If you are a Simpsons fan you know that Ned's parents were beatniks, sort of the precursor to the hippies. When they were raising little Ned they tried to stay away from the then-current norms of discipline and parental authority, but when Ned began to display bad behaviour beyond their control they took him to see a child psychiatrist, who asked what they had tried to change his behaviour. Ned's father, desperate for help, said:
We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all out of ideas.
It is, to me, not only the best line of The Simpsons but a deeply profound statement, and one that occurs to me often both in my personal life, and when talking about this community.
I had a conversation with someone at the end of 2013 who expressed their unhappiness with the plans to redevelop the downtown core in Fort McMurray. I have not hidden my support for this initiative, as I believe it is long overdue and necessary in order to have a downtown that becomes what we deserve - vibrant, energetic, and active. I worry when I see other communities that have focused solely on their suburban development, neglecting their downtown cores only to see them wither and die. And I know what a vibrant downtown can be, having grown up in Saskatoon, a city that managed to not only preserve but enhance the beautiful riverfront that graces that city. My conversation partner, however, wanted none of it. No redevelopment, no matter the direction, and no changes, because they believed the city had never had to intervene in such a direct way before, so why now? Why did we have to try to change the Snye waterfront, and redevelop the downtown? Why not just let it develop on its own, without assistance or intervention? Why not just let it be whatever it would become?
I believe there are parts of the redevelopment of the downtown core in Fort McMurray that are negotiable. Perhaps we can find a way for motorized vehicles to share the Snye with others who wish to enjoy the waterfront, and perhaps the proposed arena could be built in a different location should concerns about the proposed location dictate it. But what shouldn't be in doubt or in question is the plain necessity of doing something about our downtown core, because until now, we've tried nothing - but we do have an idea. We have an idea to make it a vital part of our community, not some forgotten core that will have to limp along on its own. We have an idea about how to create something special in our downtown, something that will attract new residents and please current ones. And the idea may not perfect, and it may need adjusting - but at least we have an idea.
When I was a child growing up in Saskatoon we had a Sunday ritual in the summers. My parents would pack a picnic, and we would head to Bessborough Park, one of the lovely spots along the river flowing through that city. We would stop and pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and down we would head to the riverbank, my parents and I and whichever of my four sisters that happened to be around and their ever-changing cast of boyfriends and friends, and we would set up for the day with blankets and coolers and Frisbees. I still have photos of those outings, but more than that I have that picture in my head of enjoying our urban downtown, and how it felt like home. Whenever I go back to Saskatoon I head to that park, and I can almost see and hear the ghosts of those days.
And so this is what I want for Fort McMurray, too. I want us to have a downtown core that is not known for crime or other unpleasantries but rather remembered for long sunny afternoons with the family. I want one remembered for walks on cold winter days, stops at small coffee shops, and browsing through little shops along the way. I want us to never look back in the future and say "we've tried nothing, and we're all out of ideas", because then it may be too late, and our chance to create a vibrant downtown may be lost forever.
The devil is in the details, as they say, and some of the details of downtown redevelopment may still need to be ironed out - but the seed of the idea, the need to redevelop our downtown while both embracing our history, enjoying our present, and welcoming our future, is one we ignore at our own peril, and the peril of those growing up here, and who will one day have those memories in their heads. I remain committed to the concept of a revitalized urban core, one that will bring new experiences, new opportunities, and new possibilities. And whenever someone tells me we need to "do nothing" that line from The Simpsons dances through my head - because when we do nothing all the ideas fall away, doing nothing becomes the norm, and one day we realize we are not only out of time, but out of ideas, too.