Uncovering an Albertan Jewel
Town of Sylvan Lake quickly becoming a go-to destination
When you think of emerging destinations for young professionals flush with disposable income, you might not consider a small Alberta town that’s closer to the Arctic Ocean than Miami Beach.
But if you ask Vicki Kurz, that’d be a mistake.
Kurz just happens to be the economic development officer for that small Albertan town – Sylvan Lake, to be specific – that’s in the middle of a significant evolution in population, tourism, and many other elements that mean good things for a person in her chosen career field.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth, likely because of the quality of life offered, and also because of our great location,” she says. “We’re centrally located, 20 minutes west of Red Deer, and about an hour-and-a-half between both major cities. The community is connected to the provincial thoroughfare, QE2, via Highway No. 11, a four-lane transportation route enabling easy access to market.
“People love it here.”
Indeed, the town that’s 159 kilometers from downtown Calgary and just three kilometers more from downtown Edmonton, has seen its population nearly double since the 2001 federal census.
The Canada-wide count 13 years ago logged Sylvan Lake in at 7,493 residents, but that number had jumped to 10,208 by 2006, placing the town at No. 6 among the fastest-growing municipalities in Canada with populations of greater than 5,000. The subsequent census in 2011 saw the total climb to 12,327, another 20.3-percent increase that continued an equally important demographic shift as well.
Its median age of 31.8 years is six years less than the national average, and its population aged 19 and younger makes up 33.2 percent of the overall total, compared to a provincial average of 28.3. Only 6.7 percent of residents are aged 65 and older, far less than the national average of 13.2 percent.
The town’s transition employment rate, meaning the percentage of residents who commute to other communities for work, is down from 38 to 34 percent thanks to the arrival of national headquarters for oil and gas industry service companies like Nabors (nabors.com), NexSource Power (nexsourcepower.com), Versatile Energy Services (versatileenergy.com), and Red Core Ltd. (redcoreltd.com).
Those people that do leave for work, typically are employed at businesses in Red Deer, Red Deer County or Fort McMurray. Meanwhile, Kurz and other departmental staff are in the midst of conducting a study to determine the economic impact of tourism in Sylvan Lake.
“Plans are under way for a variety of community facilities. We’re seeing a lot of major infrastructure improvements and a lot of growth in residential and commercial sectors. “We have a very young population with growing families and they are anxious to access goods and services locally. The downtown façade improvement program and 50th Street redevelopment plans will put a new face on the town’s center.”
In addition, a five-phase Lakeshore Drive redevelopment project which spans across the town from east to west began in 2008 and is entering its fifth phase this year.
The project has thus far included the addition of Centennial Park with picnic shelters and playgrounds, as well as a three-kilometer long waterfront promenade, along with a modernization of the cottage district – the oldest area within the 101-year-old town – which involves the introduction of curbs, gutters and sidewalks, resulting in increased property values.
Another significant project was the recent construction of Memorial Drive which created an updated east/west connection through the residential portion of the town, and Sylvan Lake leadership is busily working on an annexation plan that would open up 900 acres of additional lands and create space for the imminent residential, commercial and industrial needs.
Traffic and pedestrian counts are under way and a retail market analysis is planned for 2015. Kurz says one of the other goals is to add significantly to the existing roster of 229 hotel rooms in the town through the development of a business case. That number needs to get closer to 400-plus, she said, to warrant development of a convention facility and to accommodate overnight visitors.
“The town’s focus is on building a complete community,” Kurz says. “Investment attraction efforts will revolve heavily around industrial and commercial growth. The planning and development division is undergoing a significant shift towards this effort with a review of the land use bylaw and other statutory documents.”
In terms of brick-and-mortar projects, the $25 million NexSource Centre downtown is in the schematic design stage and could see a construction start sometime next spring – with an estimated working time of 16 to 18 months before completion, according to Project Manager David Yee.
Keeping the new complex downtown will contribute to the revitalization of the town’s business center, a lure for the youth, families and sports tourism enthusiasts, Kurz says, and planned amenities include replacement of one ice surface, a curling rink, a seniors center, a walking track, additional meeting space and a children’s activity center.
“Right now, we’re in a catch-up phase,” she says. “We’re trying to provide facilities that meet the needs of the population, and then forecast further into the future. That’s the purpose of the infrastructure and investment attraction studies.”
Additionally, construction will begin soon on a $6.2 million fire hall in the Beacon Hill subdivision that will accommodate a larger complement of firefighters – the firefighting staff has grown from 24 to 30 in recent years – and the equipment is needed for both existing and anticipated town needs.
If all goes as scheduled, Yee said, the building will be complete in the fall of 2015.
Further down the road, Kurz said population estimates have the town exceeding 20,000 residents within the next eight years, and she anticipates much of that growth will be comprised of the younger professionals and families toward whom the current infrastructure improvements are targeted.
Another clear aim is to further reduce the flow of people leaving the area for work by providing job opportunities locally and supporting the entrepreneurial spirit, while simultaneously maintaining the town’s long-standing character, in spite of all the changes in statistics and landscape.
“To be honest, the culture of the community hasn’t changed all that much,” she said. “Sylvan Lake is still very much a lakeside community. Regardless of a larger population, we still have the same values as we had when we were a smaller community. The established population that’s been here is used to a certain way of life, so we’ve got to balance out development.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Town of Sylvan Lake
WHAT: Municipality that was incorporated in 1913 and was home to 13,015 residents, according to the 2013 municipal census
WHERE: Central Alberta, on the southeast shore of Sylvan Lake – about 18 kilometers west of the city of Red Deer