High River rebound gives hope to Fort McMurray

Southern Alberta town surfaced stronger after devastating flood of 2013

Western Investor
May 10, 2016

Jodi Dawson, High River manager of economic development in the downtown, May 2016. - Jim Ross
High River downtown at high flood in June, 2013. - Submitted

As Fort McMurray struggles to recover from a hellish wildfire that levelled more than 10 per cent of the northern city, the robust recovery of High River from a devastating 2013 flood should provide inspiration.

On June 20 2013, flood levels of more than 63,000-cubic-feet per second roared down the Highwood River and surged into High River, a city of 13,000 just south of Calgary. Within hours and with little warning, 75 per cent of the town was completely flooded. A mandatory evacuation was in place for 10 days. Residents returned to face almost unbelievable destruction and a daunting clean up before reconstruction could even begin.

Mayor Craig Snodgrass and his Council recognized early that, although the flood had put their community through hell, it also presented opportunities to rebuild High River better than ever.

High River now has better flood protection than any other place in Canada. In excess of 10 kilometres of engineered dykes have been built to allow the river to safely flow through town at volumes in excess of what was experienced in 2013.

The entire downtown has been redesigned with a “people first” concept and rebuilt to better serve retailers, shoppers and visitors. There are much wider sidewalks, many trees on every block, and new roadways , streetlights, and benches, all tailored to create a visually appealing and people-friendly environment. Even before the flood, High River had two beautiful parks right downtown. Now these mature parks frame a revitalized district.

The town is also in the midst of rewriting its entire land-use bylaw with the intent of creating a more practical document, simplified land use districts, and a process that will result in more sustainable and appealing developments. A fundamental concept for the revised by-law will be "permissive, not restrictive".

Within a year of the flood. High River's real estate market had returned to pre-flood prices and transaction volumes, and the population had recovered to its previous level. A post-flood construction boom was very beneficial for the local economy. The downtown area, which still has relatively high vacancy rates, has some exceptional deals for tenants, and extraordinary investment opportunities.

A new residential estate development on the south side of town was approved to help accelerate the rebound, and to provide an alternative location for higher end homes that were lost due to flood protection measures.

Today, the High River median household income is $87,000, and the town has a median age of 41.8 years. It is in the middle of a trading district of 60,000 people, and close to Alberta’s largest city. Recent retail developments include the opening of new stores for Canadian Tire, Peavey Mart, and a second Tim Horton's location.

“We are situated in the optimum location for medium-size businesses that want the safety and quality of a small town life style for their employees, but need quick and convenient access to Calgary,” said Jodi Dawson, manager of economic development for High River."

“High Riverites understood that to survive a disaster would mean embracing a lot of change, and doing it fast, “said Mayor Snodgrass. "We have had enormous support from residents. Most people here recognize that changes we've made will create long term value for everyone"

For information about doing business in High River, and in its inspiring recovery, contact Jodi Dawson (403) 461-5423, or email jdawson@highriver.ca


- JIM ROSS is an associate broker with Re/Max Southern Realty in High River.

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