Grande Cache climbing out of troubled times, mayor says

The picturesque mountain town of Grande Cache is slowly recovering from years of financial trouble, thanks to a new coal mine deal and provincial grant money meant to diversify the local economy.

New coal mine deal, provincial grant to bring new life to town after 'dark, bleak' period

The population of Grande Cache dropped by more than 500 people from 2011 to 2016, according to census data. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The picturesque mountain town of Grande Cache is looking to its troubled past to plan a future that doesn't hinge on coal.

Hundreds lost their jobs at Grande Cache Coal shortly before Christmas in 2015, when the mine shuttered following a drop in global coal prices.

In January, a Calgary court approved the sale of the metallurgical coal mine and the site is expected to reopen later this year. The initial startup could create 200 jobs in the secluded mountain community.

But Mayor Herb Castle said the town won't fall into another boom-and-bust cycle.

Instead, he said Grande Cache is leaning into a new provincial grant to build its tourism and recreation industry. The town slogan of "hidden treasures" won't apply for much longer, he said. 

"It's been seven years of trying to climb out of a deep financial hole," Castle said. "I've managed to cling to optimism about how pretty our town is. It is a hidden gem here in the mountains."

Herb Castle, mayor of Grande Cache, Alta., describes the shift toward optimism as his small mountain town prepares for its local coal mine to reopen. 1:25

The province approved Grande Cache for a $325,000 grant on March 15, under the coal community transition fund. The fund has doled out nearly $5 million to 12 communities being affected by the provincial phase-out of coal, to help break their economic reliance on coal-fired electricity generation.

Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous said Grande Cache was approved even though its metallurgical coal mine isn't included in the phase-out.

​"Our government made a commitment to supporting communities and workers across this province and so through the coal community transition fund Grande Cache put forward an application," Bilous said. "We felt that this was a very, very positive step forward to diversifying their economy." 

'Hanging on by our fingernails'

Even though the town is trying to become less dependent on coal, Castle said the recent sale will speed the recovery of its battered economy.

The 2015 closure of the coal mine was followed by the H.R. Milner power plant being shut down in 2016. More than 300 jobs disappeared from the community as a result.

As the mine and plant laid off workers, the town's population dwindled.

More than 500 people left Grande Cache between 2011 and 2016, census data shows. The population, once verging on 4,000 people, dropped to fewer than 3,300 over five years.

"That set a tone of a lot of doom and gloom," Castle said. "It takes away the vibrancy of a community ... it's a very sad thing to go through and optimism dwindles significantly."

The H.R. Milner generating station near Grande Cache shuttered soon after the local coal mine shut down in 2015. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

People walked away from homes and vehicles they could no longer afford, Castle said. Businesses folded and buildings stood empty. 

In 2017, Grande Cache began a viability study to decide whether it should downgrade to a hamlet. The town has not yet ruled out the possibility but it's becoming less likely with every passing month, Castle said. 

"Hanging on by your fingernails is probably a reasonable term, given what's transpired," he said. "We felt forgotten and somewhat neglected but it's turned a corner ... dark, bleak to brightness."

'We want to do better'

When the coal mine and power plant reopen, Grande Cache will once again have four major industries. The town is also home to a sawmill and a medium-security federal prison, which together employ more than 400 people.

Recreation and tourism will introduce new jobs that don't rely on natural resource extraction, said Denise Thompson, the town's chief administrative officer. 

Thompson, who previously worked for the surrounding Municipal District of Greenview, moved to Grande Cache six months to help guide its recovery.

"I could see all of the problems coming to a head, as far as their viability," Thompson said. "But I really believed that through good communication and collaboration I could be a catalyst in helping to solve the problem."

Denise Thompson, chief administrative officer for the Town of Grande Cache, talks about the road forward for the struggling mountain community. 1:01

The town's infrastructure is aging but previous town councils didn't set aside enough money during boom-cycles to pay for repairs and upgrades, Thompson said.

For instance, the waste water management system dates back to the town's incorporation half a century ago.

Grande Cache also needs money to buy a ladder truck for its fire station, in case of emergencies in multi-storey buildings.

"We're going to pay for the sins of our forefathers," Thompson said. "I don't think we need to think about what people didn't do, I think we need to think about what we need to do now."

Most of the money from the coal transition fund will go toward tourism and recreation initiatives, including advertising to attract visitors to the town and projects such as trail systems, Thompson said. 

The town also needs to drop its corporate tax rate to draw in new businesses and to support existing ones, she said.

We're not looking just to survive, but Grande Cache deserves to thrive.- Denise Thompson, Grande Cache chief administrative officer

"But to reduce your pot of money when the pot of money isn't enough is a pretty hard sell."

Until tourism can create fresh revenue for Grande Cache, the town will look to regional and provincial partners for more support, Thompson said.

"We're not looking just to survive, but Grande Cache deserves to thrive," Thompson said. "We don't want to fool ourselves either. We want to learn from the peaks and valleys of 50 years. We want to do better."

@ZoeHTodd

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.