Town of Sylvan Lake has been doing a deep dive into the pros and cons of becoming a city.
Town economic development officer Amanda Mercer has researched what becoming a city would mean and the results suggest few advantages.
Mercer recently looked into the experiences of Chestermere and Beaumont and found that while many in those communities believed becoming cities was a good move there is little hard evidence it provided any significant economic development benefits.
Chestermere, just outside of Calgary, opted to become a city in 2014, driven in large part by local residents’ belief it would improve local shopping and restaurant options and attract services.
At the time, only four per cent of the community’s tax base was commercial. It has since grown to seven per cent in the community of 22,000.
Likewise, Beaumont, which has about 21,000 residents, saw city status as a marketing tool to attract more businesses. The community saw some improvement in its commercial tax base to 10 per cent from six per cent in 2019, when it made the switch.
Those modest improvements suggest that the notion city status can be used to help lure investment to the community is exaggerated.
“For those communities, being so close to the Leduc industrial park and Calgary, there may have been some benefits in terms of being able to market and talk about their community in a new way and get the word out that they are open for business,” said Mercer.
“But in terms of investment attraction, there is no proof to say that if you become a city businesses are going to look at you more closely than if you are a town.
“And I think we’re proof of that,” she said.
Sylvan Lake has many of the kinds of businesses, industries and shopping options, such as a Canadian Tire and Walmart, that are found in much larger communities.
“It’s based on location, your access to a work force and access to the right mix of things that particular business needs.”
The belief that city status puts communities in line for more provincial funding is also out of date. These days, almost all provincial grants — a municipal transportation grant is an exception — are doled out solely on a per-capita basis, regardless of the community’s designation.
Changing a community’s status can also be divisive. When Beaumont went to the public for their thoughts, the community was evenly split between those who believed becoming a city would lead to more opportunities and those who feared the loss of its small town roots.
For Sylvan Lake, its town roots “convey a message about our community that we are quaint, unique, and vibrant, among other positive descriptors,” says Mercer in a report she prepared for council.
“These roots are the backbone of our tourism economy. The description of ‘town’ is marketable and
popular among visitors from across Alberta and beyond.”
Any change to city status, would require careful handling so the community’s small-town feel is not lost, she says.
There would also be costs involved, such as changing everything from signs, parking tags and tax notices to vehicle decals and the town website.
As well, the City of Sylvan Lake would be required to take over maintenance of Highway 20 unless an agreement with the province to leave it in its hands could be arranged.
There is no intention at this time to pursue the city status question any further, said Mercer. The town may put it to residents on a future community survey to get their feedback.