbrecht, the Red Deer centre would offer a 49-day intensive and faith-based treatment program, including medical support, mental health treatment and spiritual programming, followed by months of transitional housing.

"There needs to be an alternative.... We feel like there is a way to curb this and it's through recovery," he said.

According to Giesbrecht, people looking for residential treatment have to travel to Edmonton or Calgary right now.

"There's at least a two- to three-week wait when it comes to getting into a bed of any nature, whether it's the Dream Centre in Calgary or it's the Alberta Health Services beds in Edmonton... There's just nothing available. So people will go and get detoxed here in Red Deer and they'll have nowhere to go," he said.

Red Deer Coun. Ken Johnston recently toured the Calgary Dream Centre, accompanied by several other city councillors. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Red Deer has medically-assisted detox available, but according to Red Deer city councillor Ken Johnston, a residential treatment facility is the "missing piece" that could help many people rebuild their lives after a drug addiction.

"It comes down to funding. And we continue to ask the province — and not just the current government and the government prior to that — to recognize the need that Red Deer can support and desperately needs a treatment centre," he said.

Johnston says city council has been calling on the province for funding since at least 2010.

He recently toured the Calgary Dream Centre along with several other councillors and says that while the Red Deer centre is in the very early stages of  a complicated process, it is clear some sort of residential treatment is needed.

"The idea and the vision are in its genesis but it is gaining ground. It's gaining some traction. So there's optimism and hope there," he said.

Piece of the puzzle

"I think if it's a well done project, it would be welcome in the community, for sure. And it will help a variety of folks," said Stacey Carmichael, executive director of Turning Point Society, a harm reduction agency in Red Deer that operates a temporary overdose prevention trailer in the city.

While Carmichael supports the idea of residential treatment in Red Deer, she says it needs to go hand in hand with other addictions supports. And she worries the public isn't aware of the programs that currently exist in the city.

"To say we have no treatment options in Red Deer is not accurate because we have great treatment options."

Carmichael points to the Rural Opioid Dependency Program, recently rebranded as the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, which connects Albertans with addiction treatment providers through video conferencing and can arrange prescriptions for opioid replacement therapy, suboxone, as quickly as the same day they call.

A group of Red Deer business owners purchased the former Lotus nightclub last April and hope to add at least one more floor as they covert it into an addictions treatment centre. (Wes Giesbrecht)

"Evidence shows that's the best treatment option for people who are experiencing opioid dependency," said Carmichael.

The organizers behind the Red Deer Dream Centre are looking for input from people like Carmichael as they meet with local non-profit groups and members of the business community.

"They're having a lot of conversations with a lot of community stakeholders. I think they'll go into it well-informed about what the community needs," she said.

The group estimates it will cost up to $2 million to build the facility and hopes to pay for the centre through a combination of donations, grants and social enterprise projects — similar to what the Calgary Dream Centre did.

The Red Deer Dream Centre organizers expect to apply to the city for a development permit within the next two months.


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.