STE. AGATHE -- What a difference a dike makes.
In 1997, when Ste. Agathe was flooded, the town had about 400 residents. A ring dike was built around the town and new home construction started in 2006. To date, 85 new homes have been added and another 80 are on the way. The population has hit 700, and is expected to top 1,000 within four years.
Meanwhile, as the crest of the Red River surged towards Ste. Agathe on Thursday, it seemed about the last thing on people's minds. Young families were out walking and kids were biking on a sunny day. The crest was expected to arrive at about two feet below the 2009 level initially forecast.
"We really took a chance. Some people said we were crazy," recalled Jeannotte Robert, who developed the first 85 homes with business partner Armand Lévesque.
Robert was running an auto-repair shop and convenience store in town at the time. People who dropped in would sometimes ask if there were any lots for sale. That was the extent of his marketing survey.
He and Lévesque borrowed and put their personal property up as collateral to finance the purchase of the land, the sewer and water installation and home construction. They barely had to advertise. People quickly snapped up their houses.
Another key to Ste. Agathe's development is the town held out for a larger dike. The province wanted to build just a tight little dike around the existing community. The town balked. In the end, three dike proposals were drawn up and displayed at an open house. Residents insisted on the largest dike in case the town grew.
The province relented, perhaps out of guilt for how Ste. Agathe flooded in 1997, people here say. Contractors were so busy racing against the clock to build the Z-dike that was believed needed to save Winnipeg, there were no resources available to address concerns that Ste. Agathe might flood. That's what people here believe contributed to their town flooding, although the province has never admitted it.
So the largest ring dike, at a cost of $5.2 million, was built.
(St. Adolphe down the road has a similar problem in that its ring dike is too small and doesn't allow for expansion. Plans are now in the works to reconfigure its dike to allow for development.)
Ste. Agathe's ring dike is visible from all the new homes. The houses sell in the $275,000 to $290,000 range. They have attracted numerous young families. Families are moving in from Winnipeg and from French communities to the south like St. Jean Baptiste and Letellier.
"It's quiet and safe for the kids," said Jennifer Ervick, out walking with her child and some kids with the daycare she runs from home. She and her family moved in from East Kildonan.
"When we first moved out (four years ago), it was weird how everyone would wave as you go by... I like that," said Ervick.
At least half of new residents are non-French-speaking like Ervick (although her mother is francophone), and that has not been a problem, she said. The Ste. Agathe school is French-only, so her children will be bused to a French immersion school in St. Adolphe. Children can also be bused to an English-only school in Niverville.
Matthew Manaigre and his family moved in last November. "This was all farm field. It's lots of young families now, which is really, really cool," said Manaigre, who owns Avenir IT, an information technology and web design company in St. Boniface.
The dike has also resulted in a new Riel Industrial Park, with two tenants so far and two more on the way.