Castlegar took home a prestigious international community prize on September 20 at a national symposium and awards ceremony in Charlottetown, P.E.I.. The culmination of a multi-year campaign on the part of the Castlegar Communities in Bloom program, the win came with fierce competition from Jasper, Alberta, Irish city Moynalty and neighbouring community Trail, among others. Castlegar was awarded a 5 Bloom rating, received a special mention for community involvement in floral displays and was named the winner of their population category.
“It’s just like winning the World Cup,” said Darlene Kalawsky, volunteer coordinator for the Communities in Bloom program. “It’s a surreal experience to be acknowledged in this way. This year we were recognized as the winner of our category, and it was only our second year competing. An amazing transition has happened in Castlegar.”
According to Kalawsky, her hometown has been transformed over the last quarter century. When she first moved to the Kootenays in 1989, she said the community didn’t have a cohesive feel and the downtown core felt disjointed from the rest of town. She envisioned boulevards with public art proudly displayed and floral arrangements that demonstrated the residents’ pride in their surroundings.
Through her work with the Communities in Bloom program, Kalawsky has seen the introduction of the immensely successful Sculpturewalk program, which is now in its fifth year and features 32 works of art within walking distance of the downtown core. She’s advocated for and introduced new planter systems and worked with the public works department to upgrade irrigation systems and construct new amenities. The Adopt-a-Road program has given residents the ability to be proactive about maintaining their streets.
And now all that work is starting to pay off.
“I wasn’t always proud to live in Castlegar,” said Roxanna Riley, the volunteer who received the award in Charlottetown. “The transition for me has been huge. Now that I belong to this program, I’ve learned so much about the citizens, about their pride and what they love about this city. Other people are starting to say wow, Castlegar is a special place.”
Kalawsky said she hopes the award will help the local tourism industry.
“Today we have art in the streets. Today we have culture. Today it feels like a united and working together community. I think it has created an opportunity for people to step up and do something new,” she said. “One of journeys is we want to raise the profile of Castlegar. I really pushed and nurtured this idea, because tourism is big for Castlegar. We want to be a destination, and we are.”
During the competition, organizers hosted a pair of volunteer judges from Quebec and the Netherlands, Lucie Gagné and Piet Boersma. For two days they judged the city on the categories of tidiness, environmental action, heritage conservation, urban forestry, landscape and floral displays. They met the city council, attended a volunteer reception and toured the area, making a number of stops at places such as Millennium Park, the Doukhobor (Discovery Centre) Museum and the Mir Centre for Peace.
Their ultimate evaluation praised the city’s flower beds and hanging baskets in town, noting that there are 51 of the former and six of the latter.
“The flower beds in Castlegar are very varied including the use of ornamental grasses. Some of the flower beds have automatic watering and are well looked after by volunteers,” said the report.
This year’s award was made possible when Castlegar took home a national title in 2012, allowing the city to compete at the international level against other communities with less than 10,000 residents (Castlegar’s current population is 7,886). Communities can decide whether they want to be in the non-evaluated or competitive stream. Kalawsky thought Castlegar was ready to take a shot at the top spot.
“Momentum had been building for years. Things were getting better and better, and I knew the timing was right,” she said.
Riley said she was extremely nervous during the award ceremony, because the other communities had all earned a 5 Bloom rating, putting them on a level playing field going into the final decision.
“It could’ve gone to any of us. It was such a close, tight race. I met some of the people from those communities and I thought ‘holy, this could go any way.’ They’re doing exactly what we’re doing: making where they live a better place. They’re worried about what’s going to be there for the next generation. I was just about to hyperventilate and then they said ‘Castlegar’ and I jumped up, screamed my head off. I was so excited I thought I was going to throw up on the mic,” said Riley.
Riley said even her friends sometimes don’t understand the scope of the Communities in Bloom program, and that the misconception is “we just do flowers.” In truth, they’re an instrumental part of the city’s overall approach to its aesthetic design.
Castlegar operations manager Garry Sauer said he’s thrilled that Castlegar’s international profile is starting to rise. He said the newly constructed features at Millennium Park, which include outdoor swimming ponds, are world-class. He praised the collaborative arrangement the city has with Communities in Bloom.
“I work really closely with Communities in Bloom. I’ve got 20 employees that go ahead and do a lot of the tasks required to help. There’s the volunteer aspect, and then we help. They bring the ideas forward and if it’s something we can do within budget, we do it. If it’s something big, we plan for it.”
Some of the new amenities and aesthetic features planned for Castlegar include a Japanese garden in Millennium Park, a new motorbike park that could host competitions and an expanded version of their floral planter program. Sauer said he can hardly believe the number of volunteers who have contributed in a variety of ways, including maintaining paths, watering the floral arrangements and helping to report and remove graffiti.
“The whole city is beautiful, it’s tidy and clean. People notice that,” he said.
Kalawsky said Castlegarians interested in getting involved should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (250) 365-2155. Communities in Bloom is actively recruiting volunteers. For more information visit communitiesinbloom.ca.