Red Deer weathers 'perfect storm' of recession, crime and addiction to find its way forward
Despite dismal statistics, the city's leaders say they are optimistic about the future
The statistics don't look good for Red Deer.
Over the past year, Alberta's third-largest city has been awarded some dubious distinctions. It has the second-highest rate of fentanyl-related deaths in the province, according to Alberta Health, and this month it was ranked the fifth most-dangerous place to live in Canada by Macleans.
But the city's leaders say those numbers don't tell the whole story of a city in flux — one that is young, growing and grappling with the same economic and social issues facing the rest of the province.
There's no question Red Deer faces some significant challenges when it comes to property crime and addiction, said Supt. Ken Foster, commander of the Red Deer RCMP detachment. But to call the city "dangerous" is overstating things.
"I just think that's not an accurate reflection," Foster told The Homestretch host Doug Dirks. "Red Deer is a fantastic city, it has a lot to offer."
The city's recent ranking as one of Canada's crime hotspots is primarily driven by property crime, not violent crime, Foster said. And, like the rest of the province, that problem has been exacerbated by an increase in opioid addiction that has swelled in the wake of Alberta's economic downturn.
"I think when you look back we had a bit of a perfect storm," Foster said. "We had years of tremendous economic growth … and then we had a massive economic downturn hit us."
Making matters worse, Red Deer's location in the middle of the province makes it particularly enticing to organized crime. "Red Deer is perfectly situated geographically to attract legitimate business, but to attract illicit business as well."
Despite those challenges, Foster said progress is being made.
More funding for officers
Red Deer City Council recently allotted funds for 10 additional officers in its 2018 municipal budget to help serve the city and a strategic approach to deploying police resources based on analytics adopted two years ago is beginning to show positive results.
"Our crime stats relative to the rest of the province have actually flattened out, and in some areas they're going down," Foster said.
But while many frontline addiction workers in the city have called for a safe consumption site to address the opioid problem, Foster said he could see "both sides of the debate." Such a facility could benefit the community if it included wrap-around services to address homelessness, addiction and mental health, he said.
But, "if it's simply a place to go and shoot up or do drugs, I'm not sure we're going to accomplish too much."
Opportunity in the downturn
Despite its social challenges, Red Deer's Mayor Tara Veer says she's optimistic about the city's future. Red Deer is still feeling the effects of a depressed economy, but it's also found opportunity in the downturn.
While Calgary looks to the tech sector to diversify its economy, Red Deer is reinventing itself in a different way. "We have a strong, proud history of sport excellence and recently we've translated that into sports tourism," said Veer.
In addition to becoming the new permanent home of the Canadian Finals Rodeo, the city will also host the 2019 Canada Winter Games — the largest sporting event to be held in Alberta since the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.
Those wins have helped create a sense of momentum in the city, Veer said. Red Deer will also host the WHL awards and the Bantam hockey draft this year, along with the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
"We've attracted infrastructure dollars to Red Deer that otherwise would have gone to another community," she said.
And with a young and growing population excited about new developments and business opportunities, Veer said she's confident the city will find its way forward, in spite, or perhaps because of, the statistics.
"Even though we've been experiencing the depth of the protracted recession that Alberta's faced, it's actually brought some stability in a lot of sectors in our local economy because of that focus."
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With files from The Homestretch