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Maximum Impact Projects, Art in the Alley

Photo Credit: ckturistando on Unsplash

Tomorrow Council will be debating whether or not to fund Art in the Alley with $20,000.

This project was proposed by the Downtown Association. It would see businesses along 100 Ave putting pieces of art on their buildings in the rear lane ways. If their piece got approval from a committee appointed by the Downtown Association, it would be eligible for up to $5000 in matching funds.

I’ve had several conversations about this proposal, both from people who support it and from people who are opposed. These discussions were great. They got me thinking a lot about what types of projects are worth supporting. What is it that gives an initiative high or low possible impact?

Following is more information about my thoughts on Art in the Alley. I use it to discuss what I think makes for a good investment in community enhancement. After you read my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours.

Please note that any opinions or mistakes belong to me and me alone, not to Council or City staff.

Art in the Alley

Some would like to see Council deny this funding. They are concerned about high tax bills. They believe that the City can and should find savings in its budget. Given this environment, they wonder something like “really, another $20,000 going to something that isn’t strictly needed? Can’t you cut our taxes or put more into roads and police instead?”

I understand this line of thinking, and share the concerns behind it. I’m concerned about high taxes, too. In November, our Council gets to have its first full budget debate. Through it, I hope that Council takes a very disciplined approach to spending. There are both opportunities to do better with roads and crime prevention/enforcement while decreasing spending elsewhere. I hope Council embraces these opportunities.

At the same time, I support funding Art in the Alley. In my mind, it is a perfect example of how investments in arts, culture, and recreation should be made. Specifically, I like that it:

  • Has been successful elsewhere

  • Isn’t driven by the City

  • Is filling an important gap

  • Has potential to be unique

  • Is a [relatively] low investment with a big potential return

  • Leverages funding from other sources

Investing in lots of small projects that have all of these attributes would significantly enhance our community. At the same time, we can invest in many of them for way less money than is often put into a single large scale project.

The big challenge before Council is “how can we get the same or better impact out of less resources?” Art in the Alley is a great example of how the City can do that in the area of community enhancement. For that reason, I support it even while respecting that we have serious work ahead in dealing with our budget.

Should Cities Invest in Arts, Culture, Aesthetics, and Recreation?

There are some who think that a City should only invest in the very basics: roads, police, fire, etc… Their thinking is that local government should focus on providing the “need to haves” only while keeping taxes as low as possible. This allows citizens to have as much money as possible to make their own decisions about what “nice to haves” they want to invest in.

I understand this view. However, I don’t share it. And I don’t think the vast majority of people in Grande Prairie share it. Most people want their community to invest modestly in the extras that enhance our community. Sure, they want to see any money invested into extras like parks, recreational facilities, public art, and cultural activities to be given wisely and with an eye to the overall City budget. And they can likely think of examples of governments making too big or poorly thought out investments in these things. But even with these challenges in mind, most want to see some investment in the “nice to haves” of a community.

They see benefits such as the following:

  • It increases quality of life. These types of investments make people happy and it encourages them to use public space. This in turn creates relationships in the community. It can also have health benefits.

  • It is good for the economy. If you talk to any employer, they would likely tell you that they have challenges attracting and retaining quality employees. Having more pleasant activities and spaces in our community encourages people to move, stay, and put down roots here. Additionally, we benefit greatly from visitors spending money in our local economy. These types of investments encourage them to come more and stay longer.

  • It makes the community pleasant for people of all economic abilities.

  • It can combat crime. The single best way to get rid of crime is to have law-abiding people present. Public art, culture, and recreation can create this type of legitimate presence in a particular area. In addition, creating healthy, happy, and connected citizens (especially youth) can help prevent some of the root causes of crime.

I want the City to be more efficient with the resources it uses. And I think it is important for us to be open to critical debate about any particular project. However, at the same time I strongly believe that the City should invest modestly in the “nice to haves” that enhance our community. So the question is, how do we invest wisely by making sure the projects we fund will have maximum impact and value?

What makes for a maximum impact project?

I’d suggest six attributes that contribute to a project having maximum potential impact. In my mind, Art in the Alley has all six of them. It is a great example of the sort of projects we should invest in. Here is what I like about it:

  • It has been successful elsewhere. Recently I toured Art Alley in Red Deer. As a visitor, it was a beautiful place that encouraged me to hangout- I never would’ve gone into alleys without it. I talked to local crime prevention workers and business owners who credit the foot traffic and pride of place it created with decreasing crime. As a bonus, I only went to Downtown Red Deer to see Art Alley, and I ended up buying a coffee, pastry, and book while I was down there. Red Deer’s Art Ally is successful, and I know of many other municipalities that have seen the same benefits. I’m a fan of us taking on projects other municipalities have already found success with.

  • It isn’t driven by the City. Despite the quality of many of our staff, the best ideas about how to make Grande Prairie great are out in the community. I want to encourage citizens to roll up their sleeves and apply their ideas to make our community better. Art in the Alley is an example of this. It wasn’t the City’s idea. It was thought up by the Downtown Association which approached the City for help. I get most excited when the City is resourcing private or non-profit groups to do good work rather than running its own projects. These groups often know best what our community needs, and their ownership contributes ideas, energy, and volunteers to make projects better.

