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Lacombe finds the sweet spot for growth

Downtown Lacombe, Alberta. (City of Lacombe)

As the local face of Welcome Wagon in Lacombe, Alta., Pryna Koberstein has been busy lately hustling from home to home.

In the waning days of summer, she visits newcomers at a rate of every other day, in addition to keeping up with locals as they embrace new babies. And that, she says of the community’s population boom, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

The changes are happening fast. Koberstein has watched her hometown of more than four decades transform from a small, central Alberta farming community into a desirable, full-fledged city, part of an overall growth corridor now stretching from Edmonton to Calgary.

“I have seen a shift from when I started [with Welcome Wagon] four years ago from mostly seniors and retirees in the last year to mostly families and career adults,” Ms. Koberstein said.

While some other small communities have struggled with population declines and budgetary gaps sending them scurrying to the province for dissolution or to their neighbours for amalgamation, Lacombe and a number of similar Alberta communities have flourished.

Drawing on its agricultural roots as well the oil and gas industry that surrounds it, the once tiny village named in 1896 after a French-Catholic missionary grew large enough that in 2010, Lacombe was officially christened with city status. It is now home to almost 13,000 people and is growing by a steady 2- to 3-per-cent annually, according to city officials.

People are pleased with the small town feel we’ve been able to maintain.

— Norma MacQuarrie, Lacombe's chief administrative officer

What’s its secret? In many ways, Lacombe benefits from its geography. Built in a pretty valley close to lakes just north of Red Deer, Lacombe is roughly halfway between Edmonton and Calgary, transforming it, in part, into a bedroom community, particularly as housing prices in the bigger cities steadily rise.

It is also now home to one of the world’s largest ethylene production facility, the Nova Chemical Joffre plant, which employs more than 1,600 residents.

Despite Lacombe’s relative affluence, and the influx of new residents, it hasn’t become a rapidly built cookie-cutter city where old buildings are torn down to make way for new ones. It has kept a downtown that showcases historic Edwardian architecture and heritage murals.

That's in part to smart planning, but also a function of development pressures directed to neighbouring centres such as Red Deer, where the locals go to hit the big-box stores and major retailers. While that has pulled dollars away from Lacombe, the focus of growth elsewhere has inadvertently benefitted the city.

“People are pleased with the small town feel we’ve been able to maintain,” said Norma MacQuarrie, the city’s chief administrative officer, who found herself charmed by the community when she moved there nearly three years ago.

Steve Christie, Lacombe’s mayor, acknowledged that wooing businesses remains a key issue for voters – but a tough one for city council to deliver.

“We’re trying to attract retail, commercial and industry,” he said. “But the city doesn’t have a land bank like some other cities.”

Instead, his approach is one of maintaining the status quo – keeping tax rates reasonable while meeting residents’ demands for increased services – all while “keeping the momentum building.”

But that’s not good enough for city councillor Grant Creasey, who is vying for the mayor’s chair in the upcoming municipal election, in part by pledging a “business-friendly atmosphere at city hall.”

“We’ve got a great location and wonderful city,” he said, “But we should not be making our rules and regulations so overwhelming and cumbersome.”

Koberstein says that despite the gaps in retailers, over the last few years she’s been impressed with improvements to roads and services as well as new recreational facilities. But if all this growth keeps up, she said, Welcome Wagon could really use some help.

“We are always looking for assistants,” she said.

(Photos courtesy Red Deer Tourism and Wikipedia)