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Grande Prairie suffering effects of uncontrolled growth

Grande Prairie suffering effects of uncontrolled growth
City's national ranking fell from fourth to 99th in one year
Dan Barnes, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2008

GRANDE PRAIRIE - On a brilliant, blue sunglasses-mandatory Monday, the good folks of Grande Prairie were enjoying the outdoor pleasures of a city that just two short years ago was ranked the fourth best place to live in the country.

Ahead of Calgary. And Vancouver. And yes, even Edmonton.

As families gathered in downtown Muskoseepi Park, a massive urban oasis to be sure, there was little reason to wonder why MoneySense magazine vaulted Grande Prairie into Canada's top five. With shinny on the lake, hot chocolate in the pavilion and balloon animals galore, this city-sponsored Family Day shindig was emblematic of Grande Prairie's devotion to its newcomers.

"It's great for kids, very children-oriented," said Susan Ball, who came from Winnipeg in July. "Horseback riding, cross-country skiing, gymnastics, swimming, it's all here."

There is a winning spirit here, and you can feel it. It's a self-sufficient attitude that spawned an orchestra, a choir and community theatre because Edmonton was too far to go for culture. It's a young community, with a median age of less than 30. Throw in abundant high-paying jobs created by an economic boom that has gripped the city of 50,000-plus for years now, a new downtown arena complex that hosted the Edmonton Oilers training camp in 2006, and a community college awaiting its promised $6.5-million upgrade (thank you Premier Stelmach) and you have the essence of this comfortable northwestern Alberta city.

"It's an exciting, vibrant, proud city that welcomes people and their skills," said Mayor Dwight Logan.

The city's web page still trumpets that fourth-place finish in 2006, but what the good folks of Grande Prairie don't care to advertise is the fact their bustling city slipped 95 notches down that same list in 2007. From fourth out of 108 to 99th out of 123 in one year? What the heck happened up here?

The boom happened. It attracted thousands of new residents and put a massive strain on services.

"It's the pressures of growth," said Logan. "We got behind the eight-ball financially and the infrastructure suffered. There was a high transient population, and most are wonderful people who work hard. But there is also a darker side. There were drugs and prostitution on a scale we've never seen before in Grande Prairie."

The boom drove housing prices through the roof of the typical single-family dwelling.

"We've seen a decline in the cost of starter homes now and that's really helped, but last year, if you didn't come to Grande Prairie with a couple hundred thousand in your pocket, you weren't going to buy a house," said Logan.

And just try to rent a place. Sheena Horseman and Elliott Bolton, in their 20s, pay $2,200 plus utilities for a three-bedroom duplex. Horseman is a born and raised Grande Prairian, Bolton an emigree from New Brunswick who has been here three years. They don't have kids but came to Muskoseepi on Monday because, they said, there is little else for their age group.

"You can't go anywhere unless it's a bar," Horseman said. "There's lots for kids and lots for old people. Not much for us."
The Edmonton Journal

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