Mayor Jeff Genung is proud of how town staff and residents have pulled together in what he calls the longest short year ever.

He looks forward to 2021 with optimism, with good reason. 

"I'm happy that we approved the budget and all the projects we have on the books. It's optimism on the horizon."

Yet, you can't discuss 2020 without speaking on the impact of COVID-19 on people, the economic climate, and the challenges of getting things done.

He commonly refers to it as the "COVID Curveball."

"The only thing you can count on with COVID is it's going to change, and that's why I've been calling it the COVID Curveball. It feels like every six weeks we're readjusting, and realigning ourselves to new restrictions, or opening something back up, or going back the other way... it's been very difficult."

"It's been draining on people. The mental health of most people I"ve talked to has been really run down from all this."

Despite this, he believes the town staff adjusted well and gained valuable experience along the way, especially with a major shift preceding the pandemic.

In January 2020, a new senior staff structure was launched that saw both the community services and deputy CAO positions eliminated. A month later, CAO Dave Devana stepped down and Drew Hyndman was named Interim CAO. Just recently the town hired a new CAO. Michael Derricott stepped into the position on Monday. In addition, a change in the role of the senior manager of infrastructure saw Rick Deans relieved of duty, and a hunt launched to hire a new department head named Azam Khan to the position in late September.

"We entered this on our heels, and I'm just really proud of how our team has stepped up and answered the call. Everybody has pitched in and sending it in above their weight class here. It's been awesome to see, and I think we'll be a better organization for it."

Yet it did slow the town's agenda.

"It's like trying to move in quicksand all the time," says Genung. "We have all these priorities and projects and things we're trying to move forward on, but every time you try to go and get up and move forward, COVID quicksand holds you back."

Still, some major infrastructure projects were completed.

While not originating with this council, both the new Horse Creek pedestrian crossing on the west end and new Jack Tennant Memorial Bridge opened.

In addition, major street and utility upgrades were made to Railway Street between 5th and Centre Ave. to prepare for the transit hub and other future developments along that corridor.

It also saw some tough decisions made on what form the first phase of the transit hub/innovation centre on Railway St. would take. It was originally conceived to be two buildings with a separate innovation centre. It's now a one-storey $4.85 million building, largely financed with provincial GreenTRIP funding, with a small innovation centre.

Long-term agreements with tech companies were seen as a way to build the three-storey building without putting too much weight on taxpayers. Now those companies interested in participating in the project have taken a step back, at least for the time being.

The transit hub/innovation centre will be the first major project completed from the town's tri-site plan that will expand upon the use of public land in the downtown core. Councillor Susan Flowers successfully pushed to retain funding in the 2021 budget to prepare a utility servicing study on the town's 15.3-acre property on 5th Ave.

He does see one positive impact of COVID. He believes it will change how the town conducts business with other municipalities.

"We're going to see some pretty significant savings financially by moving to some virtual meetings by not having to book rooms or park or drive--gas and all of that stuff--things that all of our communities do two or three times a month. If we can see some of those things come to fruition, I think it's only going to prove beneficial, from a time perspective as well as a financial one."

Genung praises his fellow councillors for sticking to their guns on the priorities they have set for the town.

"It never moves as quickly as you hope, but I have to give this group a huge pat on the back for sticking with it, despite all the hardships of this year. I think 2021 will be a year of movement on a lot of projects."

He's particularly proud of the major upgrade to the Hwy. 1A-Centre Ave. corridor approved late in the year. 

It's a $12.9 million project that is expected to start this spring and take about a year to complete. After approving the plan in November, debenture borrowing for about a quarter of the overall cost was approved by council at its last meeting in 2020.

"By seeing some shovels in the ground, I'm hoping people will take some hope from that and see some light at the end of the tunnel for something that our community has been really asking very loudly about for a long time."

Of course, the mayor will continue to monitoring and help push along the Hwy. 1A-22 interchange project of the province. And, the town will continue working towards breaking ground on the new protective services centre in the Heartland neighbourhood.

Aiding that project and others is maintaining a strong connection established between the town and provincial officials. Since the start of his mandate, Genung and top town officials have made a point of connecting whenever possible with provincial cabinet ministers to clearly laid out the town's priorities and potential partnerships.

He's particularly proud of how the town was the only community having a face-to-face meeting with Transportation minister Ric McIver during the fall convention of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

"I'm quite proud of that," he says. "We were able to further our relationship and get some movement on that much-needed traffic congestion alleviation, and next year I'm looking forward to the fruit of all that labour."

Above it all, he's looking forward to the day we can return to connecting face-to-face.

"This is going to sound corny, but I am really looking forward to getting back to handshakes and hugs, and I've been joking around that I might write a country song with that title. But, really, that is what we're missing and I'm looking forward to getting back to that."