The people of Grande Prairie, Alta., want you to know that theirs is not just an oil town. “We’re a diverse region, not just an oil and gas city,” insists the city’s manager of economic development, Brian Glavin. “We’re often equated to Fort McMurray, but we’re a very different place, really.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many business owners in the northwestern Alberta city—sure, energy is a big part of the local economy, but it’s a community that thrived off of its agriculture and forestry industries for decades before tapping into oil and gas.
A diverse economy is just one of many reasons that makes Alberta’s seventh-largest city the best place in Canada to do business. The municipality has implemented programs that aim to drive local development: grants of $10,000 for each new housing unit and $15,000 for each new mixed-use unit, plus a three-year tax deferral on all new residential buildings in the downtown core.
What’s more, the costs of starting a business are low; both taxes and regulations are friendly to businesses. Grande Prairie is one of the only cities in Canada where a business licence is completely free, and can be obtained in a week or less. A growing community—the population grew to 68,000 in 2016 from 57,000 in 2011—Grande Prairie has no special zoning regulations for commercial properties, and its non-residential property tax rate is a mere 1.8% of assessed value.
“We like to say that a bad day in Grande Prairie is still a good day in many other places in Canada,” says Lionel Robins, owner of Revolution Auto Group. Robins bought his first car dealership in 2006, and he and his partners now have seven dealerships and 10 national car rental franchises, along with rental partnerships with local hotels.
“I’m in the auto business, which has been very robust in Grande Prairie—some of the larger stores are up here in the north because there’s such a demand for the product,” boasts Robins, who refers to his corner of Alberta as “a land of opportunity.”
“I like to tell my staff that I come from a family that didn’t own a car for many years, and now I own several dealerships,” he explains. “In Grande Prairie, you don’t see people having to take over a family business—they wake up in the morning and decide they want to start their own, and then they do.”
Robins says that employment opportunities in the city are plentiful enough that it can be hard for him to maintain a consistent staff. “People are always moving around in Grande Prairie, whether it be sideways or up,” he explains. “There are just so many opportunities to take advantage of.”
The size of the city appeals to many business owners, including Canadian Tire franchise owner Ron Regnier. “I’d call Grande Prairie a community before I’d call it a city,” he says. “I’ve lived in Vancouver and I’ve lived in Calgary, and this has a different feel to it.”
Regnier says that his store makes a point of prioritizing community outreach, and that he’s able to see the return of those efforts in his business. “We do things like donations to sports teams and sponsorships, and that creates a real loyalty with our customers,” he says.
Regnier is also quick to point out the benefits of choosing to start a business in Grande Prairie: “One of the reasons I would say it’s worthwhile to do business here is that it has all the benefits of a small community, but with all the amenities of a big city,” he explains. “You’re able to build relationships within the business community quite easily, and then see a return on those relationships.” There are new attractions too: Just last year, the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum opened up at the site of a bone bed known as the River of Death, a 20-minute drive from Grande Prairie.
“When I lived out east, there was an impression that people would come to a town like Grande Prairie, make money and get out as fast as they could,” says Robins. The reality, as he and so many other business owners have learned, is quite different. “It’s funny because a lot of people have that sort of thinking coming in, and then when they actually get here they realize, ‘Oh, there’s a community here,’ and it really surprises them,” says Robins. “The same people who when they arrive say, ‘I’m only here because I need to make money,’ five years down the road have changed their minds and decided to stay.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Grande Prairie’s non-residential property tax rate. PROFITguide regrets the error.