Alberta coal town Grande Cache may no longer be a town

Grande Cache is asking Alberta's minister of municipal affairs to review its viability as a town.

Council asks Municipal Affairs minister to review its viability

Grande Cache was established as a coal mining town in 1969. (Town of Grande Cache)

Grande Cache, the Alberta coal town north of Jasper National Park, is asking the province to consider whether it should continue to exist as a municipality.

Earlier this month, council asked the minister of Municipal Affairs to review its viability and consider absorbing the town into the Municipal District of Greenview.

Grande Cache faces an uncertain future, with an estimated $60 million in infrastructure to replace over the the next ten years and a dwindling tax base. Grand Cache Coal, the town's major employer, shut down operations late last year. 

The population of Grande Cache was 4,319 in 2011 according to the latest census but has reduced significantly in the past two years after nearly a third of the town's jobs were lost. 

"We're probably down over 750 jobs," said Coun. Shawn Moulun, "Now with the state of the town we're just wondering how we're going to pay for the infrastructure that needs replacing because the town is now over 45 years old and everything needs to be replaced."

Grande Cache was built in 1969 as a service town for the coal industry.

In December 2015, Grande Cache Coal laid off 220 workers and shut down operations. Earlier that year, the company cut 175 people when it suspended surface-mine operations.

'The change is incredible'

Two years ago, the town's chief administrative officer advised council they should consider a viability review.

"We were already in trouble then," said Moulun.

Council increased residential and business taxes in an effort to remain viable.

A lot of these guys that have been here forever are talking about claiming bankruptcy when they're only ten years from retirement.- Shawn Moulun, Grande Cache councillor

The municipal debt went from $18 million to $6 million over the past six years, but council is concerned they will not be able to afford to pay for future maintenance, including replacing the pipes in most buildings owned by the town.

Business tax rates are now among the highest in the province, though council recently cut taxes by six per cent in an effort to help stores.

Moulun said he would like to cut the tax rate by as much as 50 percent, but then the town would not be able to pay for staff and services.

Many businesses are suffering after the downturn.

"The change is incredible," said Gary Taje, president of the local union that represented workers at Grande Cache Coal mine, who has lived in the town for seven years. 

"Businesses downtown are shutting down and clothing stores have changed their hours," he said. 

"The mall is very empty and there's not the people in the street there used to be. A lot of people have left and a lot more are planning to leave once the school year ends."

No way to get out

"We had a triple whammy" said Moulun, "Alberta had this big economic downturn, but we had coal, we had the Milner Power Plant, which is a coal-fired power plant."

Housing values have dropped by nearly half in the last year.

Moulun's own home was appraised at $282,000 this year but he predicts it will be worth $140,000  by the end of the year.

While many people have moved away, others can't afford to leave.

"Everybody's worried about their future," said Moulun, "There's a lot of these guys that have been here forever that are talking about claiming bankruptcy when they're only ten years from retirement."

"I know that two years ago they could hold on because they could go to Fort Mac or whatever, but now no one is hiring. Even our tradesmen can't get work."

Though Moulun has lived in Grande Cache his whole life he is thinking about leaving.

"I've always loved Grande Cache but because of the outlook right now... yeah I would like to get out because my kids are turning college age too," he said. "But there's no way to get out."

So for now, he'll stay. 

"I would love to sell my house because of the way Grande Cache is right now, but there's no way I'm going to lose my $140,000. So I'm going to stick it out for the long haul here, until hopefully the coal mine returns."

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