Remembering the Christmas season of 1986

Another Christmas shopping season is now upon us. While merchants are hoping for good sales again this year, the challenges facing the Alberta economy are creating a lot of uncertainty and a fair bit of worry.

A similar situation occurred nearly 30 years ago in 1986. The energy sector of the Alberta economy had already suffered in the early 1980s from the imposition of the National Energy program. However, the oil and gas industry appeared to be recovering by the middle of the decade.

Then, in late 1985 and early 1986, some members of OPEC, particularly Saudi Arabia, began to flood the market with oil in order to restore market share. The price of a barrel of oil plunged by more than 2/3 and eventually bottomed out at around $10 per barrel.

The number of new wells being drilled in the province dropped dramatically. As the winter drilling season approached, it was estimated that less than 400 wells would be completed, down sharply from the nearly 900 recorded in the previous season. Large scale layoffs swept throughout the energy industry.

The other pillar of the Alberta economy, the agricultural sector, was also suffering. Commodity prices were weak. Prolonged droughts, particularly in southern Alberta, greatly reduced crop yields.

As the energy and agricultural sectors struggled, the amount of new construction in Red Deer dropped off. The recession of the early 1980s had been somewhat offset by a number of major multi-year projects such as the construction of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, the relocation of the Westerner Exposition grounds to the City’s south side, and the development of Waskasoo Park. Unfortunately there were few major construction projects in 1986.

A new Remand Centre was built east of the new court house and an anhydrous ammonia plant was built in the Joffre/Prentiss area. The Red Deer College Arts Centre officially opened in October 1986, but that project had been delayed for a considerable length of time after the original contractor had gone bankrupt.

As the economy continued to slow, the Provincial Government began to implement a number of budget cuts that included layoffs in such areas as healthcare.

Michener Centre (formerly the Alberta School Hospital and Deerhome), which had traditionally been one of the largest employers in Central Alberta, continued to face cutbacks as part of a long-term plan to greatly reduce the numbers of residents.

With all of these economic challenges, it is not surprising that the local retail sector faced an increasing decline in sales. The downtown stores, already squeezed by the large malls to the north (Parkland) and south (Bower), particularly felt the pinch.

The opening of Zellers, in the old Eaton’s Store on Gaetz Avenue in 1985, provided only a modest boost.

City planners produced a new master plan as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown. However, there was soon controversy.

A proposal to build a central transit terminal on the southeast corner of 49 St. and 49 Ave. was opposed by the Planning Commission as it was not part of their master plan. A proposal by Urban Dynamics Corp. to build a major downtown mall was greeted with skepticism as there seemed to have been little consultation with such major downtown stores as The Bay and Zellers.

In order to provide some spark to Christmas shopping, Red Deer’s first Santa Claus parade was organized by the downtown merchants at the end of November.

The event was a great success. Despite cold weather, an estimated 8,000 people turned out to watch the parade and take in the related attractions.

By Christmas, however, it was obvious that annual shopping season had been a disappointment. Only the sales of new technology, such as microwaves, VCRs and home computers, seemed to do well.

Special bargains, often of the type normally only seen on Boxing Day and during the January clearance promotions, made their appearance before Christmas.

The traditional greetings of Merry Christmas continued to ring out, but the hopes for a much Happier New Year became even more heartfelt.