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The Globe and Mail

Yukon’s resource riches spur Whitehorse real-estate records

Catherine Poole photo: Mountain Reflection - Kluane National Park, Yukon. September 11, 2011

Catherine Poole/Catherine Poole

A mining rush in Yukon that promises billions in spending is feeding a prolonged boom in Whitehorse, now experiencing its third year of setting real-estate records amid a deluge of people moving to the northern territory.

The latest figures show the territory set a first-quarter real-estate sales record this year with more than $50-million in transactions, surpassing the previous high, set in 2011, by 40 per cent. That comes after Yukon property sales of $250-million in 2011 surged nearly 10 per cent more than the level in 2010, which had been a record-breaking year.

Even for a territory whose reliance on fast-swinging mineral prices had made it prone to booms and busts, this latest run has "been very strong," said Terry Bergen, one of the owners of the Coldwell Banker office in Whitehorse. Mr. Bergen has been selling houses there since 1979. He has not seen anything like this.

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"This is unusual," he said.

But then, so is the magnitude of the economic fortune washing over Yukon, whose riches of gold, copper, silver and zinc have made it home to heady good times. Since 2003, the territory's population has swelled by 5,500, an 18-per-cent increase in less than a decade. Its participation rate, a measure of how many people are actively working or looking for work, is second highest in Canada. Earlier this year, it set a record for the size of its labour force.

Yukon saw a 5.6-per-cent rise in GDP last year, and the Conference Board of Canada has projected 4.3-per-cent annual growth over the next decade, as mineral prices drive an economic resurgence.

In 2002, there was $10-million in mineral exploration spending. Last year, Yukon topped $300-million, as companies set a record for claim staking. With three operating mines, and the prospect of another dozen by 2018 – together, those projects stand to spend $5.2-billion – the territory has been ebullient about its economic position in Canada. "Only Yukon and Alberta have the fiscal resources available to fund future government operations without creating net debt," Premier Darrell Pasloski told the Yukon Chamber of Commerce earlier this year. He added: "If one of the major mine projects goes into production, the territorial economy will prosper for the next several decades, not just the next decade."

But he acknowledged growth has created major challenges, and the first he listed was housing and land availability. Land around Whitehorse, where much of the population growth has come, is controlled by the territorial government, which has been faulted by some for being slow to opening it to development after its last major subdivision sold out eight years ago.

The resulting shortage has been part of the reason why, over the past half decade, housing prices have doubled and land values tripled. Whitehorse rental vacancy hovers around 1 per cent – or roughly 10 empty apartments in a market with just 1,000 units.

In a bid to ease some of the housing pain, the territory is about to launch the first of several measures to bring new supply. On Sept. 26, residents will find out results of a land lottery for the first phase of Whistle Bend, a new 250-hectare neighbourhood that could eventually be home to 8,000 people. The prospect of new supply has already contributed to an easing in housing prices, with an average single-family home down more than 8 per cent from its high last year.

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Still, the new housing is likely to be needed. The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce believes another 5,000 to 6,000 people will move to the capital city in the next five years. Its president, Rick Karp, who is also running for mayor, points to one planned mine alone, the Western Copper and Gold Casino project, that will employ 1,000 Yukoners if it is built.

"We're really on the cusp of this new focus in the North and new economic development potential in the North," he said. "Opportunities are galore and the North is where everyone should be headed."

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