Feeling nostalgic over downtown’s wonder years

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Whenever I tell people that I was born and raised in Red Deer, I usually get a look of subtle surprise in response. I guess most people who now call our fine City home hail from elsewhere.

When they learn I’m originally from here, they often mention something about how that’s a rare feat.

Whatever the case, it’s been a pleasure to call Red Deer home for most of my life. I’ve been away here and there for work and educational stints, but for the most part it’s been home.

That provides me with a unique perspective on the City and its constant evolution over the years. Some of it looks quite the same as it did way back when I was a youngster; other parts are incredibly different. Case in point – the downtown core.

Over the past several years there’s been plenty of talk about this area and how to ‘revitalize’ it; how to attract folks to the heart of the City.

For someone like me, such talk brings back memories of times when those kinds of conversations were pretty much unimaginable.

I remember a warm, energetic and hectic City core, with the Bay (once located in what’s now the Millennium Centre) and Eaton’s (in what is now the Century Centre).

I even remember Kresge’s department store complete with an inviting, old-fashioned lunch counter being a real highlight, especially to a kid of eight or nine years of age.

Kresge’s was located directly across the street from the present Bank of Montreal in what is now the BDC Building.

Christmas was a particularly attractive time downtown as well. Of course there was plenty of shopping going on. City Hall Park was extensively lit up and a large nativity scene was also set up in the park’s centre. I was always a little intimidated by the large, imposing figures of Joseph, Mary and the three wise men, but it was a treat to at least see the colourful display set up each year.

All of these things also meant that downtown was a brisk, key shopping area and there was lots of activity, lots of families around and lots of community events to enjoy.

For me, it all provided a wonderful sense of familiarity and security. Things hardly changed downtown during my childhood and teen years – and that suited me fine.

But as we all know, change is inevitable. Over the years we watched significant departures take place downtown — the Bay and Eaton’s left for the ‘greener pastures’ of suburban shopping centres.

And while it was nice to see that kind of growth in other parts of Red Deer, the downtown was left hobbling for years with small businesses and a variety of shops trying to make a go of it.

There have also been a number of efforts to bring back that sense of vitality to our downtown. It’s been great to see ventures like the annual, popular CentreFest hit the streets each summer and attract thousands. It’s also good to see new, gleaming buildings like Executive Place and the Sorenson Station across from Red Deer Public Library – these structures add a fresh, modern touch to downtown. It’s also terrific news that Central Alberta Theatre is acquiring the old Uptown Theatre – again another one-time busy place that has sat empty for years.

As to whether the downtown core will really ever ‘recapture’ the sensibilities of days gone past – that, at least in part, remains to be scene.

For now, I still enjoy a stroll through the area now and then. And even with all the changes, there are still pockets of downtown that haven’t changed too much and offer nostalgic residents like me reminders of different, and in some ways simpler, more endearing times.

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