City growth is new normal

My column for The StarPhoenix

When I moved to Saskatoon in 1984, it was a sleepy and tired city. The landmark that endures in my mind was the unfinished foundation that dominated Five Corners on Broadway and sat uncompleted for years.

Moving here from a struggling Calgary, Saskatoon’s plight seemed worse. It seemed to be accompanied by a spirit of mediocrity. There were moments of hope, such as when the Saskatoon Blues seemed to be a possibility, but the dominant story was one of survival, instead of optimism for prosperity.

Things eventually changed. The Grant Devine era deficit was eventually slayed, government had more money to reinvest, and the world around us changed.

At one point you couldn’t give away our wheat and potash, but eventually prices skyrocketed for most of our commodities. Saskatchewan went from having a job shortage to having a labour shortage. Saskatchewan politicians travelled the country singing our praises. People not only listened but believed enough to move here.

As great as a story has been our recent past, it’s the next chapter that I was most curious about. So I walked down to city hall and spent some time talking to Mayor Don Atchison about what’s next in the story of Saskatoon.

You can’t talk to the mayor without being excited and hopeful about Saskatoon’s present and future. As much as I wanted to talk about the future, he said you can’t ignore what is happening now. Atchison called it the four Fs: "Fuel, fertilizer, food and fantastic people."

The economic evidence backs him up, as Atchison rattled off tens of billions of dollars of potash development underway. And it isn’t only potash. He pointed out that companies are coming to Saskatoon for rare earth minerals, magnesium and diamonds. As the mayor reminded me, "Every mining company in the world wants a presence in Saskatoon."

The expansion of potash has meant a lot of spinoff economic activity. While Saskatoon has never been a traditional manufacturing city, Atchison noted that it has emerged as one of the largest steel fabrication centres east of Toronto.

While the last "F" he mentioned seems like a bit of political spin, the fantastic people are an increased factor in our prosperity. Whether it’s the University of Saskatchewan grads who used to leave for Calgary but are now remaining in Saskatoon, or it’s the new talent this city is attracting, the nature of our population is changing. Saskatoon is both highly educated and more ethnically diverse – two qualities that world class cities have in common.

But attracting and retaining people is a problem with our soaring housing prices. The mayor repeatedly used the phrase "attainable housing" and pointed out that Saskatoon spends more money on affordable housing than does any other city in Canada. And in terms of real dollars, Saskatoon spends more than Calgary.

Looking forward, Atchison talked of an extended economic expansion that looks as if it could go on for a couple of decades. What we are going through is not a blip, he suggested, but the new normal.

To deal with the expected era of economic growth, city hall recently approved developing 10,000 new housing lots, which could mean anywhere from an additional 30,000 to 50,000 people moving to Saskatoon in the next several years. The plan is to balance this growth on the west and the east sides of the city.

The mayor talked of the redevelopment of Saskatoon’s historical neighbourhoods. The key to revitalization of 20th Street, he said, is the city investing in facade improvement, establishing the Riversdale Business Improvement District, and giving residents a large say in the future of the neighbourhood through the Local Area Plan process.

These improvements lead to an environment where both businesses and homeowners wanted to invest in Riversdale’s present as well as its future. Atchison showed me a photograph taken before the changes, when a row of houses was selling for less than $20,000 each back in 2004. Some of the same houses are worth almost 10 times that today. Ongoing investment in River Landing has started the reintegration of Riversdale to the downtown core – ties that will get stronger in the future with developments on both sides of Idylwyld Drive.

What does the next decade look like? Realistically you could see Saskatoon growing to more than 300,000 people from 230,000. In real terms that is a lot of new homes, schools, roads and, we can hope, a busier transit service.

It will mean a city where we are constantly trying to catch up to growth, which will be difficult at times. It also means Saskatoon will be a city of opportunity for people who no longer will have to leave the province for a better life. Of all of the things that have changed in Saskatoon, that’s likely the most important.

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