Attracting both residents and investors to any community requires due diligence, meticulous planning, and practical strategies that both meet demands and create an awareness of why the community has the potential to outshine the rest. This will continue to be the focus for the County of Grande Prairie in Alberta.
The County of Grande Prairie is located in northwest Alberta, near the border of British Columbia, in what is called the Peace River Country. The county currently has a population of approximately 28,000 people.
The county offers a convenient location from which to serve the northern part of the province via rail service, a regional airport, and major provincial highway networks including the 43 leading to northern British Columbia and Highway 40.
Chris King, the county’s economic development manager, says that the County of Grande Prairie, the province, and neighbouring Municipal District of Greenview have committed to a partnership to upgrade the highway infrastructure, to accommodate a growing population. The partnership will “fund the twinning and the building of a new bridge on highway 40.” Last year, a bypass around highway 43 was completed.
He explains that highway 40 extends south across the Wapiti River and is “a major industrial node. It’s a very high traffic count on that road, all going to gas plants and forestry. So it’s a big economic driver for us. That’s why we’ve contributed to a highway that actually isn’t in our jurisdiction.”
The county’s main industries include agriculture and tourism as well as the above-mentioned forestry and oil and gas. But diversification is an essential need for the county’s economic development as it moves forward. That is where the Tri-Municipal Industrial Partnership (TMIP), established in 2017, plays a key role.
Comprising the Municipal District of Greenview, the County of Grande Prairie, and the City of Grande Prairie, the TMIP is all about “petrochemical diversification,” says King. “It’s adding value. It also means that production is not limited based on what the global price of oil and gas is because they’re going to be selling it locally to manufacturers that are producing other petrochemical products like resins, glues, and plastics.”
All of this is a deliberate attempt to engage in opportunities for an eco-industrial district located south of the county, which is where the Tri-Municipal Park is being proposed. There are three completely serviced industrial parks in the county, one in the hamlet of Clairmont, one south of Grande Prairie, and one east of the hamlet of Clairmont. The County also has another industrial park in the hamlet of Dimsdale, which at this time is only water serviced.
The County of Grande Prairie acknowledges that growth is essential and with that growth comes the need for both commercial and residential development. At the same time, it does not want to lose sight of what makes the region unique: the nice mix of urban and rural living. It is for this reason that one of the priorities in the county’s plan is balanced growth.
King says that the county has zoning for commercial development. “We’ve done our area structure plans for the next fifteen years of residential growth with commercial nodes within those.” He adds that his department has a close partnership with industries to comprehend what the evolving retail market looks for in terms of locations and densities. “We built our plans around what retail demands are,” he explains.
“The assessment growth for the county was 5.4 percent in 2019,” says King. Last year was not the best year for the county, but it still managed positive residential growth of 2.7 percent. “The rest of the province stopped, but we still managed to have positive growth; 2.7 percent is pretty reasonable growth anywhere else in North America,” he states. “Non-residential growth was 8.4 percent last year. That’s a good indicator that we’re busy and active.”
Last February, the launch of a labour market needs assessment was announced. This assessment is being conducted in partnership with the City and County of Grande Prairie, the Municipal District of Greenview, and the province. “The big thing is to get a better understanding of what industries’ needs are and making sure that we’re being proactive,” King says.
“There’s the potential for a labour shortage despite high unemployment in Alberta. We have low unemployment in this region.” A number of industries have indicated that approximately one thousand people will be retiring in the next five years. “Those positions will need to be filled.”
As the county begins looking at the growth of other industries, it needs “to make sure we’re getting ahead of what the labour demand is and are working with the education system to make sure that there’s trained people available in advance of that demand,” notes King. “We want to have real statistical data from industries that says ‘Here’s our demand; here’s what we’re going to need.’ It’s our way of doing things here in the county.”
The county is also conducting structural planning for residential, commercial, and industrial development fifty years in advance of when it is required “so that we’re not reacting to boom-bust cycles. That plan and vision from the county over the last number of years has kept us from having those boom-bust cycles that the rest of the province has experienced.”
King feels that there will be economic recovery and that the county will be prepared for the next wave of activity. “We’ve done it the other way and had to be very reactionary to a boom. And we prefer not to do that. It just takes too long, and that’s where you get poor development plans and a lot of regrets afterwards. The time wasn’t taken to do things right.”
The County of Grande Prairie firmly believes in environmental stewardship. After all, the Peace Region is known for its highly-productive farmland. “We have policies in place to limit development that takes high-producing agricultural land out of production,” explains King. “So we’re very restrictive on that side of it.” However, there is still plenty of available land that is considered non-productive “that we encourage development toward.”
An example is the downtown Clairmont Heights greenfield development that is being carried out on bare farmland. “It’s one of the few in the world that’s a bare farmland development versus an infill of old warehousing or industrial areas.” This development will include both commercial and residential space.
King says that the county has a virtual reality tool whereby one can stand in the downtown and view the area. This tool is “an augmented reality app where you’ll be able to put a model of the downtown on a desktop and you can interact with it.”
By clicking a building, for example, one can see plans and individual commercial retail units. “We’re using the latest and greatest tools to ensure investors in the county have the best tools to promote what they’re doing,” King adds.
There is some foreign investment in the county, King says, mostly for oil and gas or oil and gas servicing, agriculture, forestry, and a small amount of real estate investment. “One of our mills is owned by a multinational.” That would be International Paper located south of the city of Grande Prairie.
Since preplanning is conducted in advance, the turnaround time for approvals is far quicker than typical. “We’re turning around industrial applications in less than forty-five days,” and building permits can be issued in twenty-four hours. “We work very hard to be able to achieve that. That’s our competitive advantage… We just want to be able to turn around your investment faster.”
Hetti Huls, County of Grande Prairie’s Economic Development Coordinator, says that there is a large focus on business retention and expansion. This entails “working with our existing businesses to find opportunities for them and help them with their growth and expansion plans,” she says. “We don’t just walk away after you open your doors.”
Businesses are assisted with any challenges they may be facing with possible solutions, and the county believes in networking to enable businesses “to be more successful.”
Huls is a member of Business Retention & Expansion International (BREI), an association representing those involved with community economic development strategies worldwide.
“I was awarded the 2021 Business Retention and Expansion International conference to come to Grande Prairie,” she explains. This conference will present international speakers from Australia, the United States, and Canada who will deliver content for the pre-conference courses and the three day conference.
These speakers will “talk about various programs and projects that are being undertaken to have successful business retention and expansion strategies,” Huls adds. “I’m very excited about it.”
The all-important quality of life in the County of Grande Prairie also draws people to the region. “There’s plenty of entertainment opportunities,” both indoor and outdoor, King says.
“We have a little bit of everything for every taste,” Huls adds.