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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Alberta Population Booming

We all know Alberta is booming, more and more people are moving here. Calgary is seeing huge gains in population and traffic jams... Edmonton is growing at almost the same speed, but the traffic isn't... Here are some exerpts from an aritcle in today's National Post on the subject:

John Cotter, Canadian Press
Published: Sunday, April 02, 2006

EDMONTON -- With its prosperity cheques, low taxes and voluminous pages of help-wanted ads, Alberta has become the Big Rock Candy Mountain to thousands of Canadians seeking a better life.

Recent figures from Statistics Canada show the province's population is increasing at more than five times the national average, and there's no end in sight to the migration.

But as the booming economy gobbles up every worker it can find, the newcomers are bloating Alberta's structural waistline to the bursting point. And the riches are causing tummy rumbles as communities struggle to deal with the influx.

"The traffic everywhere in Calgary is bumper to bumper and if anything goes wrong, we hit gridlock pretty fast," says Calgary Ald. Gord Lowe, who notes the city is hundreds of millions of dollars behind in housing, roads, schools, hospitals, libraries and recreational facilities.

"The third-largest city in Canada last year was all the people who moved to Calgary. That sums it up."

Nor are the inherent problems associated with massive growth limited to Calgary's gleaming office towers.

Forests of construction cranes mark the horizons of Red Deer, Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray as those cities ride the swollen crest of high oil and natural gas prices.

In January, the government had so much cash it sent out $400 prosperity cheques to just about every man, woman and child in the province.

Housing all the newcomers represents another challenge.

Firms are short of carpenters and other trades needed to build new homes, apartments, sewage and water systems.

Real estate prices and rents are climbing dramatically in many communities -- if a place to live can be found at all.

While housing prices aren't as high as in Vancouver or Toronto yet, they are on the march. And rental rates are among the highest in the country.

Average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the oilsands capital of Fort McMurray in December was $1,478. That compared to just over $1,000 for a similar apartment in Toronto or Vancouver.

The average selling price of a home in Calgary last month was $305,000 -- up almost 25 per cent in one year.

"We are getting tremendous pressures on housing prices," says Darrell Toma, president of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce.

The province is trying to meet the challenges of explosive economic growth head-on, but it's hard to keep pace when its population of more than three million people grew by more than 25,000 last fall alone.

The provincial government has earmarked $13.3 billion for infrastructure projects over the next three years -- a total bigger than the entire budgets of many provinces.

That doesn't include money for new primary or secondary schools, however.

But Toma says while the challenges are daunting, he wouldn't trade Alberta's situation for the problems of less economically robust parts of Canada.

"We have a debt-free economy and people are fully employed. Wages and house prices are going up. It is a great problem to have."

As civic leaders beam with pride at Alberta's astonishing economic muscle, there are inklings of fear that the rich gravy train might not chug along forever.

Lowe shudders at memories of the way Alberta's last big boom -- fuelled in large part by the energy industry -- quickly melted in the 1980s like snow during a chinook when oil prices fell.

"Those of us who went through that are keeping a very wary eye about what is going on," he says.

"But all the studies from the banks and think-tanks suggest the boom is going to continue for the next six to 10 years."

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