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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Grande Prairie Becomes a City (1945-current)

George Repka was the first elected mayor of the city of Grande Prairie

The end of the Second World War signaled the beginning of a building boom in Grande Prairie. Between 1946 and 1949, the town’s population jumped from 2,700 to 3,700. Growth was a result of industrial growth in the region. Grande Prairie’s lumber industry thrived because of the building boom; in 1946, the Northern Planning Mill was, now competing with the Grande Prairie Lumber Company.

In 1947, Grande Prairie became home to a large Northern Alberta Dairy Pool creamery. Agricultural productivity was high and new farmers came to the Peace River area; some were returning veterans, entitled to half-sections of land, rent-free for three years. They were competing with displaced Eastern Europeans who also came in droves to farm the land. But farmers were frustrated by low prices and reduced demand; Grande Prairie farmers, calling for fixed grain prices, went on strike for six weeks in 1946. Some crop farmers switched to cattle, hogs, and chickens, capitalizing on a shortage of meat, butter and eggs.

The biggest boon to the post-war economy of Grande Prairie was the oil and gas industry. A frenzied search for oil in Peace River country occurred after the war, particularly after the discovery of the Leduc #1 in 1947. The first well near Grande Prairie was dug on Joe Kapalka’s farm, southwest of Kleskun Hill in October of 1948. There were other oil discoveries near Grande Prairie at the time, spurring further commercial and industrial growth in Grande Prairie.

With a booming economy, Grande Prairie modernized much of its infrastructure: the capacity of its power plant was doubled, and there were improvements to roads, airlinks and telecommunications. The town’s skyline was soon reshaped. The Hotel York, a modern two-storey, L-shaped brick building opened in 1948. Plans for the Memorial Arena were underway, and work began on the Grande Prairie Municipal Office and School Division building in 1948. That same year, Grande Prairie received a new Legion Hall, the Kinsman Swimming Pool, a Hudson’s Bay store, and a Half-Way Motel.

Aerial photo of Grande Prairie

The building boom in Grande Prairie continued into the 1950s. In 1950, Grande Prairie opened a new $250,000 high school building. Also, the new 80-bed Municipal hospital was built. The next year was even better and Grande Prairie reached nearly $800,000 in building permits. The Gaiety Theatre was built and a new federal building and post office were begun, and completed the next year. In 1953, Northern Plywoods erected a lumber mill just north of Grande Prairie, and lumber industry continued to grow in the region. The next year, the town annexed 1,475 acres of land, and a state of the art Fire Hall was built. One of the most exciting years for construction in Grande Prairie was 1956 as the population reached 6,250. Grande Prairie built its first oil refinery and the 40-room Park Hotel. Building permits for that year reached a high of $2,101,609 and the next year they were up to $2,455,040. In 1958, Grande Prairie was incorporated as a city. The influx of people to the city, a direct result of its economic prosperity, created a housing shortage in the city, one of the few downsides to Grande Prairie’s good fortune.

The 1960s were equally prosperous. Grande Prairie opened a new auxiliary hospital, a $175,000 City Hall, a $4,500,000 shopping mall, and several new educational institutions including the Montrose Junior High School, the Grande Prairie Junior College and a $1,500,000 vocational school. Between 1957 and 1968, population growth averaged 5% annually, reaching 11,800 in 1968. Building permit values were consistently in the millions – $44,382,000 in 1962 and $3,198,000 in 1966.

This growth was tied to Grande Prairie’s industrial expansion. The agricultural industry continued to expand along with other industries. Grande Prairie’s economy was increasingly diversified, with growing lumber, natural gas, petroleum, and sulphur industries. To accommodate industrial expansion, Grande Prairie built the Richmond Industrial park southwest of the city, and when the Alberta Resources Railway built a line into town in 1968, the city built yet another industrial park. The most important industry was the forestry sector—the North Canadian Industries Limited employed 465 local workers and produced 1,200,000 square feet of plywood a day. Other forestry industries included the Hanson & Reynolds Planing Mill and Grande Prairie Lumber stud plant. A new $50 million Procter and Gamble pulp mill was being proposed, as was a Pan American Petroleum Corporation Scrubbing plant. The new Tissington Industries plant was now producing industrial camp trailers and pre-fabricated housing, while the McIntyre Mines at Grande Cache, north of Grande Prairie, were beginning to produce tons of coal for export to Japan.

In 1973, building permit amounts in Grande Prairie skyrocketed to $18,765,000. All industries saw growth, particularly the lumber industry with the construction of the Procter and Gamble plant, becoming the city’s largest employer. Moreover, the discovery of the Elmsworth deep basin gas field near Grande Prairie helped create more jobs and business growth. Grande Prairie’s population rose from about 12,000 in the early 1970s to over 24,000 by 1981.

In Grande Prairie, as in the rest of Alberta, the 1980s saw an economic recession that hit the petroleum industries particularly hard. The 1990s was a slow climb out of the recession into the recent fast paced growth of the early 21 st Century.

Grande Prairie is now a modern city. Over the 2007 to 2009 period, Grande Prairie saw over a billion dollars in new developments including a 500 million dollar hospital, a 100 million dollar Grande Prairie Aqua and Multi-Plex Centre, a large airport expansion, a 20 million dollar library and art gallery, as well as new school, retail and housing developments. Grande Prairie is one of the fastest growing cities in Alberta, with its population increasing approximately 5% annually. In 2008, Grande Prairie’s population exceeded 50,000. The city continues to be the administrative centre for most industries within the Peace River area, especially forestry, agriculture, oil and natural gas. The city’s industrial strength continues to precipitate construction booms, with building permit values hovering annually in the 2 billion dollar region between 2005 and 2007.

Grande Prairie is the location of the Grande Prairie Real Estate Board, which represents over 250 REALTORS® in Peace Country.

References

Alberta Department of Business and Tourism. Grande Prairie Community Survey. 1974.

Alberta Government Publicity Bureau, Department of Industry and Tourism. Survey of Grande Prairie. 1968.

Campbell, Isabel M. Grande Prairie: Capitol of the Peace. City of Grande Prairie, 1968.

City of Grande Prairie, Economic Development. “Community Profile 2008-09.” Retrieved January 27, 2009 from http://www.cityofgp.com/citygov/edev/Default.htm

Industrial Development Branch, Department of Economic Affairs. Government of the Province of Alberta. Survey of Grande Prairie. 1958.

Leonard, David W. The Grande Prairie of the Great Northland: The Evolution of a County: 1805-1951. County of Grande Prairie, Alberta #1, 2005.

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