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Northern Alberta Forestry Show
Official Show Guide
"Our Forest Our Future"

Healthy Growth

Grande Prairie and the surrounding region are seeing healthy growth thanks to a strong economy

By Tony Kryzanowski

Over the past decade, Grande Prairie and the surrounding region have been at the centre of economic development on a number of fronts in Alberta. It comes as no surprise, then, that the city has experienced 30 per cent growth over the past 10 years. This city of 36,000 residents is located 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton and is the regional service centre for both industry and government. "To duplicate what we have here, you'd either have to go to Prince George or Edmonton," says Mayor Gordon Graydon. 

There are a number of forest industry related projects on the go in Grande Prairie, including a $150 million upgrade of nearby Weyerhaeuser facilities.

If the low vacancy rate at local hotels is any indication, area residents from both Alberta and British Columbia are choosing to spend their weekends in Grande Prairie. Three major engines drive the local economy -oil and gas, forestry and agriculture. Most recently, the forestry and natural gas industries have invested heavily in the region, but agriculture continues to hold its own. For example, the number of bison being raised on ranches in the Peace Country north of Grande Prairie represents the largest bison herd in Canada. 

In fact, ranchers are having difficulty keeping up with market demand, particularly in Asia. Most recently, the $6 billion Alliance Pipeline project that transports natural gas from nearby Fort St John, BC to Chicago has had a major impact on the region. "The pipeline builders themselves tend to come and go," says Graydon, "but all the wells, compressor stations, feeder lines, and so on located in our backyard will provide an ongoing benefit to us. 

We are located near the largest natural gas field in North America, and there are literally thousands of wells that need to come on stream to keep the Alliance Pipeline filled ." Forestry is also making a major contribution to the local economy. For example, Canfor recently completed a $24 million modernization at its sawmill within the city limits. A $150 million upgrade is taking place at the Weyerhaeuser sawmill and pulp mill a short drive south of the city and Ainsworth Lumber is investing $140 million to add a combiboard line to its existing OSB plant. 

The latter project has the area's business leaders particularly excited because of its valueadded component. Combiboard is a combination of OSB sandwiched between two layers of particleboard. Once the combiboard has been manufactured, another production line adds melamine and other laminates, creating a product that can be sold for use in the manufacture of tables, desks, shelving and other furniture. 

As part of this project, Ainsworth will also invest in the manufacture of its own particleboard using area wood residues, consuming about 40,000 tonnes annually. Combined with the company's proposed hardwood sawmill in nearby Valleyview, a total of 340 permanent jobs will be created. Another forestry project with huge valueadded potential is the proposed $900 million Grande Alberta Paper project. 

Project planning for the paper mill has been ongoing for about eight years. The provincial government continues to express its support for this project, demonstrated by granting investors extensions on their wood supply allocations. The level of resource development activity in the Grande Prairie region has created a noticeable snowball effect within the city's retail sector. 

A number of big box stores have opened outlets in Grande Prairie, which in turn has attracted more consumer traffic to the city. Mindful of the downside associated with large retail outlets locating outside of the downtown core, Grande Prairie and its downtown merchants have initiated an aggressive campaign to keep the downtown core attractive. 

Within the past three years, a new Sandman Hotel has been built downtown, as well as a 100suite apartment building next to it. Also, a commercial developer has constructed four business condominium projects that have proven extremely popular. "A lot of communities have seen their downtown devastated," says Mayor Graydon, "and I think we have been quite successful in comparison to some others with the apartment complex, the hotel, and office developments. I know it's generating $500,000 worth of tax revenue from land that five years ago was vacant." 

A new downtown Coop store has also been constructed. In terms of housing, Graydon says over the past two years, 800 single family homes and 650 multifamily dwellings have been built in the city. "We had virtually zero rental vacancy in the community for a few years there, but now with all the apartments that have been built recently, the vacancy rate is healthy," says the mayor. 

Rapid growth and a transient population can sometimes lead to an increase in crime, but Grande Prairie has been proactive and increased its RCMP detachment complement by 12 members. There are now 50 officers policing the city. While it has its usual quota of petty crime, examples of violent crime are minimal. This has attracted many new residents who believe that the city is a safe community to raise a family. The level of community services has also attracted more seniors to Grande Prairie. "We're starting to see people retiring to the community, which wasn't happening too much before," says Graydon. 

"That's probably because of the availability of health care and services in Grande Prairie." The city operates a transit system and, after an extensive review last year, decided to extend routes and operating hours to better accommodate public transit users. "We were finding that people wanted to use it more in the evenings and weekends," says Graydon. As a regional hub with a vibrant economy, building and maintaining a safe and high quality transportation infrastructure is a high priority. The major north/south connector from Edmonton to Grande Prairie is Hwy 43. 

Over the past decade, heavy truck traffic on the highway has increased significantly, raising many safety concerns. As a result, the provincial government has launched an eight year project to twin the highway. At present, the twinning project is about one third complete, much to the relief of regular highway users. The only major sections remaining are those involving bridge crossings. The recent paving of Hwy 40 to connect Grande Prairie to Hwy 16, the Yellowhead Highway, has yielded a positive tourism spin-off. 

"We've certainly seen an increase in tourism traffic, particularly motor homes, trailers and campers," says Graydon. "Hwy. 40 is an alternate route to getting to Mile Zero on the Alaska Highway, which is located in Dawson Creek." Greater competition in the airline industry has also had a positive impact on airfares. Air Canada, Peace Air, WestJet and Capital City Air now serve Grande Prairie. The increased number of available flights to and from the city on a daily basis also offers travelers more convenience. 

In addition to Edmonton, the airlines also offer direct flights to Prince George and Calgary. Finally, the city is investing in more recreational facilities to address growing demand. It recently completed construction of an indoor soccer pitch, and architects are designing a new twin rink ice arena.

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