The City of Grande Prairie, Alberta
… 100 years and growing strong
By Ania Swiatoniowski
On the wind-swept plains of north-western Alberta, the city of Grande Prairie is thriving. Named for the expansive prairie lands of the Peace River Country, Grande Prairie was born into an environment endowed by multiple and abundant natural resources. Surrounding the city are fertile agricultural lands, vast boreal forests, and advancing oil and gas developments — all of which play important roles in the city’s diverse economic portfolio and steadily continuing growth.
“We have a fairly well diversified regional economy in the Grande Prairie area. Pretty much anything that the world needs [in order] to grow, we produce in Grande Prairie,” explains Bill Given, Grande Prairie’s mayor. Born and raised in the region, Mayor Given has a personal interest in making sure the city continues to grow and develop. Given has been serving as Mayor of Grande Prairie since 2010, with a re-election in 2013.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Grande Prairie being incorporated as a village in 1914, but the community has seen over a century of influx of entrepreneurs and homesteaders looking for a new start. “The community has seen various waves of immigration… some of that had to do with the agriculture [industry], which is the foundation of Grande Prairie,” explains Brian Glavin, head of the City of Grande Prairie’s Department of Economic Development.
The Mayor’s office works closely with the Department of Economic Development. The department promotes the city for attracting businesses, investors, and new residents. It acts as a bridge between the private sector and the city and highlights the opportunities available for new projects to take off. Glavin has the hard numbers to prove Grande Prairie’s continued growth and prosperity during good times and times of hardship. As he talks, he offers one document of statistical analysis after another, spanning years of evidence.
Home to over 55,000 people, Grande Prairie is Alberta’s seventh largest city and the largest city between Edmonton and Fairbanks, Alaska. Grande Prairie services a Market Area Population of 260,000 in a 200 km radius area including the city and the surrounding region. As the largest city so far north, it is the commercial and urban hub of north-western Alberta and north-eastern British Columbia. It also provides services and amenities to communities extending into the southern Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
A Wealth of Resources
Oil & Gas
The 1970s saw discoveries that grew Grande Prairie’s previously small oil industry to a large-scale oil and gas industry. The first major discovery in 1972 of the Elmworth deep basin gas field was the second largest in North America. Development of the Elmworth discovery led to a doubling of the population in the 1970’s to over 24,000. While the Elmworth boom ended in 1981, several others have followed in its stead and keeping up with demand.
“Our area has a lot of … wet gas, [which] has liquids in it [such as] butane, propane, condensate, and others. In the past those were actually a cost … but now everyone wants wet gas,” explains Glavin.
Today the industry is thriving with gas discoveries on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and oil sands to the north of Grande Prairie. A slew of major oil and gas companies, including some of Canada’s largest, have flocked to the region to take advantage of the resources. Oil services companies including Halliburton, Calfrac, Schlumberger, and Baker Hughes each employ 500-plus individuals. Along with the oil and gas industry came the infrastructure and manufacturing industry to support the oil field services.
Glavin talks about the oil and gas industry and about the increased successes and interest of the natural gas discoveries. “[Grande Prairie] also has a lot of natural gas liquids rich in condensate; a lot of oil companies are focusing on our area for the production of condensate. With that there are two key areas that are being produced: one being the Montney Formation; and the other the Duvernay Formation. They are projected to be two of the top five plays in North America.”
Agriculture & Livestock
Despite its northern location, according to Brian Glavin, there are over 3.25 million acres of arable land in the Grande Prairie regionan the region’s 4,443 farms reﬂect the diversity of the area’s horticultural and livestock operations. Major crops — including barley, wheat, canola, alfalfa, spring wheat, and oats — are exported nationally and internationally. The region is also the world’s largest producer of premium creeping red fescue, world-renown for its quality and exported for use on lawns, golf courses, and pastures world-wide.
Livestock such as cattle and buffalo are also a major export of the area, particularly in response to Asia’s growing demand for red meat and, additionally, the Grande Prairie region is home to a remarkably large apiary industry, producing 40% of Canada’s honey.
