The County of Grande Prairie, located in northwestern Alberta, is the province’s first county, incorporated in 1951, following the County Act of 1950. The County is home to a growing population of approximately 23,000 and surrounds the City of Grande Prairie. The region is part of the Peace River Country and shares its border with the province of British Columbia.
Myths are what the County of Grande Prairie is trying to dispel. It seems that potential national and international investors as well as others have misconceptions that the County is located in a remote region of the province, and lacks access to adequate transportation, amenities, and opportunities that enhance overall quality of life.
Nothing could be further from the truth. One of Canada’s fastest-growing regions, the County of Grande Prairie is experiencing exceptional growth, and is engaging in substantial new development. The County warrants a closer look.
Efficient transportation systems are present including the Canadian National Railway and major highways such as Highway 2 and Highway 43 connecting the region to cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie as well as British Columbia’s interior. The Grande Prairie Airport also has numerous daily flights to Calgary and Edmonton and weekly international flights.
“We have done some major investment into infrastructure,” states Chris King, the County of Grande Prairie’s Economic Development Manager. Investments include those for projects such as the multi-modal rail hub located in Clairmont, at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 43. This eighty-acre rail hub “will provide an area for off-loading and loading of rail cars in the area.”
Clairmont will also have a new water reservoir and regional sanitary lift station. The lift station will, “give us two square miles of new developable land,” explains Chris.
These projects are in response to the growth of Clairmont and the proposed 1,200-acre greenfield development of Clairmont Heights, a rural downtown core which will offer mixed residential, retail, commercial space, connections to Highway 2 and 43 and amenities. Clairmont Heights will have access to Clairmont Lake with its thirteen kilometers of shoreline and view of the Rocky Mountains. This development will be ready for construction in 2019.
Currently, the residents of Clairmont must travel into the City for most everyday amenities. With the growth and development of Clairmont, new opportunities present themselves for those investors interested in the commercial, residential and retail sectors.
“Downtown Clairmont Heights will include 550,000 square feet of commercial space and 1.4 million square feet of residential space,” says Chris. “There is some commercial on the north end of Clairmont Heights. So there are two large areas of commercial activity,” he notes.
Several service-ready industrial parks are located throughout the County. There is a large park directly south of the City, one in Clairmont and one in the community of Dimsdale, located two kilometres south of Highway 43, west of the City of Grande Prairie.
Throughout the County, vibrant economic sectors contribute to the region’s sustainability. Some of these include agriculture, energy, forestry and tourism. As the County continues to grow, there has been, “fairly high residential growth,” says Chris, “but the commercial growth has been lagging behind.”
He feels that the reason for the commercial shortcomings can partly be attributed to retailers not fully comprehending what the County represents and the number of residents that call the region home. “That’s been a big focus for us – getting people educated on what this region is and what our demographics are – what demands there are for commercial and retail services.”
The City, with a population of approximately 64,000, is encompassed within the County. When speaking of Clairmont’s development, Chris states, “I don’t think that we’re competing with the city as much as we’re trying to provide services for our own residents and to provide opportunities for the County to densify our residential development.”
He notes that within development circles across the globe there is a need to resist the sprawl of residential growth. “This is a way that we’re helping to do that – to densify up.” This new development is Clairmont’s chance to create a community the right way.
The County wants to be acknowledged as a source of opportunity, especially for the youth who are just starting out and are not necessarily seeking a single-family home yet. “We do have a very young population,” says Chris. “There is a great demand for young professionals who are coming to fill positions… They’re looking for a condominium or an apartment that they can leave and go do other activities.”
Additionally, the County is home to an aging population, many of whom struggle to maintain the family homes of their past and subsequently leave when they require other forms of housing. “So to give people the opportunity to have additional condominiums, apartments and those sorts of things with amenities close by is an advantage,” says Chris. “We’re trying to meet the needs of our young population and our aging population and, at the same time, not be somewhat irresponsible in terms of sprawling our residential development all over good farmland.”
When asked about the challenges of such growth Chris relates that, “I think the biggest challenge is going to be staging it properly. By that, I mean if you try to do commercial development before you have enough rooftops to sustain it, it does not work well. Inversely, the attempt to construct too much residential development without maintaining services means long commutes for residents seeking these amenities. It becomes less attractive for them to live there. So it’s trying to balance both the commercial and residential growth to stage the commercial growth appropriately based on the growth of the residential.”
The County offers a number of benefits for potential investors and residents including Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC), located in the City, low municipal mill rates, lower provincial personal income tax, and the only province with no sales tax. The region is located in a large natural gas field called the Montney Basin. Chris explains that, “It’s projected that, by 2030, this formation will account for fifty percent of all natural gas extraction in Canada.”
The County, along with the City and the neighbouring municipal district of Greenview, collaborated on the Tri-Municipal Industrial Partnership, which will see 335 square kilometres utilized for industrial development. “This is a very large project on which we’re going to do a lot of the preliminary work to make this area investor-ready for the development of large petrochemical processing and manufacturing facilities,” says Chris.
The new Grande Prairie Regional Hospital and cancer centre, located in the City, is set to open in 2019. This 640+ million dollar project will function as a regional referral centre, providing health services to residents throughout northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia as well as assisting patients who receive specialized and complex care. Expectations are that this project will add over five hundred jobs. “The Alberta advantage is certainly still strong,” adds Chris.
For those gifted with the entrepreneurial spirit, the non-profit Spark Business Incubator opened in the City last year, providing services to new and transitioning businesses. Among its services are shared resources, training, permanent operational space, legal advice and consultation.
“Spark is full right now,” says Chris. “They’re currently looking at expanding their space to accommodate more businesses. We’ve been successful with some of the businesses that were incubated – being able to move out into their own space – to help them find their feet and be able to take on a larger space or a long-term lease.”
What ultimately defines a desirable community is the overall quality of life. “Our median income is much higher than the city of Edmonton, yet our cost of living is only ten percent higher,” Chris says. “People have more disposable income, and with that, comes the ability to do more things, to spend money on recreation [and] on the things that provide a quality of life.”
Asked to reflect on the place he calls home, Chris concludes that the County of Grande Prairie is, “a very amazing place to live and work.” And that is no myth.