Edmonton

Workers flock to central Alberta town as 3 energy construction projects underway in area

A central Albertan town is experiencing a major economic boost from three major energy projects underway nearby.

Hotels packed, no rental vacancy as 2,000 workers on projects near Edson, Alta.

Mayor Kevin Zahara says Edson was hit hard after the oil market crash of 2015. (Kory Lynn Siegers/CBC)

A central Albertan town is experiencing a major economic boost from three major energy projects underway nearby.

Edson, Alta., 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, sits along the Yellowhead Highway and has long been a resource-driven town. 

Currently under construction nearby are part of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, another pipeline project from TC Energy and the $1.5-billion Cascade Energy Project power plant.

Mayor Kevin Zahara said the flurry of economic activity comes after several slow years following the oil market crash of 2015.

Edson has a population of around 8,400 people. The projects have brought 2,000 additional workers into the area, Zahara said.

"We're really in the peak with most of the workers here in our community," he said.

Zahara said before the pandemic, companies would create work camps. Now, workers are flooding into the town and the surrounding Yellowhead County.

"Our hotels are packed — we have zero per cent rental vacancy available," he said.

Zahara said there are downsides to the temporary population explosion — its impact on traffic, crime, and the unavailability of housing that most affects people experiencing homelessness. 

"But overall, it is a hugely beneficial thing for our community."

Local businesses

Karen Spencer-Miller, president of the Edson and District Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are also benefiting from more workers in town.

"If you walk into any local business or local restaurant in town, it's always full."

She said the business is especially welcome for the service industry, which has borne the brunt of pandemic closures and slowdowns.

Workers have also been contributing to the community through donations to the local food bank and other charity programs, Spencer-Miller said.

The town of Edson, Alta., is seeing a flurry of economic activity as workers from nearby energy projects connect with the community. (Kory Lynn Siegers/CBC)

Companies have provided Christmas bonuses to employees in the form of "Edson bucks" that can be spent at local chamber businesses.

If there's a downside, Spencer-Miller said, it would be some of the difficulties with supply exacerbated by recent floods in B.C. and other pandemic disruptions.

"The happy negative would be a lot of our shelves and that are empty a lot quicker," she said.

Real estate

Spencer-Miller owns Century 21 Twin Realty. She said low interest rates during the pandemic have spurred the real estate market but there has also been an uptake with investment for rentals and workers buying lower-priced properties.

"This month has been extremely busy for people that are needing housing and needing housing quickly."

Henry Boxma, the owner of Re/Max Boxshaw Four Realty, has been in the business for decades. He said housing sales are steady but rentals are unlike anything he's ever seen.

Boxma manages around 150 rental properties. All but one are currently occupied and he still receives about 10 calls a day asking about vacancies.

Local families are also taking advantage by renting out rooms, he said.

"And that's extra income for that family. That's positive because they needed it."

Zahara said construction on the two pipelines is expected to wrap up in about a year but follow-on work like landscaping will provide local jobs.

Building the Cascade plant is projected to continue until 2023. When operational, the plant is expected to employ 25 full-time workers.

"Twenty-five jobs may not seem like a lot, but those people are bringing families to our communities," Zahara said.

With files from Julia Wong

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