  • It is filling an important gap. Our downtown alleys are important public spaces. They are busy places that both employees and customers use to drive, walk, and park in. Alleys have become even more important during Downtown Rehabilitation: they have been the primary means of access to many businesses. Additionally, many stretches of alley are visible to drivers on 99 Ave, which is an important and busy road. These spaces should look pleasant, and it is important that they are safe. Art in the Alley will help with both of these things. I want to support projects that will deliver a clear benefit.

  • It has potential to be unique. This art won’t be attached to an expensive public space (such as the Montrose Cultural Centre site) or a place that is central to a business’ branding. I hope and suspect that the nature of a back alley will allow for more creativity than we usually see in public art. These projects have the potential to be more fun and to appeal to a wider spectrum of people than other possible aesthetic improvements. In my mind, projects have more merit in trying if they are likely to bring something new to our community.

  • Is a [relatively] low investment with a big potential return. $20,000 is a considerable amount of money. However, compared to most City-driven projects used to improve public space, Art in the Alley has a very small budget. And it has potential to dramatically transform the look of our downtown alleys. I support projects that are likely to have a large impact for the money put in.

  • It leverages funding from other sources. Art in the Alley is a matching grant program. Any piece of art will receive half or more of its funding from private businesses. The City will be putting in a maximum of 50% of the funding used in this project. However, when the City of Red Deer started their project with public funding, it continued after the City stopped funding it. There is potential that the same thing could happen here, in which case we would see even greater leverage from the public dollars put in. I love to see the City being a contributor rather than the sole or even primary funder of an initiative.

Art in the Alley has a lot of attributes that I think make for a high potential impact. If we required all of these to be present before investing in something, I think our public dollars would go to a lot better uses.

What makes for a low possible impact project?

I’d suggest that a project has low possible impact when it is lacking the above attributes. To show how a project can miss them, I’ll draw an example from last year’s budget debate. Like Art in the Alley, it was a project designed to enhance the aesthetics of Downtown.

On the 100 Ave portion of Downtown Rehabilitation, Council discussed whether to use asphalt or paver stones for the parking lanes. Pavers would’ve looked great, but they were much more expensive. Council ultimately decided to go with asphalt.

Here were problems and downfalls with the large paving stone project:

  • It hadn’t been recommended from elsewhere. I’ve never visited a city and thought “wow, cool parking lanes! I’ve also talked to a lot of people from all over the place and read everything I can about improving a community and a downtown. Aesthetics and streetscapes are often highlighted as important. But I don’t recall ever seeing the specific look of parking lanes highlighted.

  • It was City driven. The Downtown Rehabilitation was initiated after public consultation and input. In a general sense, the public influenced the overall design. However, we weren’t hearing from the community that the look of the parking lanes was important. And certainly no one was stepping up to help make whatever impact they had bigger.

  • It wasn’t filling an important gap. Our hope is that we have a busy downtown. A busy downtown has full parking- these lanes will not be seen most of the time. Having them look great wouldn’t fill an important need in our community.

  • It wasn’t unique. These lanes would’ve looked almost identical to the lanes on 101 Ave and very similar to the sidewalk right next to them. Pavers on them were not introducing a new element of enjoyment into the community.

  • It was a big investment. Putting in pavers would’ve cost ~$470,000 more than concrete for this phase of the Downtown Rehabilitation. That is a lot of money!

  • It was solely funded by the taxpayer. There was no possibility to bring private or charitable funding into this project. The City would be investing 100% of the capital.

This was an example of a project that had low potential impact. I was glad to see it rejected. We need to be incredibly discerning with the big cost projects we fund.

Note: you may be interested to read this blog post I wrote about downtown prior to last year’s debate on the current phase.

A Case for Lots of Small Projects

There are absolutely times that the City should invest in big projects. A community of our size should be expected to have facilities like a library, a pool, and large playgrounds. However, these big, expensive projects need to be approached with tonnes of caution: they often don’t contain many of the positives listed above.

I would suggest that a small project often has the most potential to have everything needed for maximum impact. For this reason, I think a shotgun approach to community enhancement is beneficial. In general, I would rather see the City invest a moderate amount into many small projects than a lot of money into a single big project.

When it said “no” to pavers, Council saved the City over half a million dollars. Imagine if the City said no to more low impact, high cost projects like that. A portion of the savings could go towards many smaller cost, high impact projects. These could often have bigger combined results than the rejected large project. And the rest of the savings could go to either tax relief or higher investment in “need to haves” such as road maintenance. This would make our community a better place.

There are some of my ramblings about how the City should invest in community enhancement. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What do you think about Art in the Alley?

More importantly, what lenses do you apply when considering the merits of a potential project? Are mine good or bad? Am I missing any? And do you agree with my “shotgun approach” of many smaller projects being favourable?

Let me know what you think by commenting here, emailing me at, or calling me at 780-402-4166. You might also consider adding to the conversation on the GP Round Table Facebook Group.

Thanks for reading!