Aerial view of downtown High River during the annual River City Classics Show n’ Shine Car show. Photo courtesy Kirk Davis

Hard work and resilience has turned High River into a reinvigorated, thriving community

There were doubters, those who believed High River couldn’t possibly survive the devastation of the 2013 flood.

Well, they’re being proven wrong.

“The town utilized a ‘build it back better’ mentality,” said Jodi Dawson, the town’s manager of economic development.

After spending more than $100 million on flood mitigation to protect new and existing residents and businesses, High River is back a bit bigger, and definitely better, than before.

The flood-proofing measures, according to town officials, make High River the most flood-protected town in Canada. Among the mitigation projects were the construction of permanent and interim dikes along the Highwood River, an emergency notification system, and increased training for town staff.

As well as making the town less vulnerable, the post-flood era has also given the town the impetus to redefine itself as it grows.

The 2016 federal census puts the population at 13,584, an increase of 654 from the census of 2011. Neighbourhoods have been repaired and new projects opened. Building permits are increasing, infrastructure has been improved, and the downtown – the heart and soul of any smaller town – has been reincarnated.

And notably, it’s now home to a woonerf.

No, that’s not a new species of animal uncovered when the flood waters receded. A woonerf is a Dutch word for a “living street” where sidewalks are wide, roadways are narrow, and there’s plenty of space for outdoor markets, festivals and parades. The idea is to prioritize people before vehicles.

In addition, the town’s 43 parks and other green spaces covering 670 acres and 28 kilometres of pathways have been revitalized and remediated. In 2015 alone, town figures show that 25 years’ worth of parks projects were completed.

“This is our opportunity to improve the downtown, increase walkability, and make some valuable, lasting enhancements,” said Khalid Mohammed, manager of planning and development with the town of High River.

There is an incorrect external perception that High River is still knee-deep in water. We have completed an extraordinary amount of mitigation work, rebuilt our beautiful downtown, and are not just surviving, but thriving.

Long gone is the fencing that blocked access to the retail and social centre of High River. In its place are revitalized streetscapes demonstrative of the effort put in by ordinary townsfolk, the business community, and the town’s administration.

Since 2013, more than 90 per cent of the business community has recovered, says Dawson, adding that new businesses are opening up frequently. Almost 260,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space has opened in High River in the last two years.

“There is an incorrect external perception that High River is still knee-deep in water,” she said. “We have completed an extraordinary amount of mitigation work, rebuilt our beautiful downtown, and are not just surviving, but thriving.”

The downtown, which encompasses the area from Third to Sixth Avenues and is bookended by Macleod Trail and First Street S.W., will now come under an area redevelopment plan and land-use bylaw aimed at encouraging growth as a mixed-use centre.

“The entire downtown was redesigned with people first as the most critical priority, which encourages retail development on the ground floor and residential on the upper floors,” said Mohammed. “This ensures downtown becomes an attractive space for residents and visitors to live, work, and play.”

Residential development outside of the town’s core has continued to build since 2014. The project list includes the Villas of Monteith, a 25-townhouse project in Montrose, along with another 42-lot development, and a 50-lot subdivision application in the Hampton Hills area. Approval has also been given for a six-plex in the southeast area of the town.

Slokker West was among the first developers out of the gate when it completed a 50-townhouse development in the northwest quadrant in 2015.

Town officials have every intention of managing growth by making neighbourhoods more walkable and encouraging densification within existing areas. The goals are to reduce sprawl, to use existing infrastructure more efficiently, and to “maintain and develop a strong sense of community.”

Emerging from the devastating flood damage are new weapons to beat back future flooding concerns while allowing the growth and betterment of a new historic town to continue.

“High River has invested significantly in rebuilding and ensuring the town is a vibrant, thriving community,” said Mayor Craig Snodgrass. “We encourage people to experience this growth first-hand and we hope they will make High River their home.”