Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To Everything There Is A Season - The Battle Over Willow Square

There are names that will go down in history in this community as reminders of difficult times and contentious issues. One of these is of course Penhorwood, the ill-fated condo complex now reduced to rubble but very much alive in the memories of anyone who witnessed that particular debacle. One of the others, of course, is Willow Square.

It is with trepidation I write about Willow Square, the plot of land at the corner of Hospital and Franklin Streets that sits empty, surrounded by a chain link fence that has been there so long it has become prone to falling down in places and marked by a forlorn, although somehow still glossy, sign. This piece of land, once the spot of affordable housing, has once again become the focal point of a raging battle.

At various points in this blog I have written about Willow Square, my thoughts and my opinion. I watched the original buildings there go down, I watched the fences go up and I watched the signage declaring it the site of an “Aging in Place Community” installed. I watched more recently as the land was turned over, after long and painful negotiations, to the municipality and then onto the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation.

I think we have some very basic problems with what is happening at Willow Square. If one Googles “aging in place” what pops up is pages and pages of information on the concept of seniors literally aging in place, meaning staying in their own homes with assistance as required until they are no longer able to do so. The concept of an “Aging in Place” facility, at least using that terminology, seems almost unique to our community, and herein lies one of the essential problems, as I am not sure we have ever clearly defined what aging in place means in Fort McMurray.

I know what it means to me. It means a facility like the one my mother spent her final years in, one where seniors had a range of options from independent apartment-style level right up to the highest level of care. Seniors who became part of that community could stay there regardless of their level of need, as it encompassed everything from those who were quite able to care for themselves on a daily basis to those who required long-term care. But you see that is the image I have in my head for Aging in Place, the definition I gravitate towards as it is the one I know – but what is the definition others carry? Is it similar to mine or different in some regard?

We have started discussions on this Aging in Place concept without even clearly defining it, I think, and this has been some of the root of the issue. Names do matter, and by calling it Aging in Place I think certain expectations and images have been evoked that may not match what is now being proposed in order to keep the concept sustainable for the long term. And sustainability does matter, too, but the next question I have is who is the right entity to ensure that sustainability?

Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation has stated fairly clearly that if they are limited to developing seniors-only housing at Willow Square that they will not be able to create and deliver a sustainable facility and will hand the property back to the municipality or province for further development. This once again leaves the property in limbo, but I am not sure we understand what or who would come forward to develop this property should it be returned to the government. Would private  interests look to develop a revenue-generating “aging in place” facility at the property? It seems clear none of the levels of government intend to do so, so would it require the formation of a new entity, along the lines of the corporation formed to develop Abrams Land, to do so? And once the property is built who would run it, where would the funding come from and how would it function?

There are so many questions and so very few answers, it seems. I have great empathy and sympathy for the seniors in this community, who must feel they have been, for lack of a better phrase, “jerked around” by several different entities along the way towards the development of Willow Square. I think however the “jerking around” was not intentional and was rooted in the very fact that we have never defined what aging in place actually means and that we may well have very different ideas of what it entails.

I don’t believe there are any villains in this story, incidentally, no names that will live on in infamy for their treachery. I think instead there has been a great deal of misunderstandings, a lot of expectations along the way that were perhaps unrealistic but were always optimistic and many, many individuals who cared deeply on all sides of the story but who found it was so tangled and so sticky that there seems to be no way forward – or even backward. This is not a story of bad guys versus good guys, no “hidden interests” or “secret agendas” in my opinion – it is simply the story of a painful process in this community as we try to provide the respect and dignity our seniors deserve while balancing that goal with what we can achieve and accomplish in a manner to keep it sustainable, functioning and viable for the seniors of tomorrow, too.

So, where do we go from here? I think we need to begin answering some of the questions:
  •         Begin by taking down the Aging in Place signs as suggested by one of our wise councillors, because the signs are misleading given we have given it a name we have never even clearly defined.
  •       Start a very basic dialogue with seniors about their vision for the property and how they see Aging in Place (should we choose to call it that) or a seniors-focused community.
  •        Establish if any other entities are capable or interested in taking on the task of developing the property and what this would entail and what it would mean to the community.
  •        Put down the swords.

That last part may be the most critical, you see. We have taken up swords over this issue for so long and it has been so adversarial that it has begun to hurt us, not help us. As the Biblical passage says “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven”. The continued adversary over Willow Square puts us no further ahead, and the time has come to work together, listening more than talking, putting aside names like “Aging in Place” and “Community Campus” until we have established the vision and then, perhaps in a slow and agonizing process, finding a way to make it happen.

I believe in this community, and in the people in this place. In recent months I was honoured when I was discussing a difficult issue with someone who had every reason to be angry with me. Instead of accusing me of dark motives and unkindness, though, they told me that they know I have a “good heart”, and that it was because of their faith in my good heart that we would, and could, move forward. And so we have, believing in each other’s good hearts and working together when it could have very easily gone down a different path. Fort McMurray, this is a time to believe in the good hearts of others in this community. I happen to believe that every person around Willow Square has a good heart. I believe that if we try to come from a place where we believe that, casting aside any doubts on motives, agendas, expectations and anger or hurt we have held onto, that we can move ahead and find some resolution.

I also believe that I will likely get beaten up over having the audacity to write about this issue, but my heart and I can take it, because whatever anyone else thinks I know my motivation comes from watching my own mother in the final years of her life and wanting all other seniors to experience the kind of warm community she was fortunate enough to find before she died. There is a time to break down, and a time to build up, as it states in Ecclesiastes – and the time to break down the anger and distrust has come in this community so we can begin to build up – and turn Willow Square into a name that rings with pride, not anger or sorrow, and speaks to a community that can turn a time to mourn into a time to dance.

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