Crime is down, the economy is up and a northern Alberta city is back in business
'I would say that we're back up to full capacity in our region,' says Grande Prairie mayor
Crime and unemployment are down. The population and local economy are up. And for the first time in years, spirits are rising among community leaders in a northern Alberta city.
Data gathered by city officials, RCMP and Statistics Canada suggest that Grande Prairie is mending from the economic downturn of 2014 and 2015.
"It's a pretty significant change from where we were in 2014 and 2015," Grande Prairie Mayor Bill Given told CBC News following a Jan. 15 city council meeting that was focused on annexing land for the growing city.
After nearly a decade as mayor, Given said he is familiar with the boom and bust cycles of an economy driven by oil, gas, agriculture and lumber.
"We have to be able to manage the low points in our economy," he said. "But we also have to be prepared for sharp increases."
Though he's hesitant to call 2018 a boom year, Given said the city needs to be ready to make the most of its rebounding economy.
"Grande Prairie needs to be in a position where we do that long-range planning, so that when the up-cycles or the booms come around, that we're in a position to be able to take advantage of it."
The population of Grande Prairie increased by more than 13 per cent over the five years ending in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.
Canada's most recent census showed the population has surpassed 63,000, edging it closer in size to Fort McMurray and its 66,600 people.
The city uses a number of indicators to measure the strength of its economy, said economic development officer Rebecca Leigh.
For instance, she tracks the number of oversized vehicles that travel through Grande Prairie every year.
"These are important numbers for Grande Prairie because they represent service rigs, housing and major oilfield equipment heading out of town to work in the region," Leigh said.
In 2017, more than 12,100 drivers with over-dimensional vehicle permits passed through Grande Prairie — up by 53 per cent from 2016.
During the same period, the city's hotel occupancy rate increased from about 50 per cent to more than 75 per cent. In comparison, Alberta's average hotel occupancy hovered near 64 per cent for both 2016 and 2017.
Unemployment in the region fell by more than half a per cent, by year average, from 2016 to 2017.
Statistics Canada doesn't track unemployment rates for Grande Prairie but Brian Glavin, the city's manager of economic development, said it usually sits one to three per cent below the regional average.
Police: 'The future is very bright'
The news is even better on the crime front. As the economy and population grow, the rate of police-reported crime in Grande Prairie is decreasing.
The city — named as the most dangerous city in Canada by Maclean's magazine less than two years ago — has dropped from first to 12th place on the Statistics Canada crime severity index.
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"We are in a much better place," said Grande Prairie RCMP Supt. Donnan McKenna. "The future is very bright for Grande Prairie."
McKenna, who joined the city's RCMP as the acting detachment commander in 2014, attributes the change to a proactive crime reduction strategy and the detachment's new drug unit.
"Crime was certainly surging," he recalled of his first year in Grande Prairie. "Members were getting burned out because they had so many files that they were carrying.
"The population had been growing, but the policing resources hadn't."
Police presented a proposed solution — a crime reduction unit and a drug section — to Grande Prairie's mayor and city council, McKenna said.
"They fully supported the idea," McKenna said. "A lot of crimes flow from drugs because addicts will do the most outrageous things so that they can get more drugs."
In a single year, from 2015 to 2016, Grande Prairie's crime rate decreased by roughly 30 per cent, according to RCMP statistics.
Drugs — especially opioids such as fentanyl — continue to be a challenge in Grande Prairie. The city had the highest per-capita rate of overdose deaths in the province last year, according to Alberta Health Services.
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Rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and crime involving youth are also increasing, despite the drop in overall crime.
"The next phase is to try to reach out to those people that are involved in those crimes that maybe aren't front and centre in everybody's mind," McKenna said.
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Grande Prairie RCMP are also going after repeat offenders, on the basis that focusing on people with lengthy criminal records can significantly reduce crime in a city, he said.
"We're going to make it very uncomfortable for them to be in that lifestyle, but at the same time we're going to offer assistance to get out of it."
In the months ahead, McKenna will watch closely for increases in crimes tied to the rebounding economy.
"I'm certain that there are people thinking that they're going to take advantage ... that they'll be into the drug trade," he said. "I caution them: we will catch them."
Community foundation: 'People were scared'
A shift in numbers has not gone unnoticed by the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta, a non-profit that connects donors with causes.
The charity gathers statistics about the population, economy and trends in the Peace region, publishing a report every two years.
"We hit quite a bump when the economy dropped a few years back," said Tracey Vavrek, the foundation's CEO. "People were scared. They had gone through a lot of challenges when the market dropped so quickly."
The latest report, Vital Signs 2017, will help Vavrek and her team decide which organizations need financial support in 2018.
Many people are still struggling to rebound, she said. For instance, the use of food banks increased for almost every community in the region from 2015 to 2016.
"We've started to see our numbers shift to the positive," Vavrek said. "But we're seeing people take it slow."
Grande Prairie's mayor said the community is right to be cautiously optimistic about its future.
"I'm not sure that we'd call our current cycle a boom," Given said. "I think everybody in Alberta's a little bit cautious about that.
"I would say that we're back up to full capacity in our region."