Posted on January 4, 2013 by Tia Lalani

Augustana’s Dean Allen Berger and student Kirsten Rudolph comment on Camrose’s quest for economic growth.

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal

At Fiona’s Cafe, Tanya Schultz whips up a foamy cafe latte while Pat Branson stirs the homemade soup and tends shortbread made with local organic flour.

Just nine months ago, the two women – best friends for 16 years – opened the coffee shop and joined the impressive ranks of local entrepreneurs in downtown Camrose, a city of 17,286 southeast of Edmonton.

Along the highway on the city’s outskirts, it’s big-box heaven with all the familiar chains – from Staples to Superstore. This large commercial strip, the most visible sign of the 2006-07 boom, solidified Camrose’s position as regional retail centre for 100,000 people in the surrounding agriculture area.

It’s a big factor in the local economy and one reason Camrose is among Canada’s fastest growing urban areas, with a 10.4 per cent increase in population between 2006 and 2011.

But in historic downtown, local independent businesses still rule, easily holding their own against big brand competition. The stores attract shoppers from as far away as Edmonton, and that’s a tribute to local entrepreneurs, many of them women.

As well, the local economy is bolstered by the city’s steady population growth in recent years and a nimble economic development strategy emanating from city hall and always finding new opportunities – like a canola crushing plant about to open.

The cafe was “a dream of ours for years,” says Branson, who worked as a waitress, “until one day I said I wanted to open my own coffee shop.”

Everything in Fiona’s is made from scratch. Good business is all about knowing your customers, Branson says.

“The seniors call us if they won’t be in for morning coffee. They know we’ll worry if they don’t show up.”

Over at city hall, the city’s economic development officer says Camrose has avoided the pressures of rapid growth seen in northern boom towns – high cost housing, crowded roads. The growth rate, about two per cent annually for the past decade, is “manageable,” Ray Telford says.

Even so, the city needs a new $16-million city hall and must look at setting up a transit system. A new performing arts centre is also underway, a joint project with the University of Alberta Augustana campus.

Camrose’s economy is more closely tied to the rich agriculture region that surrounds it than to the rollercoaster of the oilpatch. But the town is not immune to ups and downs.

In 2006-07, for instance, the value of building permits more than doubled, to $96 million from a 2005 total of $35 million.

That impressive growth didn’t last, and building permits slowly declined to $30 million last year.

For a decade, the city grew by selling itself as a retirement centre for the populous rural area, with much success. The city has a higher percentage of people over 65, about 25 per cent of the population, compared with 11 per cent for Alberta.

But eventually the city realized it needed to diversify its base and attract families and working people to keep the economy strong. So it shifted it’s marketing, with some success.

In the 2011 census, growth in seniors was only four per cent while population growth was 10 per cent among working age people. That includes 1,000 students at the U of A campus.

The big-box stories provided job opportunities aplenty.

But the low wages in the retail sector – combined with low incomes among seniors – brought its own set of issues.

Some people have to work two jobs to make ends meet, and the cost of housing is out of reach for a store clerk earning $10 an hour.

So the city set out to look for better paying manufacturing jobs and is on the verge of success. The country’s first canola crushing plant will open soon, bringing 50 to 75 full-time jobs, says Telford.

The fact that Camrose has both CN and Canadian Pacific was critical in attracting the American company, says Telford, who is also trying to attract oil and gas service industries from Nisku industrial park south of Edmonton.

But people from Camrose already commute to Nisku for work, so it’s tough sell, he admits.

Meanwhile, over at the offices of the agriculture society (which runs the Big Valley Jamboree, worth $16 million to the town), Jennifer Filip says there’s been a major effort to diversify.

Besides the music fest, the ag society has a partnership with Edmonton’s Norquest College to provide space for classrooms, says Filip, a vice-president of the chamber of commerce.

The trick is to find jobs that will keep young people in the city, she says.

Kirsten Rudolph, a senior student at Augustana College, would love to stay in Camrose if she can find the right job. Rudolph, who grew up in Nanaimo, loves the community feeling in Camrose.

Augustana Dean Allan Berger has an ambitious plan to increase student enrolment to 1,200 in the next few years, partly with partnerships with smaller colleges such as Grande Prairie. “We’re particularly optimist about growth in aboriginal student enrolment.”

Camrose has a long tradition with the university campus, and two things make the city particularly attractive, its commitment to the arts and its vibrant downtown.

Back at Fiona’s cafe, the Scottish shortbread is going fast, and the trifle too. As she pours hot water for a cup of ginger tea, Schultz, a former truck driver, says she sometimes misses being on the road on those long hauls to the N.W.T. or across the prairies. But the cafe is great and the future looks good.

“Camrose has been great to me,” she says.

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