This week, I had the privilege of delivering a 2018 State of the City presentation to members of the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce. Although my presentation was aimed at a business audience, I think there are many elements that are of interest to all Lethbridge residents, so I am using this month's column to share some of those with you.
2017 was a significant year for Lethbridge and saw us take major steps on a number of social fronts, most notably in addressing the opioid crisis and establishing a long-term plan for Reconciliation in our community.
We made excellent progress on major capital projects such as ATB Centre-Phase 2 as well as advancing the twinning of Whoop-Up Drive and the construction of Métis Trail. City Council established a new capital budget that includes construction of a much-needed second fire station in west Lethbridge, which continues to be the fastest-growing area of our city.
We're benefitting from federal infrastructure funding announced last year toward the cost of expanding water, sewer and storm water infrastructure capacity in the Sherring Industrial Park. This funding support will help provide for creation of jobs, opportunities for new investment, and continued economic diversification of our city and region.
Steady, Sustainable Growth
In terms of new construction, Lethbridge continues to have very steady, sustainable growth. The construction value of building permits issued in Lethbridge last year was $314 million, which was down slightly from 2016 but was still more than double what they say in other mid-sized cities such as Red Deer ($153 million), Grande Prairie ($147 million) and Medicine Hat ($114 million).
Much like we saw in 2016, the investments in 2017 were almost evenly balanced between the private and public sectors. This means companies are continuing to choose Lethbridge as a place they want to be because Lethbridge is an excellent place to operate a business and offers their employees an attractive quality of life.
With a population of 98,198, Lethbridge has grown by more than 15,000 people in the last decade. At the current rate of growth, we'll be at 115,000 in another 10 years. In 2016, Lethbridge witnessed the fastest annual population growth of any Alberta city that conducts an annual census (2.1% growth in Lethbridge versus 0.4% in Calgary and -1.0% in Red Deer)
Continued promotion of economic development is key to helping resolve social issues in our community.
Lethbridge Economic Indicators
The number of new business licenses issued in Lethbridge remained steady in 2017. We had 341 up to the end of November, so we expect the year-end number to be very close to the previous year. Even during economic downturns that hit the rest of Alberta fairly hard in 2008 and 2014, Lethbridge growth remained relatively steady.
Our current unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent is one of the lowest in the province and is two per cent below the provincial average. Since late 2016, other Alberta cities have had significantly higher unemployment over that period, and the more recent trend points to the economy recovering across the province.
City's Role in Land Development
Sometimes I get asked about the City's involvement in land development. The City certainly has a limited role that ultimately benefits the entire community. Over the past 10 years, the City's market share of serviced residential land sold is18 per cent.
It's worth noting that other cities are also involved in land development. According to the most recent numbers we have, the City of Medicine Hat has a 90-per-cent market share, Saskatoon has a 50-per-cent market share, and Red Deer has a 35-per-cent market share.
The City's land department is self-funded, and the profits it generates are invested to help pay for capital projects, offsetting the need to fund these projects through increased taxation. For example, profits from City land development contributed $5.4 million toward the cost of the new Legacy Park, $5.1 million toward the cost of sports fields in Crossings, and $1.4 million toward the cost of building ATB Centre-Phase 1.
That's a win for all of us.
Advocating for continuation of the Municipal Sustainability Initiative
The City's dollars often help leverage substantial grants from other levels of government. The provincial Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) has been incredibly important for Lethbridge, and we are advocating strongly for the provincial government to commit to continuing it in the future.
This grant program for capital projects has helped fund major community projects such as the Enmax Centre expansion, the new downtown Fire Headquarters, CASA, ATB Centre construction, the Henderson Pool renovation, and the Lethbridge Police Service headquarters expansion.
The future of MSI funding for municipalities is uncertain. Without it, projects such as a performing arts centre and a convention centre will be delayed into the future.
The Future Looks Bright!
I'm excited about the future of our city! Many exciting things are on the horizon for Lethbridge. The City is in the midst of expanding the Sherring Industrial Park to ensure we can accommodate growth in the coming decade. The groundwork that's happening today will culminate in a number of growth initiatives that will create new jobs in our community in 2019:
- Cavendish Farms will open their new frozen potato processing facility.
- The Destination Project at U of L will be complete and will open.
- ATB Centre-Phase 2 will open in the spring of 2019 and will become a destination leisure facility.
- New agri-food facilities will open in the Sherring Industrial Park.
Collectively, these initiatives are expected to create about 500 new jobs in Lethbridge.
The Lethbridge Airport is an important economic asset for Lethbridge and our surrounding region. We continue to work with Lethbridge County – who own the airport – for ways to maintain its viability and enhance its functionality for airlines and passengers. We are looking for ways to enhance the flying experience and to support all three airlines in order to improve the viability of the Lethbridge Airport. It is critically important that we utilize the airport as much as possible, taking advantage of its convenience rather than driving to Calgary to catch flights.
Mayor Chris Spearman
January 19, 2018