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Red Deer at 1 million? Danielle Smith dreams of a new Alberta metropolis

There’s thinking big. There’s thinking really big — or even really, really big.

But I’m not sure how many reallies I’d need to fairly capture what Premier Danielle Smith is saying about Red Deer.

She wants to see its population grow tenfold. From about 106,000 today to one million residents.

She doesn’t quite say it so explicitly, but the premier is dreaming of a city that would need several hospitals, not just the one the province is spending $1.8 billion to expand. It would be one where Gasoline Alley, rather than sitting at the southern tip of the city, would be bracketed by several new suburbs pushing many kilometres farther south and every other direction.

A Red Deer University? Why not two public universities like million-person Edmonton has, or three like Calgary?

Why not a Red Deer LRT system, like the other million-person cities have?

Or why not…something reasonable? Something that the local politicians and boosters in the central Alberta community are themselves seriously considering, rather than ponder the massive infrastructure requirements of shooting for such astounding growth?

“Seems like a big jump, doesn’t it?” says Cindy Jefferies, a Red Deer councillor.

Mid-sized to mega-sized

Smith’s dream of a million-person Red Deer isn’t a one-off utterance. She’s been public about it twice in the last few weeks.

First was on her radio call-in show on March 16, when she was justifying making the central city’s hospital redevelopment a priority.

“With Red Deer being a growing centre — I keep challenging Red Deer to be our next million-person city — they absolutely do need to have a full-service hospital in central Alberta.” 

(Or maybe three or four, by that point.)

She brought it up again a few weeks later at a United Conservative Party fundraiser in the city.

“Red Deer is growing at a rapid pace. And I have challenged your council to making Red Deer our next million-person city. Because if you have that kind of population base, through the corridor, all of a sudden it makes sense to bring passenger rail from Calgary to Red Deer and on to Edmonton to connect this entire corridor. And I hope that’s what you’re looking forward to in a few years’ time.”

A few years’ time?!

The premier didn’t say how many years or decades out she was thinking. But it wouldn’t be her first time wanting to aggressively hit the multiplication button on the Alberta calculator.

In the premier’s televised address and throne speech last fall, her government said it will prepare to more than double Alberta’s population by 2050 to 10 million people — which is three million past where provincial officials have predicted the province would get by mid-century.

Smith’s vision for Red Deer’s expansion is even more aggressive. Let’s play with the spreadsheets and ponder how fast Red Deer could reasonably reach that lofty milestone.

The real-estate firm Colliers produced growth projections last year for the City of Red Deer.
Its medium growth scenario envisions population growth at 1.76 per cent every year. At that pace, Red Deer would hit the one-million mark in 2151 — in time for Smith’s 180th birthday.

In the high scenario, Red Deer grows at a 2.28 per cent annual clip, and gets there in 2122.

A snow covered road leads under a sign that welcomes visitors to downtown Red Deer.
Downtown Red Deer, as seen in 2012. Its tallest building stands 12 storeys. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Not fast enough, you say?

What if Red Deer experiences the 4.4 per cent growth the whole province saw in the past year, over and over again?

In that scenario, Red Deer would greet its millionth resident in 2075, or roughly 13 provincial elections from now.

Faster still? Ludicrous speed

OK. The Calgary bedroom community of Airdrie has grown by more than 10 per cent in recent years, but not consistently.

At 10 per cent continual growth, which would have no prolonged precedent in Alberta, Red Deer reaches a seven-digit population in 2046 — and no doubt faces staggering growth pressures along the way.

But here’s the reality of present-day Red Deer, despite how badly it needs a new regional hospital after vastly overgrowing the current one. That same Colliers report notes that the city has experienced below-average growth in recent years.

They’re trying to work on that, Jefferies says, on how to replace the oil-services sector that’s relocated north as drilling activity has.

“We just haven’t found the next thing for Red Deer yet,” she says.

The high-speed rail link the premier mentioned could be a game-changer, the councillor reasons. It would let Red Deerians live there while commuting daily to work in Edmonton or Calgary, giving it the bedroom-community boost the big cities’ neighbours now enjoy.

Leaving the station

Sure enough, the rail dream may have helped seed Smith’s million-person proclamation. Lawrence Lee, another Red Deer city councillor, was present for what may have been the origin of this astounding Danielle Smith idea, when he was in Edmonton with fellow local politicians last fall.

Lee scored a conversation with the premier about Red Deer and economic development. Smith happened to also have a meeting with a developer of the Edmonton-Calgary high-speed rail idea — and, Lee recalled, the two discussions converged, and Smith suggested that Red Deer was positioned to become Alberta’s next million-person city.

Lee believes four-per-cent growth, maybe five, could be achievable in Red Deer if all the right elements snap into place first. High-speed rail, a massive expansion of the city’s airport, a local industrial boom and massive infrastructure expansions to the roads, water utilities, schools and more to accommodate all those new residents.

And guess which political population-forecaster would have to come up with that money?

“Because you can want to grow to a million people as much as you want,” Lee says. “But it’s pretty difficult when you’re not resourced and you’re not prepared.”

The premier is scheduled to meet with Red Deer council later this month. Lee expects the million-person ambition to come up, along with the city’s project wish list to long-range-plan its way toward that mountaintop.

A ring road for Red Deer would likely be on it, Lee says. After all, Edmonton and Calgary already have them.

Oh Deer

However, some dreams might be so big that they don’t excite everyone.

When the premier mentioned the million-person challenge at the UCP dinner in Red Deer, the proposal got tepid applause — nowhere near the reaction that the hospital expansion or pushing back on Ottawa received.

“A lot of people like Red Deer the way it is, the size it is,” Jefferies says. “And I’m not sure they want to live in a city that big, or it’s something they haven’t really contemplated.”

A woman in a green suit wearing a pearl necklace.
Premier Danielle Smith has thus far only pledged one new hospital for Red Deer. Other million-person cities have several. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Residents of Calgary in 1946 may not have contemplated one million people, while their city was just surpassing 100,000. Supercharged by a series of oil booms, Cowtown would reach that level about 60 years later.

Think of the city back then. The University of Calgary was still 20 years away.

The developed city barely existed west of today’s Crowchild Trail, and hadn’t pushed south past 40th Avenue. Now, communities sit along 210th Avenue S.

On Calgary’s fringes, Airdrie’s population has more than tripled in 20 years, and Chestermere did grow 10 times over between 1996 and 2016. 

But it’s easier to grow from a summer lake village to a small city that can rely on a metropolis’s amenities. It’s quite a different thing to balloon from a regional, mid-sized city to a member of the million-people club with only five or seven Canadian cities in it (depending on what you calculate).

No city in the industrialized world is likely preparing for the quantum leap of tenfold growth, any more than NASA is researching plans for a Pluto colony.

The Colliers report suggested a Red Deer population of between 131,000 and 158,294 by 2041, while its city hall is working on a 2050 growth strategy; future-thinking but in manageable bites, for a city whose tallest building at present stands 12 storeys.

Smith has shown a fondness for giant round numbers. One million in Red Deer. Ten million in Alberta.

If she’s serious about those figures, those ring roads and high-speed train tracks should be ready in (relatively) no time.

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