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This article was published 17/1/2015 (2436 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
GLADSTONE — Gladstone was rapidly losing population, businesses were leaving and houses were sitting empty and not selling when Eileen Clarke, mayor at the time, had a kooky idea: Solve it with seniors.
Seniors aren’t normally regarded as an economic driver, but Clarke saw opportunity after attending the province’s first Age-Friendly Initiative seminar in 2008. Steps were taken to make Gladstone more age-friendly, including cajoling developers to build seniors housing.
"Housing had become an issue. People were moving away because they wanted rental housing," said Clarke. That is, seniors didn’t want condos, where they pay a condo fee, insurance and have to sell at the end. And they didn’t want life-leases that require a $15,000 deposit. They wanted to rent.
But deals with developers kept falling through. So Clarke and her husband, Bob, built it themselves: the 10-unit Clarkeson Suites for seniors in 2009 and a four-suite complex a year later.
"We knew the area. We knew the people. We knew what was needed. So we invested," said Clarke, who owned her first business when she was 18.
They had 28 applicants before a spade was in the ground. Two other local investors created seven more suites by revamping the town’s historic Galloway Building.
Gladstone, 130 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on the Yellowhead Highway, was off and running. Its population has rebounded 25 per cent. Bungalows that sold in the $80,000 range are now priced at $140,000. Residential lots that were going for $1 in 2006 now sell for $25,000. A new subdivision is in the works.
The measures "created a level of confidence in the community," said Clarke. Gladstone, whose name was Palestine before it was changed to honour British Prime Minister William Gladstone, also has a new community centre and credit union building. Young families are moving in.
But another area where smaller rural centres lag behind cities is in transportation for seniors. So Gladstone now has two handivans — an abundance for a town of 1,000 — one seating 12 and the other, four. The Free Press happened to visit on Toonie Tuesdays when $2 gets seniors an all-day pass on Gladstone’s handivans. Every time you looked up, there was a handivan loading or unloading passengers.
"We make getting out affordable and accessible," said Val Emerson, resource co-ordinator for the Gladstone Senior Support Program.
In addition, there is a crew of 20 volunteer drivers who transported seniors on more than 1,400 trips inside and out of town last year. "If you need to go to Winnipeg, Brandon, or Portage, you book a driver," said Emerson. Rides in town cost a flat $5 fee; drivers are paid 40 cents per kilometre for out-of-town trips.
With Gladstone’s success, Clarke has been invited to speak at conferences in Saskatoon, Whistler, Ottawa, London, Quebec City, and three times in Halifax.
Some of Gladstone’s physical changes include wider doors for wheelchair users; curb cuts for users of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and walkers; wheelchair ramps; more automatic doors.
"It was more an attitudinal change," than a massive infusion of funding, said Emerson. Partnerships were formed to make Gladstone more socially inclusive, with seniors part of the decision-making.
Young people are part of the mix. Students have helped seniors use computers, and seniors have taught the students how to play cribbage. They sometimes gather to play cards, and seniors are engaged in pen-pal programs with students.
The province has spent close to $3 million on the Age-Friendly Initiative so far, with 25 communities achieving special age-friendly status.