Once again, the Town of Blackfalds saw tremendous growth, both commercially and in population, in 2015.
Mayor Melodie Stol took time to highlight the Town’s successes and challenges of the year. Stol said the most exciting thing in 2015 was the announcement of the construction of the Wolf Creek Public School on the northeast side of town.
At the beginning of the year, much uncertainty surrounded whether the public school, or any school, would be constructed in Blackfalds in the future.
“At the beginning of 2015, we were still nervous because there wasn’t even a hole in the ground,” explained Stol. “Now, here we are, it’s well underway and I think that’s really exciting. When you have a town that has so many kids in it, making sure that they have the amenities to go to school where they live is so important.”
Another surprise was the announcement of a second school, a Catholic school, to also be constructed in the town.
“It had taken us so long to get a public school and here it was, fully funded right away,” said Stol. “They are ready to start building as well. So that is pretty exciting.”
Much like 2014, the population of Blackfalds once again increased, with the municipal population now sitting at 8,793, a 12% increase, according to the 2015 census results.
“That is almost 1,000 people in one year,” noted Stol. “It’s the biggest single year increase by numbers and by percentage. That is a pretty big milestone for the community.”
Stol said the substantial population increase includes all types of families into the community.
“We have to adjust to that as well,” she said. “We have to make sure we have enough diverse services, that we are attracting different families but also keeping them in the long term.”
Another highlight for Stol is the minimal crime rate in the town.
“This year, despite the growth, the crime rate hasn’t increased,” she said. “Here we grew this great big percentage and yet our crime stats are almost similar to last year. The Town is really working hard to improve on that.”
The Town also increased its citizen engagement over the year through hosting open houses and offering opportunities for citizens to give their input on needs and services.
“We are focusing on positive community engagement,” said Stol. “We had a coffee with council night, some community engagement nights, several open houses, one on the budget which had good turn out and several open houses regarding the community needs assessment. When we have a big project, we try to use many different ways to engage people. Social media can be great for those quick things, but we have to go beyond a complaint and response type thing.
“This is about growing a community. I think people have great ideas for our community and it’s a way to engage them and share them.”
Stol said over the year she has noticed an increase of volunteerism and involvement in the community. The best example of this in action for Stol is the Optimist Club of Blackfalds, which is spearheading the fundraising efforts for a new skateboard park in the town.
“Here is a service group that has just gone beyond anyone’s expectations,” she said. “They are a place where people get together and get to know their neighbours. They have commitment to many projects they are working on, like the skateboard park which is going ahead in 2016. The Town has put aside a contribution for it, but it will never take away that it was the Optimist Club’s hard work to bring that project forward and stick with it. I commend them for that.”
Some of the projects the Town introduced in 2014 have now become successes in 2015, like garbage and recycling cart collection, the yard waste program and snow removal.
“Even though we haven’t had a lot of snow, I think people really appreciate the consistent work and how it is going through the community,” said Stol. “Those are programs that we changed in 2014 and now throughout the end of 2015, you can say, ‘I think the right choices were made.’”
An ongoing challenge for the municipality is the need for a regional wastewater line.
Stol said the changes in the provincial and federal governments this year have led to a constant rotation of environment and transportation ministers who could greenlight the project.
“That is a challenge because you have to be diplomatic, but you have to be firm in what you want,” she said. “We are not asking for a regional sewer line on a whim and prayer. We have the research, we have the support, we have the plan. Now it is just about getting that shovel in the ground. It doesn’t make this project any less desperately needed.”
Looking ahead, Stol said it is important to reflect on the 2016 budget, which was just passed last month.
“It is our policy direction for the next year,” she explained. “It is a smaller capital budget than perhaps we’ve seen in other years. We do have a lot of new facilities too, so I don’t think there’s a big appetite to take a bite off another thing.”
The most requested item in 2015, which is now reflected in the 2016 budget is an off-leash dog park. Stol said funds have been set aside in budget for the facility and early in 2016 the Town will be looking for a suitable location. Other projects included in the capital budget for 2016 include the skate park and the restoration of the historic Wadey House, which will be used as a visitor centre and home base for both the Historical Society and Chamber of Commerce.
Reflecting on the budget, Stol said the 1% tax rate increase is sensitive to the current economy.
“As a council we have to be mindful,” she said. “When you have a slower year planning is so important. Having a vision, knowing that and trying to determine how you are going to accomplish the vision.”