A provincial report into the cost of living in Alberta has distinguished Canmore as the most expensive municipality, slightly edging out Fort McMurray for the top spot.
In an analysis of 34 communities, comparing prices for various goods and services, housing and transportation, Canmore ranks first followed by Fort Mac, Jasper, Grande Prairie, High Prairie, Rocky Mountain House and Calgary.
Mayor Ron Casey said the survey verifies what everyone has known all along and confirms why it is so important for the municipality to continue work on affordable housing initiatives.
“This report does nothing but confirm that continuing to focus on families and making it as affordable as possible to live here as a family should continue,” Casey said, adding housing and utilities is the one area the municipality can influence.
“So much of this we have no control over, but with the housing price we have an opportunity to participate in and try to sustain a level of housing that’s acceptable.”
While the fact Canmore has a high cost for housing is no surprise, Casey pointed out the survey shows that incrementally, over a broad range of categories, the cost of living in town adds up.
“It appears right across the board we are simply paying more,” he said. “When we look at this it is not just cost of housing, but a series of other things that add up and make it more expensive to live here.”
The mayor pointed out the cost of retail space, when it comes to consumer goods and groceries for example, is reflected in the costs because of the limited amount of space in the community.
“When it costs more to rent, it transfers to everything you do,” he said.
The 2010 Alberta Spatial Price Survey includes a broad range of everyday goods and services, housing and transportation costs. In total, up to 293 individual items were tracked in each municipality over a two-week period in June 2010.
The index used Edmonton as a baseline (100 points) and scores communities based on that comparison.
Cost of living in Canmore totals 111.9 on the index, versus 93.7 for Lloydminster, which was the least expensive municipality. Fort McMurray measured 111.7 on the scale.
The report is produced by the province every two years on behalf of the department of education, with the data used to help it adjust differentials between various school boards.
ATB Financial economist Dan Sumner pointed out that the vast majority of communities, with the exception of the extremes at the top and bottom including Canmore, are within five per cent of each other overall when it comes to cost of living.
Another point, Sumner said, is the index assumes all goods and services are being purchased locally.
“This data assumes that if you live in Canmore you buy everything in Canmore,” he said, adding the numbers may be overstated as a result.
Sumner pointed to commodities surveyed in the index like a TV or other appliances, as types of consumer goods that are likely more expensive in the tourist town.
He also said residents of Canmore may choose to live in the community because of its scenery and its associated amenities, rather than affordability.
“Having to pay a little bit higher cost of living may be a small thing for a lot of people,” Sumner said. “There are other things (than cost of living) that drive people to live in Canmore.”
Canmore Economic Development Authority executive director Teresa Mullen noted the 2010 report is the first that has seen Canmore take the top spot.
However, she also said the index is not comparable over time with other reports and does not speak to whether Canmore is more expensive than it was when the other indexes were conducted.
“You cannot compare year-to-year in terms of where you sit,” Mullen said. “It does not mean prices have gone up or down.”
Instead, it is a comparison between municipalities at one point in time – two weeks in June last year.
Mullen said the factor that puts Canmore so high up on the index has and always will be the cost of housing in the community.
“It is the housing costs that really make the numbers high,” she said. “It is relevant information for moving here and living here.
“It creates a community challenge where we have to look at alternatives to traditional housing.”
The survey examined housing costs, mortgage interest rates, property taxes, rental costs and insurance. Canmore, in relation to shelter, had an index score of 121.2, but was not the highest in the province when compared to a 139.4 index score for Fort McMurray. Jasper was the only other municipality to score higher than Edmonton with a 115 shelter index score.
Re/Max Alpine Realtor Richard Greaves said it is no surprise Canmore has a high score in that particular category, but warned with a market that is constantly in flux a two-week period is not a true overall reflection of housing costs.
“We have so many properties at so many price levels that to take a two-week window does not fairly reflect the full extent of the Canmore real estate market,” Greaves said. “We don’t know what type of listing the index is looking at.”
In June last year, he said, there were 35 properties sold at an average price of $618,714, while March 2011 saw 26 properties sold at an average price of $527,496.
The first quarter of 2010 saw almost a unit a day sold in Canmore whereas for 2011 that has dropped 25 per cent and the average price also fell by approximately 10 per cent.
Greaves said last year single family homes saw a six per cent increase in sales prices over 2009, but the rest of the market saw an eight per cent decline. In addition, 25 per cent of single family homes sold last year were over $1 million.
“We are definitely one, if not the most, expensive town in Alberta, but to give true validity to a study like this may require more than a snapshot,” he said.
One surprising index score was the cost of restaurant meals, which also saw Canmore take the most expensive spot with an index score of 112.9, with Rocky Mountain House and High Level close behind.
Again, the majority of municipalities were within five per cent of Edmonton as a baseline and the survey looked at a breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and take out meals in each community.
Sage Bistro owner Todd Kunst said while he could not speak specifically to the survey results, using a sample pool of five different meals in a small town cannot be used to generalize overall cost of restaurant meals.
Kunst also pointed out that a higher cost of living in this case could be said to lead to a higher cost in restaurants.
“Generally speaking, with a higher cost of living in Canmore than other towns and regions, we deal with having to subsidize employees’ cost of living through wages,” he said. “With the cost of housing, rent (both commercial and residential) and higher municipal taxes than other towns, it naturally costs more to do business.”
Another important factor for Canmore is the caliber of dining options, which Kunst said is far superior to many of the other communities included in the survey.
“This reflects the uniqueness of Canmore and its draw for visitors and locals alike,” he said. “This is probably the most misleading point of the survey in my opinion.
“I think that we are very lucky as locals to have such a variety of family-run independent restaurants for a town our size and we also have the opportunity to showcase this to our visitors from around the world.”
According to the report, Canmore is the most expensive for: recreation and leisure, transportation, clothing, personal care products, household equipment, meat, fish, poultry and substitutes, frozen and packaged foods.
It did not rank most expensive for utilities, household supplies, household services, fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, fats and oils, cereals and breads, processed fruits and vegetables.
Utilities were the only index item that had a score lower than Edmonton.
To view the report in its entirety, go to http://www.albertacanada.com/about-alberta/cost-studies.html