By Cole Parkinson
Regional economic opportunities have taken a hit this year largely in part to the COVID-19 pandemic but SouthGrow is hoping to get local business back on track.
In a delegation to the Municipal District of Taber on May 12, SouthGrow explained how they were dealing with the pandemic and the work they were doing in hopes to kickstart the economy.
“First of all, when this all hit, everybody in SouthGrow along with everyone else was scrambling to figure out how to get things rolling and how to make their own lives fit to the new normal in this upset situation,” explained Peter Casurella, executive director of SouthGrow. “When Economic Development Lethbridge came along, they said ‘we’ve got a plan. We already sit around the table and work on projects together with the attitude that we are all in this together and the economy is regional so let’s tackle this thing regionally as well.’ They presented the plan to SouthGrow, which the board reviewed, and we signed onto (it). We matched the dollars they were putting into it on the front end so we are an equal fiscal partner in the effort.”
With the introduction of a dedicated task force to contribute to economic recovery in southern Alberta, Casurella explained how the group would help the area.
“The intent of the regional economic recovery task force is to pool our resources to prevent the duplication of efforts so regional staffs are freed up to work on all the other demands on their time. Also to provide a one-stop-shop for support for both business owners and employees. What we have done at this point is put together a fairly effective task force, it was a little messy at the beginning because everyone was scrambling. We have a centralized website with services available, both from Economic Development Lethbridge and SouthGrow web page as well. Everybody in the region has the opportunity to link to it so they don’t have to build their own web pages,” he said.
A big addition for the area the task force is bringing is a hotline where business owners, employees and those who are affected by the pandemic can call to get some help. By calling 1-587-800-3356, people can gain access to free consultations with a variety of services.
“The second big thing we got up and rolling after we got the basic information ready was we made a hotline available. Right now, there is a phone number that anybody in the region can call and that phone number connects through to the six task force team leaders and they can talk to each of them about various things. The line also connects through to some support staff that are based out of Economic Development Lethbridge as well that everybody in the region has access to,” continued Casurella. “The other nice thing that is available online now is everybody who calls into that hotline can book a free appointment with a lawyer, a financial advisor, a business advisor or a technical advisor that is available through the National Research Council.”
“You don’t have to pay for these appointments and if you are a business owner or an employee who has lost their income, you can sit down with one of these experts to review your personal situation. This is time that has been volunteered by the partners who are involved with this initiative. We have had a lot of private businesses step to volunteer their people’s time,” said Casurella.
When Alberta continues further into its relaunch phase, the task force has more plans in store.
While not possible yet, when things do open up a bit more, the group will be heading into its own portion of a building to allow for face to face meetings.
“What’s coming in the future is we have had office space in Lethbridge donated to the task force so eventually when things loosen up, we will move this support centre into an actual brick and mortar centre where people can book their appointments and come sit down one on one with one of these advisors. It will be a place where we can plug in more assistance options as they come available,” stated Casurella.
On top of the economic task force, other areas have also been focused on by SouthGrow as they continue to deal with realities the pandemic has brought to the province.
One area they are excited to continue to work on is in tracking metrics. As this process started before COVID-19 really hit Alberta, they will have a good idea of what things were like before the pandemic, during and after.
“Other things that we are doing to support the recovery efforts — number one we are tracking metrics. We have been doing a lot of the tracking ourselves utilizing the capacity that is available through some of our partners but now, we have officially gone out and spent some of the task force money to hire a firm that is also a global site selector firm that is doing this kind of tracking for regions to tell us how the market is changing, how the actual numbers are changing so that we have data we can use on the backside of this to inform decisions we make going forward. It has the added benefit of putting our region on to the map,” added Casurella, who also detailed other ongoing work.
“We are also engaged with a labour market study for the entire region that you have probably heard of already. It’s a big regional effort and the timing was decent for that project because we just got started getting data flowing in from it when this hit. We were able to pause all of our data collection and adjust everything. We’ve got a bit of data from before COVID and we will have a lot of data in the middle and the back end. So the project has changed but we are still going to get the information we need to inform the development of our training here in the region to address skill gaps and labour shortages in the new market we are going to be experiencing as well.”
Casurella himself is also working on a project to attain money for labour in the area.
“I am working aggressively on applying for more money from the Alberta Government for the Labour Marketplace Partnerships Program to set up a regional import placement and capacity matching program. What I mean by that is, for example, business A in Taber has suddenly lost a bunch of their business because of the shut down of the oil sector in the region and other people not being able to order their services, but they have all of these big shops, equipment and capacity that can easily be transferred to another sector such as agri-food or industrial tech. It would be nice to have somebody in a chair working for a year or two who is identifying those opportunities and matching them up with another business that needs those services.”
In terms of labour numbers in Alberta, Casurella gave council an update on what they looked like in the middle of a pandemic. While the numbers were not favourable, he detailed why they were still lower than what had been predicted.
“It’s not as bad as a lot of economists thought it might be. It’s still pretty bad but southern Alberta got that advantage where we are kind of sheltered a bit. Nationally, the economy lost about two million jobs in April. Some economists were predicting up to four or five million. The unemployment rate hit about 13.4 per cent provincially which is up 4.7 per cent and 13 per cent nationally which is up 5.2 per cent,” he said.
Casurella also mentioned the Medicine Hat/Lethbridge area had been the least affected in the province but still sat at a 6.8 per cent unemployment rate as of early May.
To access the hotline, you can call 1-587-800-3356 or you can visit southgrow.com/recovery.