Community First A Chat with Mayor Ron Casey
If there was ever a road map to his life, Ron Casey abandoned it long ago.
By Carol Picard
From Ontario farm boy to diligent tradesman to the longest-serving mayor of one of Alberta’s most vibrant communities, Casey has defied any kind of traditional career path, opting instead for a ‘carpe diem’ approach to opportunity.
While it’s worked out pretty well for him so far, it’s not an approach he applies in his role as Canmore’s mayor. There, he’s more apt to tread cautiously, plan carefully and look long and hard down the town’s future path.
And what he sees is what he’s got – a community dedicated to being a community, a place that attracts the kind of vibrant, artistic, intelligent, energetic, athletic, philanthropic people who make Canmore what it is today.
“In all of this growth that Canmore has seen, with all of the changes that have taken place over the years, at its heart we’re still the community we were. And as much as a municipal government can influence the community, that hasn’t happened by accident,” he says.
“It’s where you place your priorities that will reflect what kind of community you will have. In Canmore, it has always been community first.”
He knows of what he speaks. A resident since 1973, Casey first hit town as a 21-year-old – an out-of-work, unskilled adolescent in a ’69 Ford van, wife Pennie by his side. With no work to be had in Belleville, Ontario – or anywhere else in Ontario, for that matter – the two hit the road to Alberta.
“We’d been out here the year before and figured if we were going to be broke, we might as well be broke and skiing at the same time.”
They went first to Jasper, and then they tried Banff.
“We were just looking for any kind of work. Neither of us had any kind of training. We used to line up on Bear Street to get the Crag & Canyon and then run to the payphone to call the rentals listed in the paper. We got lucky one day and managed to rent a basement suite on Three Sisters Drive.”
Shortly after, he found work as an apprentice with Leland Electric, and Pennie was hired by a Banff dentist to assist in the office. She went on to university to pursue a dental hygienist degree, Ron obtained his electrician’s ticket, and by 1978 they were able to buy a 600-sq-ft house on Fourth Street - one of only two for sale in town at the time.
That period in the 1970s, during the first oil boom in Alberta, was actually the town’s biggest growth spurt, Casey notes. People had cash in their pockets and began flocking to town - the “beginning of the push” as he calls it.
Alberta Mortgage and Housing began servicing and releasing land in Larch and Cougar Creek, allowing forgivable mortgages to encourage locals to buy into the community, but the real pressure was from weekenders and vacation property buyers.
The construction boom that began (and the two Casey daughters that arrived) kept him too busy to think about leaving, even though the ski days dwindled in number.
But what’s really kept him here are the people.
“In the simplest terms, there was never a reason to leave. We’ve always had good friends here. It’s always been a good community, a strong community, an exciting community. I don’t think you could find another place that has seen the kind of exciting changes this place has.
“There’s such a mixture of people. Even in the most challenging times, Canmore is alive.”
It’s the kind of community in which, in 1991 (when the oil bust was deeply entrenched), a town of 4,500 filled with unemployed tradespeople came together to raise more than $45,000 for one of their own whose son had become a quadriplegic in a swimming accident. Fast forward 20 years and that same town, filled with thousands of relative newcomers, repeated the feat for two local families whose children have cancer. In between, there were dozens of other such fundraisers, almost all for local families in need.
“That speaks to the reason people come and stay. People still come together when people are in need. The town still attracts the same type of people. A lot of that has occurred naturally, but none of it was by accident. We would have been a complete failure as we grew had we lost the community that was inside of us.”
In 1995, Casey’s good friend Bert Dyck, then running for his second term as mayor, persuaded Casey to step up and run for Council. He won a seat, and in 1998, as Dyck embarked on a new path as town manager, Casey won the election for mayor. Three years later he stepped down and took a position as community liaison manager for the town’s largest developer of the day, Three Sisters Resorts.
By 2004 he was ready to re-enter the fray and won another term as mayor, winning again in 2007 and 2010.
These days, with 15 years of municipal governance experience behind him, he’s dealing with far less growth pressure, but his eye is still focused on the future…and on that ubiquitous buzzword, ‘sustainability’.
How does one create a ‘sustainable’ community, especially when land is in short supply and the local economy is so heavily tied to the global, national and provincial economies?
As if answering his own question, Casey muses, “Sustainability is a tree. It’s supported by the thousands of parts that make it up. We have placed environmental sustainability at the front end of where we’re going. It’s all about lifestyle, trails, parks. And again, it all comes back to that basic concept of community. Strong communities make strong resorts, and strong resorts make strong communities.
“What does Canmore’s vision statement say? ‘Serving the community to enhance our quality of life.’ Most of the good developers have bought into that as well – people like Spring Creek’s Frank Kernick.
“I think if we hold the course, if we don’t lose sight of the fact that this is really all about community, about people who want to come and live their lives in this place, we’ll be fine.”