Mayor Jeff Genung says the town needs to turn up the volume to get action on the desperate need to replace the existing Big Hill Lodge with a new and larger senior home.

Cochrane town council discussed the issue with Carol Borschneck, Rocky View Foundation chief administrative officer, during its committee-of-a-whole meeting on July 4.

The current facility is out-of-date and cracks have formed on some of the walls. It does not meet current standards and offers extremely small living units, making it an unattractive option for many.

The issue will once again be raised with Seniors and Housing minister Josephine Pon during her July 12 tour of a new Rocky View Foundation seniors housing project coming onstream in Airdrie. It will be the first senior housing project of the foundation in that city.

Town councillor Susan Flowers, who is also Rocky View Foundation chair, will be participating in that tour, and hopes to be armed will a letter from the town. That decision will be reached at the July 11 town council meeting.

She and other foundation officials already have multiple photos of the lodge's cracked walls to remind the minister of its state, since the minister has been here twice and knows about the cracks.

"Now that the cracks are in the walls, they look horrible and people are not happy having to see those and are concerned about it," says Flowers. "So far, the engineers say the building is safe and it's more the look of it, but I'm concerned with the way the hills in the community shift and it could become a problem."

The state of the lodge is believed to be a major reason why they have a short waitlist. That has a major impact upon what priority the government gives to the project.

"People are reluctant now to come to the lodge because of the pandemic," Carol Borschneck, Rocky View Foundation chief administrative officer, told council. "There's also some reluctance because of the state of the building, and the rooms are only 180 sq. ft. with a 5'x6' foot bathroom. They're not accessible at all, so those are things we're dealing with right now.

"That's why we don't have a huge waitlist. We don't have a building that's up to snuff, and we know that. I'm sure we could easily fill a larger building."

Mayor Genung calls it an antiquated way of assessing the need.

He also says the town needs to formalize its commitment to donate the land for the project. It already has a budget in place to determine if existing utility services are sufficient and has offered to help the foundation with the design.

Its proposed location is part of the redevelopment of 15.3 acres of public land on 5th Ave. Borschneck told council having that commitment in writing will be valuable to the foundation in making their case, 

Susan Flowers believes that's just one of the steps needed to get the ball rolling, saying several big items need to be addressed before the project is shovel-ready.

The development would eliminate the North Lions ball diamond, and that is a major concern to local ball leagues. Genung says the town is looking for an interim solution. New diamonds are planned for the new Horse Creek Sports Park, but that's several years away.

"We've heard from the ball groups in town about their need for additional diamonds, so taking one away isn't really an option at this point. I'd like us to build at least one in the interim so we can get this going."

Mayor Jeff Genung has met with Minister Pon several times to discuss the issue and has also recruited the assistance of MLA Peter Guthrie.

"I hear in the community, if not weekly at least every couple of weeks, a question about when the lodge is getting replaced, so I'm glad we're moving along and getting some progress on this."

He suggests there may be value in approaching the government with a two-phase project, initially developing the same number of units, then doubling the living units in a second phase.

Flowers believes the longer it takes to get the lodge replaced, the larger the issue will become.

"With so many people approaching the seniors years, we know it's going to become more of a stress."

The rapidly rising cost of living is adding additional pressures and has left some long-time residents with major questions about their retirement plans.

"I think for the people who are close to retirement there's not a lot of options in the community," says Flowers. "It's a shame to live here for years and then have to leave in your senior years."

In the background, about $800,000 has been accumulated in donations for a new lodge.

"It's a start," says Flowers. "We had a woman who willed her money to us when she passed and we've been saving it with interest and adding other smaller contributions here and there. I think once we have a real plan, the community will get behind us and it's going to happen."

Big Hill Lodge was originally constructed in 1977. It was expanded in 1982 and now accommodates 75 seniors.