On Guard in Cold Lake

Many communities across Alberta were built by the oil and gas industry. Cold Lake is not one of them.

It’s true, the oil and gas industry is the largest employer for the northeastern Alberta city, which is home to more than 15,000 people and sits nearly 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton and less than 20 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. But it’s also true Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Cold Lake has been a huge driver of the local economy for decades.

“It literally built this city back in the 1950s,” 
says long-time Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland. “The base workers buying homes have kept our residential sector stable, and the federal government is putting a lot of money into infrastructure improvement at the base, which in turn helps local businesses.”

Copeland is referring to a $32.2-million project that will see new sanitary and storm sewers installed, water mains upgraded and road reconstruction at CFB Cold Lake. He’s optimistic this project, which began in 2016, will become just one example in a long list of projects that brings increased economic activity to Cold Lake.

As far as Copeland is concerned, the opportunities are enormous, putting this military city on the radar for those who want to invest in a thriving community.

CFB Cold Lake is operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and is home to 4 Wing Cold Lake, which is the busiest fighter base in Canada. The federal government has been planning to add to its fighter jet fleet, and recent reports indicate more than 75 will be procured in the coming years.

“This will require billions in further infrastructure upgrades, which we hope will come to pass by 2023-24,” Copeland says.

As well as fighter pilot training and deployable support for domestic and international situations, 4 Wing Cold Lake also hosts the annual Maple Flag Exercise, which sees more than 1,500 people and Top Gun crews from all over the world descend on the city for two weeks in the summer.

Canada’s federal government spends approximately $25 billion a year on national defence and has promised to increase that to more than $30 billion a year during the next decade.

“When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out with his strategy to develop a greener and cleaner economy as well as earmarked a lot of money to defence, Alberta HUB undertook a study to determine the current state of our region, identify assets, and outline opportunities,” says Bob Bezpalko, executive director with the Northeast Alberta Information HUB (Alberta HUB), a regional economic alliance made up of 38 communities, including Cold Lake.

The Alberta HUB Aerospace Technology Defence Project evaluated the assets and capabilities within the Alberta HUB region to determine the potential of generating new economic activity related to the Aerospace Technology, Defence, and Unmanned Systems industries.

Bezpalko summarized the key findings and it’s good news. First, opportunities related to Canada’s defence policy and procurement strategy are abundant: yearly equipment procurement is rising from $6 billion to $10 billion per year, and the Future Fighter Program (valued at $14 billion)
 will see significant construction activity at CFB Cold Lake.

Bezpalko notes that these national budgets do filter down to local opportunities. “Approximately $10 million per year is spent on local procurement by the four Alberta military bases inclusive of Cold Lake,” he says.

One of those other bases is CFB Wainwright. The army base is one of the busiest bases in Canada and is home to the 3rd Canadian Division Training Centre. A little more than 225 kilometres south of CFB Cold Lake, CFB Wainwright sits in the area of the Battle River Alliance for Economic Development, a region that covers 25 communities and has a population of approximately 60,000 people.

As well as defence-related opportunities, the bases also offer opportunities related to energy efficiency and environment. The Department of National Defence is renovating many buildings to achieve LEED certification, and there are significant opportunities related to reclamation and remediation efforts at CFB Cold Lake.

“A key game changer would be for CFB Cold Lake to accommodate a daily commercial air carrier,” says Copeland. “We’re working hard to secure a carrier, and we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll get one.”