Getting Bigger, Getting Better
Continued growth spurts won’t erode small-town charm in Okotoks
If growth means change, then more change is certainly on its way to the town of Okotoks.
The southern Alberta municipality borders the Sheep River and sits roughly 45 kilometers south of downtown Calgary – but while that geography hasn’t been altered since the town was incorporated some 110 years ago, the recent uptick in population will indeed prompt some differences.
The town’s municipal census in 2013 counted a population of 26,319, which indicated a jump of 5.4 percent from the same town-level count just 12 months before. Meanwhile, the federal census of 2011 recorded a rise of 42.9 percent from five years earlier – meaning Okotoks was the 10th-fastest growing municipality in the entire country between 2006 and 2011.
Statistically speaking, the average age is 34 and about 50 percent of the workforce commutes into Calgary, while 550 businesses are located within town borders, in addition to 600 more that are home-based. Government and schools, along with the Cargill beef processing plant in nearby High River, are the main employers, and the main lure for the recent spike in growth has been word of mouth.
Okotoks is a warm and inviting community that offers unique shopping and dining experiences and a variety of comfortable accommodation options, according to Shane Olson, the town’s economic development team leader. It has a vibrant arts and culture scene utilizing the Okotoks Art Gallery, Museum and Performing Arts Centre, numerous recreational opportunities and exciting year-round community events.
Okotoks is also home to the Okotoks Dawgs baseball team and the Okotoks Oilers and Bisons hockey clubs.
“What we hear a lot in our household surveys that we conduct with our residents is that it’s all about small-town charm,” Olson said. “We’re an all service amenity community. We’ve got a lot of great sports facilities, pathway systems, the river valley system itself is very attractive and there are three golf courses here, so there’s a lot of recreational opportunities.”
Olson, in fact, said tourism branding for the town focuses on the phrase “Hip, Happening and Historic.”
“It’s really about quality of life,” he said. “Small-town living and being near the big city of Calgary, and having the ability to go to the mountains and go into the city if you need to.”
Of course, now that the people are coming, they’re going to need more places to go.
With that in mind, Okotoks submitted a notice of annexation to the province’s Municipal Government Board last fall, after the town council voted to lift a previously established population cap of 30,000 people. The proposed annexation area includes more than 1,000 hectares, mainly to the northeast and south of existing town boundaries, which could accommodate a doubling in size from current numbers.
“In the next five years, the annexation will be complete and that will put us into a whole new ballgame in terms of growth,” said Marley Oness, the town’s municipal engineer. “I do believe we will be hitting past growth rates. Back in 2006 and 2007, we were doing 1,000 housing starts a year in that period, which is phenomenal growth for a municipality our size. I do expect, once the annexation is complete, there will be multiple cells of new development opening up.”
The town has been negotiating with the city of Calgary to bring in a treated water supply line – specifically, a 450-millimeter main stretching over 16 kilometers – to help meet long-term water needs while simultaneously facilitating the growth. Oness said the plan is for Okotoks to keep its existing water treatment plant operational, and use the water line from Calgary to supplement that existing supply.
An updated “visioning process,” in which the town will reach out to community members to revise its strategic vision for the future, is set to begin this year as well. When completed, according to Sustainability Coordinator Dawn Smith, it will yield an integrated sustainability plan that will be an umbrella plan for future directives dealing with environmental, social and fiscal responsibility.
“There’s lot of work to do. It’s going to be a very busy time,” she said. “But we’re looking forward to it.”
Among the crown jewels of Smith’s sustainability cause is the Drake Landing Solar Community, a master-planned Okotoks neighborhood that’s heated by a district system designed to store solar energy underground during summer months and distribute it to 52 homes for space heating in the winter.
The $7 million project was conceived by Natural Resources Canada, and accomplished through partnerships with companies sought out because of long-standing reputations as innovative and environmentally conscious operators in their respective industries. Ground was broken in 2005 and homes sold for an average of $380,000.
Homeowners are billed an average of $60 for heat per month.
The $7 million project was designed to meet 90 percent of each home’s heating needs when the community opened in 2007, resulting in less fossil fuel dependency. It achieved 98 percent heating efficiency in 2012 and was recognized with the International Energy Agency’s 2013 Solar Award.
Previously, it earned the Energy Globe Foundation’s overall world award in 2011.
The overall sustainability efforts, Smith said, are the product of a community-wide mindset.
“It’s a combination of a very supportive town council – there was a direction early on to move that way, to be a leader in sustainability,” she said. “Also, we’ve always had a very extensive education program. For the last decade we’ve had conservation educators going door to door, educating our residents.
“Our residents self-police. It’s engrained in the community and a lot of people actually move to Okotoks because of the sustainability principles. It’s a combination of willing leadership and maybe being a little smaller community. Our size has allowed us to do it.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Town of Okotoks
WHAT: Municipality within the Calgary Regional Partnership that is home to approximately 27,000 residents, making it the largest town in the province of Alberta
WHERE: Southern Alberta, about 18 kilometers south of Calgary