They built it and now they’re coming

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One year after opening, the northwest leg of Anthony Henday Drive is already bearing economic fruit for St. Albert

Even in today’s world, $1.42 billion can buy a lot, except when it comes to transportation.

For example, expanding Edmonton’s LRT system to St. Albert would cost approximately $100 million per kilometre of track. Roads stretch construction dollars further, but not by much. The price tag for completing the 21-kilometre northwest leg of Anthony Henday Drive – from Yellowhead Trail to Manning Drive – cost an estimated $1.42 billion.

But in the eyes of many in St. Albert, bringing the future ring road to within a stone’s throw of the city limits was money well spent.

“Location, location, location,” said Guy Boston, St. Albert’s executive director of economic development. “We couldn’t move St. Albert but this certainly brought St. Albert in the metaphoric sense into the Capital region more than we could have done on our own.”

Yes the trip to the international airport now takes 30 minutes instead of more than an hour and its major arteries, such as the Yellowhead and Whitemud are much more accessible. But the reverse is also true, and those working in the trenches of St. Albert’s economy are, one year after the northwest leg officially opened, already noticing.

“It’s been a real ride. The road has certainly helped everybody in St. Albert. I can’t say enough good things about it,” said Ivan Mayer, owner of Crackmaster Distributors, president of the Riel Business Association and chair of the St. Albert economic development advisory committee.

“We’re now getting more people from Edmonton in our own personal business when I tell them how easy it is to get here. It takes 15 minutes,” Mayer said.

It is in that vein that the Henday has been the most successful. Yes St. Albert residents can now get from point A to point B in a fraction of the time, but for some in the business community the enhancement of the city’s economic diversity has been the real success story. There was a lot of talk of potential in 2011, but for many that potential has been realized and amplified beyond expectation.

Mike Keating, a commercial realtor with Colliers International, has watched as once dormant parcels of land in Campbell Park have been snapped up with increasing frequency.

“Just off the top of my head, in Campbell Business Park, there’s easily six new businesses that wouldn’t be in St. Albert if it wasn’t for the Henday. A year ago we had a lot more pickings than we had today and a number of those tenants wouldn’t be there today,” he said.

But the Henday is just one factor — how the city prepared for its arrival, like extended family awaiting the birth of a new niece or nephew, is also a contributing factor. Before the northwest leg was even a speck on a satellite image, St. Albert decided to prepare itself for the deluge of traffic by making sure its own offspring were ready. Vital connector roads such as Ray Gibbon Drive, Veness Road and LeClair Way have either received or are receiving upgrades to ensure that when traffic gets to St. Albert, it can easily get to its destination.

“Let’s face it, those were built for the betterment of development. They weren’t built for residents today but for residents of tomorrow,” said Mayor Nolan Crouse. “You had to do those. You had to do the other connectors.”

LeClair Way and Ray Gibbon Drive allow access to Riel and the future employment lands – the 280 hectares (700 acres) of land earmarked for industrial expansion – while Veness Road is being improved for better access to Campbell.

“I think it’s fundamental because non-residential developers require proper transportation networks,” Crouse said.

Those developers will need more land in the near future, Keating pointed out. With parcels in Campbell selling briskly, St. Albert’s stock of non-residential, serviced land is growing smaller. Colliers now has only five remaining lots in Campbell. Hopewell recently sold its lands in South Riel.

“The challenge will be, will we have any space available for the companies that are interested in locating in St. Albert?” Keating said. “There really isn’t any other source right now.”

That isn’t stopping St. Albert from promoting the benefits of the transportation network to developers it has been actively pursuing. Boston is still waiting for a traffic count from the Henday, but says access to it plays a major role in a developer’s decision.

“I think that investors are dealing with properties that interest them because of the proximity to Anthony Henday Drive,” Boston said. “Now that the Henday is here, it is bringing to us what we expected and knew it would. One year is proof positive of that in the calls we get.”

There are still enhancements the city and the region are looking for. Earlier this year Crouse noticed there were few signs on the Henday that actually pointed to where St. Albert was. As a result of lobbying the province, there are now signs that indicate where access is. Completing the remaining northeast leg is also important, as it will open St. Albert up to the entire north side of Edmonton. That project will open in 2016, completing the entire ring road.

“(The Henday) certainly has been a game changer for St. Albert and it will only improve once the last leg is finished,” Keating said. “The traffic and the demand will just increase that much more.”

Mayer also wants to see a more concerted effort in explaining to people in the region that the road can take you to St. Albert, a fact he believes many still don’t understand.

“We could have done a better job educating the public,” Mayer said. “My thoughts are that marketing is the next thing. We’ve done a fairly decent job but we could do better to let people know how easy it is to get to St. Albert.”

But Mayer says in just one year, he’s seen growth he expected would take three to four years. As completion of the entire Henday wraps up in the next four years, he believes St. Albert is seeing the early stages of what will be exponential growth.

“This is just the first year. It will continue to grow,” he said. “We are sitting on the edge of one million people. All you have to do is give them an easy way to get to us. Build a better road and the world is at your door.”

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