SPORTS

The Grande Games

The XVth Canada Games come to a booming Alberta town

MARY NEMETH February 20 1995
SPORTS

The Grande Games

The XVth Canada Games come to a booming Alberta town

MARY NEMETH February 20 1995

The Grande Games

SPORTS

The XVth Canada Games come to a booming Alberta town

Cherri and Dave Parsons’ home town of Lethbridge, Nfld., was draining of life. Crop prices were down and the fishery was failing. And then one night late last summer, marauding moose ate the Parsons’ entire cabbage crop, ravaging a summer’s work. That was the final blow. In September, the Parsons packed up all the clothes and pots and pans they could cram into suitcases and flew out to Grande Prairie (population 29,600), a patch of booming Alberta 450 km northwest of Edmonton. It took Dave Parsons just six hours after he landed in town to find a job as a carpenter. A week later, a rival employer walked boldly onto his job site and handed him work at an extra $5 an hour. In the meantime, Cherri had found a job as a front-desk clerk at a local hotel, where she can work all the overtime she can handle—and more this month when the Canada Games come to town and all the hotels and banquet rooms will be packed. “It’s crazy here,” says Cherri Parsons, 28. “Absolutely nuts.”

On Feb. 19, when the XVth Canada Games for elite young athletes aged 12 to 25 open in Grande Prairie—the smallest, most northerly and arguably the busiest site ever to host the event—it will be only icing on an already rich cake. The Peace River region, of which Grande Prairie is the economic centre, is prime agricultural country, and farming has been particularly strong over the past two years. But oil and gas is also booming—with feverish drilling in the area last year, as well as a new sour-gas plant and plenty of new pipeline to be laid. And the forestry sector is flourishing, with a $129-million particle-board plant going up just outside town. All that, in turn, has led to more construction in the city—houses, condominiums and new retail stores. Unemployment is at 3.1 per cent (compared with 9.7 per cent across Canada), and the vacancy rate for rental properties is virtually nil.

Unable to find apartments, families moving to town have had to live for months in hotels, jostling for space with the oil crews who come for a few days at a time. Grande Prairie Mayor Gordon Graydon was part of the bid committee that, in 1990, beat out rivals Red Deer and BanffCanmore to secure the Canada Games for the city. “I thought, ‘If nothing else, we’ll have the hotels full for two weeks in February,’ ” recalls Graydon with a grin. “As it turns out, that’s almost the last thing we need.”

The boom, in fact, caused a banging headache for Games organizers struggling to house up to 10,000 officials, parents, journalists and spectators. Visitors are booked into hotels as far away as Dawson City, B.C., an hour’s drive northwest, while some technical officials will be housed in unoccupied rooms at

the local Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Centre. Organizers have provided an indoor RV park in a city services facility, and they hired two people full time IV2 years ago to make arrangements for residents to open their homes. “We’ve tried to scratch every surface of accommodation earth,” says Games general

manager Kerry Moynihan. And with more than 500 visitors already billeted in homes and more space available, he says, “our message to the nation is that we have room here.” The 3,500 coaches, managers and competitors, including such up-and-comers as Banff s Megan Mullen in Alpine skiing, and Montreal gymnast Martin Fournier, will stay in an athletes’ village—new aluminum trailers leased for the occasion and spruced up with rustic log facades.

Even Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will make an appearance for opening ceremonies. He originally declined the invitation—news

that caused much hand-wringing in town—but Games officials eventually prevailed. Last week, organizers were installing phones and faxes, hanging banners and otherwise putting the finishing touches on venues. And inmates, along with their guards, from the provincial Grande Cache Correctional Centre—who have been building coatracks and podiums, and clearing brush for the Nordic Centre for more than three years—were making last-minute adjustments. “It’s better out here doing something productive than sitting in the centre, wasting away,” says Rob Marks, 28, who is serving 15 months for a crime he said he would rather not discuss.

Meanwhile, suppliers last week were beginning to deliver juice and other nonperishable foods to the athletes’ village, the first items on a shopping list that includes 18,000 litres of milk, 500 kg of cheese and 6,000 kg of meat— plus 30 steers for two ^ baron-of-beef dinners. And I volunteers were accredit3 ing other volunteers— I there will be 7,000 in all. “I § couldn’t imagine not being z involved,” said Joan I Wright, the 59-year-old co5 chairman of participant ac‘it’s crazy here’ creditation, who has worked on the project for

five years. “Especially these days, when the country’s being threatened by a split, amateur sport puts people on friendly terms more than anything else—except maybe Christmas.” After all the work and excitement, Wright said she fears the letdown when the Games are over. And among longtime residents, there is a more generalized fear that what unseasoned newcomers happily call an economic boom could come crashing to a halt as quickly as the last one did. “You’re not going to use the B-word are you?” asks an anxious Chamber of Commerce president Michael O’Connor. During the last oil-based boom, in the late 1970s, he said, there were tent cities of workers who could not find accommodation. Construction companies building furiously to cash in on demand were left with hundreds of unsold houses when the crash came in 1982. ‘We just want steady growth,” said O’Connor. Last week, though, the only thing steady about Grande Prairie was the constant stream of 18-wheelers and service trucks plying the highway into town, past the Canada Games workmen decorating light standards with Canadian flags. Then again, as many hardpressed places will attest, there are worse names to be called than boomtown.

MARY NEMETH in Grande Prairie