County struggles with population retention

“We’re not seeing any huge variation in what’s been occurring over the last number of years,” CAO Charlie Cutforth

Despite the booming population growth attributed to Alberta, Ponoka County is not feeling the same expansion and the population has decreased significantly in the last 15 years.

County CAO Charlie Cutforth says a federal census brought to light the fact that the county’s population declined by approximately 600 people as compared to 15 years ago, which marked the first time less than 9,000 people lived in the county.

Cutforth says the sharp decrease wasn’t thought to be possible by the county and they asked the federal government to redo the census. However, it was found school enrolment was down and it was concluded that Ponoka County had lost 600 people.

“Most farm kids go elsewhere to work,” added Cutforth. “Even with the subdivisions, we were losing population, and at an alarming rate.”

Adding to the issue of farm kids and other youth leaving the community once graduated, Cutforth believes the county needs constant growth to keep the youth from moving on.

Since then, there has been another decrease and according to the most recent census the population is sitting at 8,700.

In 2007 the county saw 106 subdivision applications, 78 in 2008, 45 in 2009, 61 in 2010, 55 in 2011, 71 in 2012 and in 2013 there were 69. “This year we’re going to be about the same . . . we’re on a similar pace to last year,” said Cutforth.

“We’re not seeing any huge variation in what’s been occurring over the last number of years,” he added.

Cutforth feels the only way for the county to maintain and grow its population is through subdivision because the retention of the farming community is not stable.

Despite large companies such as Gemini, Almita and Calnash Trucking employing large numbers of workers, Cutforth says there has not been a lot of industrial development in recent years, and the recently finalized Highway II corridor development plan will not make a dent “immediately.”

“I think our time is coming, when I don’t know,” said Cutforth.

There are two proposed developments along the corridor but Cutforth says they are nothing more than rumors at this point in time.

Highway development is a target area for businesses but one of the major obstacles for them and the county is getting services out there. The issue hasn’t been a big problem for the development in the northwest quadrant of the Highway 2 and Highway 53 intersection because those businesses operate on a self-contained system.

In the west end of Ponoka County, there is a flourishing oil and gas industry with a $250 million expansion in the works. “So that is definitely growing,” said Cutforth.

The majority of residential development is taking place in two areas of the county. The first is centered around marginal farmland located between Rimbey and Gull Lake and the other is the growing lakeside communities on the east side of the lake.

There are also multi-residential developments just outside of the town of Ponoka, especially to the south. One recent application was for 20 subdivided lots, says Cutforth.