Booming business growth providing opportunities in Moose Jaw, Sask.

While Saskatoon and Regina have been in the national spotlight in recent years due to their economic performance, one small but progressive city in Saskatchewan has flown under the radar. Like the province as a whole, Moose Jaw has experience strong years recently due to the growth of potash. In fact, the resource giant Mosaic Potash is just a 15 minute drive from Moose Jaw in the industrial corridor between the city and Regina.

But the city has also been taking strides to carve its own path to success by diversifying its economy. The most high-profile project coming to the city is the Multiplex, a 4,500 seat hockey arena plus curling rink that will be situated in the downtown core. The $60-million project got a big boost in the form of federal stimulus money to move construction forward. Site preparation is now underway and the project will create numerous construction jobs as well as service jobs once completed.

The city's Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort, which showcases the hot mineral-rich waters piped from the ancient sea-beds that lie deep beneath the city, is a big tourist attraction. The spa consistently operates at over 80% occupancy (179 hotel rooms). Casino Moose Jaw is another big tourism draw.

Furthermore, despite a global economic downturn, 91 new businesses started in Moose Jaw between January and July 2009, marking a 50% increase over the same period last year. Some big box stores have set up shop in the city, but the majority of the startups were small businesses. "This is proof that the entrepreneurial environment in our city continues to be very healthy," says Deb Thorn, CEO of the South Central Enterprise Region.

Indeed, Moose Jaw is gaining a reputation a as great place to do business. A KPMG Competitive Alternatives Study in 2008 ranked the city number one for cost competitiveness for the North American Mid-West. Also, Financial Post Markets -

Canadian Demographics estimates 2008 retail sales in the city were 38% higher than the per capita average.

These factors have driven Moose Jaw's real estate boom in recent years. Housing prices spiked 28.6 per cent in 2007, 32 per cent the following year, and they've even grown another two per cent as of July this year. That said, Moose Jaw is still one of the most affordable cities in Canada with the average single family home selling for about $180,000.

What's interesting is the city's new home construction market has kept up a torrent pace even as other markets in the province stall. Construction of single detached homes increased 25 per cent year-to-date as of July 1. In all, the value of building permits in Moose Jaw totaled about $26 million in the first half of this year.

This construction has actually helped keep vacancy rates extremely low at 0.6%. Many of the laborers for such projects are from out of town and thus seek rental accommodations during their stay. Also contributing to rental demand has been an influx of people from Alberta due to ailing job prospects in the oil and gas sector.

In fact, Moose Jaw saw experienced its first positive immigration in 22 years in 2007, a trend that continued in 2008 and 2009. The city's low vacancy rate also reflects a much broader trend, with new rental housing developments off sharply across the province, and in some cases up to 90 per cent. Thus, one issue for economic development going forward is to encourage the construction of new rental units, says Thorn.

Moose Jaw's rental property universe consists of single family homes, many of which are divided up into suites, as well as apartment buildings. Jim Millar, executive officer with the Moose Jaw Real Estate Board, estimate that about one-third of the city's rental properties are located in the downtown core. Many of these properties are rented to students of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology Palliser Campus.

One investor listed a revenue property near the campus for $159,900 this summer. The property included a large three-bedroom suite on the main floor, and two one-bedrooms on second level. One strategy the seller suggested was to live on main floor and let tenants in the upper suites make the mortgage payments. Rents for a one-bedroom suite go for around $500 per month.

Much of The Friendly City's success stems from its quality of life. It's a nice place to live that's easy to get around, has low crime rate and is just 45 minutes away from the larger Regina. This factor is clear to Thorn by the fact that so many of those who work on the city's military base are choosing to retire in the city. "They travel all over the world but choose to stay here," she says proudly.

From the November 2009 issue of CRE

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