BANFF – Addressing challenges surrounding affordability and quality of life for residents in the tourist town is at the top of the list for Banff’s elected officials.
Town council approved its 2023-26 strategic plan, a high-level document that centres on four priority areas to help guide the municipality’s decision-making over the next four years.
The main pillars include making Banff better for residents by addressing affordability and livability, leading climate action and striving to be a model environmental community, improving sustainable transportation, and building relationships and partnerships, including with other levels of government and Indigenous neighbours.
“We’ve made huge strides in each of these areas, but we know we can continue to move the needle,” said Mayor Corrie DiManno during the Nov. 14 council meeting.
“We’re really hopeful that this document is a reflection of the conversations we had while door-knocking during the election and the conversations we’ve had during our first year as council.”
The 2023-26 strategic plan was developed over 14 hours in a series of workshops and in-camera governance and finance committee meetings between July and October this year.
Council worked with administration and third-party consultant Paragon Strategic to examine the previous 2019-2022 strategic plan as the starting point for determining the areas of priority for the next four years.
In terms of the ongoing housing issues, a Town of Banff report estimates the shortage of housing units remains between 455-730.
In addition, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) states that healthy vacancy rates range between three and five per cent, but Banff has had with a very low vacancy rate since 2013.
The most recent vacancy rate published in 2021 shows an increase to 3.2 per cent; however, Town officials issue caution around this number given the uncertainty of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on housing vacancy in Banff.
Mayor DiManno said Banff will continue to be challenged by low vacancy rates, noting the housing crunch is adding to the problem of a labour shortage.
She said the exodus of hundreds of people from Banff when the pandemic hit dramatically changed housing density over a period of just a few months.
“We went from high-density shared accommodation being the norm, to lower density, which of course, is effective in containing COVID and it also helps achieve the goal of improving the quality of life for many residents,” she said.
“But it happened so rapidly and it remained the norm, so when the economy recovered, the vacancy rate we had achieved, those are now evaporated.”
In 2016, the Town of Banff developed 131 units affordable rental units on the Deer Lane lands, since renamed Coyote Lane, with residents moving in 2018. A for-purchase price restricted affordable housing project is now under development on the 300 block of Banff Avenue.
“Ten per cent of Banff’s housing stock has been built in the last decade, and I believe that shows our commitment to this issue, and it’s a commitment that we will continue to demonstrate,” said DiManno.
Increasing efforts on environmental protection and climate action is a key priority in the strategic plan.
The plan is to continue advancing tactics in the environmental master plan and climate action plan. Council passed first reading Nov. 14 of a clean energy improvement tax bylaw and plans to call a public hearing early in 2023.
DiManno said one of the big ways to advance environmental and climate change goals is through sustainable transportation.
“Enabling more active transportation and transit in a town of less than four square kilometres makes sense for residents and visitors,” she said, adding Banff has a robust local and regional transit system.
“We have more work to do because we know a two per cent increase every year in tourism that relies on the personal vehicle is not sustainable.”
The mayor said Banff needs a solid plan for moving out of personal vehicles in ways that are affordable, frequent and convenient.
She said she believes that starts with mass transit connecting the Bow Valley to Calgary, whether by bus or passenger train.
“We need a service for folks to get here and then move around our town and the park easier,” she said.
For that reason, DiManno said the Town of Banff is eager to see the recommendations coming out of the Parks Canada-struck expert panel on sustainable movement of people in Banff National Park.
“We look forward to discussing and exploring the opportunities from that report,” she said.
“A lot of what we need requires help from other levels of government to achieve these big goals when it comes to sustainable transportation.”
Town of Banff officials say the strategic plan identifies priority areas that require more attention, expertise, research, strategic development, staff or financial resources, or a combination of these to move towards certain goals.
The Town would usually consult on the strategic plan, but Town Manager Kelly Gibson said due to delays with the Banff National Park Management Plan the municipality is only starting the community plan process that will cover similar topics of conversation.
He said the strategic plan will be reviewed in fall of 2023, and by then, council will have the advantage of public feedback from the community plan, community social assessment and the co-developed tourism master plan.
“As we’re heading into the community plan, we’re about to embark on some significant public consultation, so if there is any concern that something changes while we’re going through the community plan process, we do review the strategic plan annually,” he said.
Gibson said the strategic plan will assist annual budgeting by supporting the evaluation of priorities in the review of municipal services and programs and budget allocations.
“As a living document, the strategic plan will be adjusted in subsequent years due to factors such as external funding requirements, planning and construction capacity, economic changes, and so on,” he said.