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In the shadow of Calgary, Cochrane's growth takes off

Downtown Cochrane, Alta.

The town of Cochrane's population has risen nearly 50 per cent in the past six years, and that activity shows no signs of waning

While Calgary's population suffered negative net migration in 2016, 18 kilometres west, the town of Cochrane's population grew by 4.5 per cent to reach 26,000 residents.

It's a familiar trend: four of the five fastest growing municipalities in Canada are located in Alberta – and Cochrane is at the top of that list, outgrowing its neighbouring cities of Airdrie and Chestermere. Since 2011, Cochrane's population has risen by nearly 50 per cent and its growth spurt is showing no signs of waning.

"We've have a growth strategy in place since 2013 which is aiming for a population of 66,000 by the year 2062," says Drew Hyndman, senior manager of development services for Cochrane.

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"Current trends are exceeding our initial forecast," he says. "We anticipated a two- to three-per-cent population rise for 2016 and we exceeded that. We're expecting 2017 will be higher again and we're preparing for that growth to continue."

Since 2010, more than 4,600 new dwelling units have been added to Cochrane's inventory, yet the town's resale numbers have remained strong. Calgary Real Estate Board's most recent monthly regional sales report for Cochrane states:

"So far this year sales growth outpaced the growth in new listings. Year-to-date residential sales totalled 262 units at the end of May. This is 11.5 per cent above the same period for 2016."

New housing developments in Cochrane, Alta.

Preparing to meet the housing demands of the town's growing population, a number of large developments are aiming to break ground in the next 18 months.

"Developments currently in planning stages include Precedence, which is the final stage of the Riversong community, Greystone and Southbow Landing," Mr. Hyndman says.

Collectively these developments alone could accommodate another 50 per cent population growth; Southbow Landing could house up to 9,000 residents upon completion.

"Existing communities of Fireside, the Willows, Sunset Ridge and Heartland will also accommodate further growth when they reach full build out," Mr. Hyndman adds.

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Mayor Ivan Brooker says Cochrane's growth plan is more than just a framework with which to manage the town's housing needs – it's a strategy to shift the dynamics of Cochrane from a commuter town to a place where people choose to live and work.

"We used to be a very bedroom-oriented community," Mr. Brooker says. "About 70 per cent of the population worked in Calgary, but that's reduced to about 50 per cent now and Cochrane is better for it. The town has become far more self-sustaining and we've been working hard on that for years. We recognized that we needed economic independence and diversity."

The town is aiming for a population of 66,000 by the year 2062.

Achieving diversity, Mr. Brooker says, means Cochrane is "somewhat immune to the boom and bust cycles" of neighbouring Calgary, which he says accounts for the town's continued growth.

"We've been trying to create a culture where Cochrane can thrive as a high-tech business community. Garmin is currently building a brand new facility here that will double their work force," he says. "4iiii Innovations is another great example. They have European cycling teams purchasing their technologies, power meters and such, and are a great local success story."

Mr. Brooker says Cochrane is keen to attract more tech businesses to take up residence in the town and they're ensuring future developments are planned with this in mind.

It's a task that Mr. Hyndman says is "a bigger challenge right now because the office vacancy rate downtown in Calgary is so high. To get those businesses who can get prime office space in downtown Calgary for a steal to relocate is tough."

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Mr. Brooker believes Cochrane has what it takes.

"Those kind of technology businesses want a certain quality of life for their employees. They look for great locations close to nature and the outdoors and places with exceptional athletic facilities and a variety of quality housing options," he explains. "Cochrane already has many of those things and we're doing a lot to bolster them with additional facilities. We're about to open a new recreation centre for example, which will have a curling rink and a huge aquatics centre. We're integrating commercial centres into developments to ensure businesses have space to grow and infrastructure to establish themselves here."

Equivalent homes in Cochrane can be up to $100,000 cheaper than in Calgary, according to David Allen, project adviser on Greystone.

The largest of Cochrane's future planned developments, Southbow Landing, aims to break ground next year with a build-out period of 15 years. The 545-acre site will feature a large employment centre as well as schools, retail and a village core.

"Philco Farms has owned this site for more than 40 years," says James Scott, vice-president of planning for PBA Land and Development, which is managing the project. "The town annexed the land for planned growth back in 2004. In 2007, Cochrane started to undergo a phenomenal rate of growth and the market was showing signs of really taking off. That's when we started the early planning process and began detailed planning in 2013; the neighbourhood plan was approved in 2015."

"The idea is that it will be a complete community," he continues. "There's a push right now towards growing businesses in Cochrane and attracting them from out of town and we're trying to do both with our project."

Greystone is also a mixed-use development. It too includes a business park, while shops, offices, restaurants and a hotel are envisioned for the core. It also aims to break ground in 2018.

Aside from consistent demand and immunity to the boom and bust cycles of Calgary, the task of building communities is cheaper and easier in Cochrane, Greystone's developer says.

"It costs less to get more in Cochrane," explains David Allen, president of Situated, Greystone's project adviser. "It can be up to $100,000 less for an equivalent home versus Calgary. It's also a smaller town so there is not as much bureaucracy as a larger city," he continues. "Generally the development rules and process are similar to that of Calgary but there is a common sense approach and closer engagement with decision makers and the community which is rewarding and, we think, results in better outcomes."

Mr. Scott agrees than "developing within a smaller framework is certainly easier," but says he thinks the economies enjoyed by developers in Cochrane could be waning.

"Cochrane's growth has in the past been more economical and I would argue it still is but I believe there will be some tempering of that ahead," he says. "With increased growth, especially at this rate, comes a need to deal with the complexities that come with it – a key one being infrastructure. …

"There is a catch-up which has to happen, but Cochrane has been very pro-active in dealing with that," he continues. "There are big moves ahead in infrastructure, like the new bridge crossing over the Bow River, and with those come more cost to developers through off-site levies. It's still relatively less expensive, certainly, but I would foresee that gap beginning to close as more infrastructure is needed in Cochrane.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing," he adds, "it's good that Cochrane recognizes the need to manage growth appropriately."

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