A recent trip to Edson and Rimbey provided a stark contrast of how development, or lack thereof, has affected the downtowns of both municipalities. In the case of Edson, west of Edmonton, the main street area has a somewhat worn-out look with a number of empty store fronts and a generally disheveled atmosphere. There may be stores that are successful but there is not a lot to attract residents and visitors to the rather forlorn shopping area. As a result, there is little vehicle or pedestrian traffic, which compounds the problem. Contrast that to the main street of Rimbey, northwest of Red Deer, where one finds a vibrant and busy downtown with few empty store fronts. The variety of downtown retail stores is easily triple that of Edson, a town with three times the population of Rimbey. Unique restaurants and services are interspersed with conventional retail outlets. Most street parking stalls are occupied even in the middle of the day and shoppers are clearly in evidence. The general atmosphere of the main street has a busy and attractive appearance. So why the difference?
From my perspective it appears the big difference is that Rimbey does not have big box stores like Walmart or Canadian Tire, whereas Edson has both, along with a plethora of fast food chains, hotels and motels. Edson has busy main Highway 16 running through the main street area, which I suspect doesn’t help the downtown shopping atmosphere. Rimbey on the other hand has a main highway bypass road which removes a lot of heavy truck traffic from the downtown area. I expect that by accident or design, less than enlightened development planning has resulted in the disjointed layout of Edson. Big box stores, fast food joints, industrial sites, office sites, and large empty lots seem to be scattered about without any real plan. The layout of Rimbey just seems to be more people friendly and rational.
To Edson town officials, there is probably some sense to their development and it’s true that each town has a somewhat different industrial and commercial base. Edson has a massive resource-based economy with energy and forestry being the main drivers. Many of the stores and services are geared towards that sector. That large economic activity with its well-paid jobs invariably attracts large retailers, hotel chains and fast food outlets. The one thing many of those businesses want is large building and parking areas which a downtown main street can’t supply. I also suspect that Edson, like towns in other parts of the province, may also be too eager to accommodate the demands of these types of businesses because they want the economic development. It’s a mixed blessing, however; studies have shown that big box chains can destroy as many jobs as they create. Turning a thriving downtown retail and restaurant area into a ghost town in favour of development on the outskirts seems counterintuitive from a development perspective.
Rimbey has a different economic base; it has a large and stable agricultural base along with energy industry servicing. To be fair, it doesn’t have the bustle that a busy resource industry brings to a town like Edson, but then hordes of service vehicles, semi-trailer trucks, a mainline railway and major highway traffic are not all that appealing. In its favour is that Rimbey doesn’t have the big box stores that so devastate downtowns in so many places. I suggest that this, along with its stable economic base, has allowed the downtown main street to continue to exist and thrive. Some may see that modern development has by-passed Rimbey, but if that development is exemplified by such towns as Edson, I would suggest the citizens of Rimbey are more fortunate.
To be fair to towns like Edson, there may be situations where development just seems to happen due to business pressure and a desire to keep up with other towns. I guess my view is “be careful what you wish for”. On a side note, Edson does have a unique store seldom found in any town of its size – it has a metaphysical and spiritual store called Divine Elements. It sells a variety of new age items and books including witchcraft items, singing bowls, incense, gemstones and tiny angels (yes I bought one) along with a plethora of other curiosities and elements to soothe your life’s journey. How this store survives baffles me, but then maybe it reflects something that somehow resonates with the citizens of Edson and day-to-day life in this town.