Forestry & Wood Products
Vast boreal forests extend south of Grande Prairie to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The city lies at the border where boreal forests turn to prairie lands going north. The forestry sector took a significant advance in the 1960s. Weyerhaeuser Canada’s kraft pulp mill, which opened in 1972, is still one of Grande Prairie’s largest employers. Weyerhaeuser is the world’s largest private owner of timberlands. Canfor runs a sawmill and lumber yard operation.
The Ainsworth Oriented Strand Board (OSB) plant in Grande Prairie hosts the world’s largest single-line continuous press. Ainsworth has plans to eventually open a $300-million extension of this plant that will produce a new line of laminated strand lumber (LSL) and oriented strand lumber (OSL). The Grande Prairie region is also home to tree nursery facilities to support the re-plantation efforts of local forestry activities.
Life in Grande Prairie
Grande Prairie is no doubt a city built on the resources industry, but don’t mistake it for many other traditional oil and gas towns. Despite its northern location and distance from major cities such as Edmonton and Calgary, Grande Prairie refuses to be a sleepy prairie town. Hosting a myriad of sports, arts, healthcare, and education resources, Grande Prairie has distinguished itself as more than a one-industry-boom-town.
The Grande Prairie Region has become one of the fastest growing markets and cities in Canada. In 2013, the estimated average household income in Grande Prairie was $107,026. It is projected to increase to $150,149 by 2023. But while the average income is relatively high, housing costs are low. “The main story in Grande Prairie is the affordability of housing. In Grande Prairie last year we averaged $285,000 for a house. And considering the average in come here is about 50% higher than then national average, it makes for affordable housing,” explains Glavin.
Higher wages and lower cost of living is attracting young families. Grande Prairie is the youngest city in Canada (population over 10,000) and one of North America’s fastest growing cities. In fact, there are more Grande Prairie residents preparing to enter kindergarten than there are preparing to enter retirement. The median age is a youthful 30.3 years.
“Grande Prairie is a great place to raise a family, in part because there are so many other families here,” says Mayor Given. “We support [the young families] and that has really led the priorities of city councils, this council and previous ones, with the types of investments that we make.”
“One of the things is that we need is more people,” says Glavin. “I think industry from all sectors would recognize that… from the industries going out and doing the actual drilling to the food and beverage sector here in the city. The only resource we’re short of here is the human resource.”
Grande Prairie has grown steadily over decades, not as susceptible to booms and busts because of its diversified economy. Given explains: “Grande Prairie grew up as a family-orientated city from the early days and maintained that. It’s not a boom town, it’s a community that happens to have an oil and gas industry.”
Glavin continues on to explain what Grande Prairie has to offer. “As a young person, there are very few places like Grande Prairie where you can come out and contribute at a high level. If you’re looking to utilize your skills, you want to get involved at a high level, Grande Prairie offers opportunities to advance very quickly.”
When asked what one of his favourite aspects of living in Grande Prairie is, Mayor Given responds with a list of amenities. “We have Alberta’s second largest art gallery … second in size only to the Art Gallery of Alberta. We have a $110-million recreational facility [the Eastlink Centre] … it actually has a surfing machine in it. We also have a summer street performers’ festival that pulls in about 20,000 people over the course of a weekend.” Also on his list are the multi-million dollar Dave Barr Community Centre, the large Alberta Health Services regional hospital, and Muskoseepi Park –which runs through the centre of the city and is in year-round use by both residents and deer.
Mayor Given knows that Grande Prairie will speak for itself though. It’s more than just another dot on a map. “You can find economic opportunities in many places across Canada. But it’s not always that you can find opportunity and quality of living and comfort and the amenities that you need to be comfortable. We really believe that’s something that Grande Prairie offers in so many different ways.”
City of Grande Prairie:
Chamber of Commerce, Grande Prairie & District:
This feature originally appears in the Summer 2014 edition of Resources Quarterly.
Click here or on the cover to view the entire issue.