A notorious challenge

Downtown Moose Jaw. Photo by Shane Luhning

How the City of  Moose Jaw is getting buy-in for an official community plan

Attracting investment and people is a complex and ongoing challenge for communities in Saskatchewan, especially for those outside the province’s two major urban centres. But it’s possible, and some, like the City of Moose Jaw, are using the official community planning process to engage their community and prepare for growth.

“Every city changes, even if you do nothing, it’s going to change around you,” says Alan Wallace, planning director for Wallace Insights, during a Moose Jaw city podcast. “And I think it’s better to prepare for the future than to react to it.”

Planning for change
Legislated in 2007, the province asks that every community in Saskatchewan have an official community plan (OCP) that is renewed every 10 years with the help of a registered planning professional. An OCP is a high-level policy document that outlines a community’s rules or guidelines around growth and development. It’s also an important communication tool for attracting investment and showing the province how the community intends to grow and develop.

“An official community plan is our overarching policy document for the city,” says Michelle Sanson, director of planning and development services for the City of Moose Jaw. “How do we want to grow and develop within the city and what does that look like going forward? It includes a lot of policy for parks, for public works, for engineering, for planning for developers, when they’re looking at coming to the city, we want to look at economic development [opportunities] that we can create . . . and use to grow our city.”

With a population of around 35,000 people, Moose Jaw is Saskatchewan’s fourth largest city, and the community’s proximity to Regina makes it a key part of one of the largest economic regions in Saskatchewan. Agriculture, ag processing and services, and tourism rank high as industries of importance, but with major highways, both of Canada’s national rail lines, a large industrial park, and other significant infrastructure available, the city is home to a wide and growing variety of industries.

With the support of the city’s consulting partner, Wallace Insights, Sanson and her team settled on seven discussion points to engage stakeholders on remote work, wellness economy, localism, green economy, industry 4.0, winter city, and heritage.

“[The OCP] is probably one of the most primary documents the City of Moose Jaw will have that is directly resonant with the community’s values,” says Brenda Wallace, principal with Wallace Insights, during a city podcast. “How do we not only give the city council and the administration something to work from, that’s documented, but the community as well? The community also pitches in, and they co-create their community . . . so this is about getting everyone rowing in the same direction.”

A spanner in the works
But no plan can account for everything, and even seemingly small decisions made by city council can have lasting impacts.

For example, a fire in 1891 nearly wiped out the downtown core of Moose Jaw and, in response, the city council at the time began requiring buildings to be made of brick. 

The result of this regulation is a unique array of municipal heritage buildings in Edwardian, Georgian, and Neoclassical styles in classical and revival traditions, with some using regional and local elements, such as Claybank brick and Tyndall stone. The city is even home to an Eaton building, also built in brick, that closely resembles the original store in Winnipeg.

The impact of this one decision helped determine the notorious character of Moose Jaw’s downtown, which is a miniature time capsule of early 20th-century urban architecture. And this unique—if a bit accidental—character of Moose Jaw contributes to its attractiveness for both tourists and as a place to call home. 

And this is also why Sanson and her team expect the unexpected.

“It’s tough to know what we’re going to hit [when planning for ten years or more], but it is a flexible document, we can change it as we go, and if there’s something that comes forward in the future that we haven’t thought about, or that has evolved over time, we want to ensure we can evolve with that plan and create something that will allow for that development in the future,” says Sanson.

But no community can be everything to everyone, and this is part of the planning process too, deciding what’s in and perhaps what gets a “no” as well.

Know yourself
“Focus on your strengths,” says Jim Dixon, manager of economic development for the City of Moose Jaw. “Moose Jaw is an agricultural service centre, so we really focus on that.”

For Moose Jaw, this process of finding focus has meant engaging the public, business, and industry associations. Finding alignment in values and interests and agreeing on pathways forward have been key parts of the city’s planning strategies.

“We do engage everybody from infrastructure, transportation, the business community, the youth, the seniors, we engage all of those groups to ensure that we’re hitting all the important policy elements of the official community plan and incorporating that into the plan,” says Sanson.

Even for the seemingly small efforts, like a visual identity refresh, Moose Jaw has taken a stakeholder engagement-first approach. For Moose Jaw’s recent rebranding, the city engaged entities, like tourism, the chamber of commerce, and other stakeholders.

“We got everyone to the table so that everyone took ownership of it and felt a part of it,” says Dixon. “We wanted everyone’s buy-in, so the brand ‘Moose Jaw, Canada’s most notorious city’ is being well received and has been successful.”

For Moose Jaw, growth is not an if, but a when, suggests Wallace. Knowing where investments need to be made, what types of development community members are interested in, and how this growth will impact all aspects of the city, is critical to planning for the future. Having buy-in from the community is how the city will succeed in executing the plan.