By Cole Parkinson
While 2020 is behind us, the effects are still being felt.
For SouthGrow, the year of 2020 saw plenty of changes for the organization, and like everyone else, they had to adapt to the strange circumstances that COVID-19 brought.
A delegation from SouthGrow was in Municipal District of Taber council chambers during their regular meeting on July 27 to give an update on several interesting items.
SouthGrow was established in 2003 and focuses on economic development in alliance with south/central Alberta communities.
“In our strategic planning this last year, as we completed a three-year strategic cycle, the board basically looked at two main important things,” explained Peter Casurella, SouthGrow executive director. “Number one — three-year strategic plans are a fool’s errand, we have learned because the world shifts far faster in Alberta these days than our strategic plan can account for. So, when we set our strategic plan three years in advance, by the time we got to the final years there were things that just didn’t make sense anymore because the material conditions on the ground have shifted radically. We are learning and improving, and are now setting a strategic framework and we built our operational plans based on the realities of the year we are in. We’re giving that a shot.”
Learning from the previous year, SouthGrow is moving forward with a sense of building better collaborations as well.
“The other thing is we are focusing much more on the mandate of SouthGrow as an organization that builds collaborations. This is for several reasons — number one, because our funding is getting tighter and higher, as you can appreciate. We just don’t have the capacity to do the on-the-ground work as much as we would like to or hope to, although I will talk about how our capacity has increased substantially over what it used to be. We have more capacity within the organization now than I think we ever have despite the fiscal constraints and despite the realities of the environment we are working in,” added Casurella.
In reviewing the previous year, Casurella admits it was a challenge for the group.
With the pandemic bringing zero sense of normalcy for many months of 2020, he explained how the group worked through it and how they were able to accomplish a lot in the 12 months.
“Last year…it was a weird year and I don’t have to go too much into that,” said Casurella, with a chuckle. “SouthGrow pivoted and partnered with Lethbridge Economic Development and the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce, and some other partners throughout the region to provide an economic recovery task force, which basically tried to place a one-stop-shop in place so business people from across the region could access all of the shifting information in real-time as it was happening. We organized the information, made it easy and picked up the phone to talk to anybody to give them advice and shuttle them towards what they needed.”
In order to set up the one-stop-shop, SouthGrow brought in a variety of different industries for anyone looking for help.
“We also put in place a stable of experts so anybody throughout the region could call in and talk to a lawyer, or an insolvency trustee or business advisor, or an accountant for free — all volunteered from organizations within our network. About 25 per cent of calls were from businesses throughout the region. So, considering the mix, I thought that was fairly good and the difficulties with communicating the program out to the region as well,” continued Casurella.
He also explained a project the group worked on in Vulcan County.
“We helped out in the Buffalo Plains Wind project economic assessment. There was a lot of pushback up in northern Vulcan County towards the new wind farm that’s wanting to go up there. We were asked by councillors in that region ‘can you help us on the communication on this?’ Our mandate is economic development, so we specifically looked at the economic impacts of that project, and evaluated and compared them to known and established outcomes from other wind projects throughout the region,” explained Casurella. “I was shocked by the returns on that. Number one, that project, we discovered, is best in class for its community give back. Basically, there’s more money being funneled back to the local communities from that project than comparable projects. Number two, I think the most impactful part of that project was that we talked directly to municipal administrators in other counties and communities that have benefited from wind projects throughout the years. The feedback was overwhelmingly good and positive.”
Another focus for the group has been around renewable energy and the lack of transmission capacity across the province.
“Another thing that was new in the last year is we started getting involved in an energy AI working group out of the University of Calgary. A big, looming problem the province is facing, and all of Canada is facing really, is as we change our energy mix and we go more and more to renewable energy projects, and distributed generation, which is a necessary transition, the transition capacity and system has to change with it. We need to distribute energy smarter, and in different ways, and transmission upgrades are lagging behind demand for different kinds of energy as well,” stated Casurella.
While the problem persists, Casurella did explain the federal government has started to put some money towards grid modernization.
“The feds have realized this and have dumped $650 million into a pot that is available for transmission and grid modernization across the country, but it is something we need to start moving aggressively on. This Southern Alberta Alternative Energy Partnership, which SouthGrow is one-third of, has reached out, which has a new executive director over there — the Palliser Economic Partnership,” he said. “They’re around Medicine Hat, for reference, and they have now come on board and joined our organization. So now it’s four organizations spanning southern Alberta that covers 90 per cent of the regions in Alberta that produce renewable energy. Together, we have quite a powerful voice and our intent and our hope is not just to continue doing the ground level renewable energy development that we do and providing information and education to towns and how they can take advantage of it, but also to start talking to the provincial government about grid modernization — which is the next piece we need to keep the billions of dollars of investment flowing into southern Alberta.”
Despite all the good news, there was some bad news delivered to the M.D. after the lack of funding shut down several programs.
“We saw the completion of the on-farm energy program which was sad to go. Vern Steinborn, a local Taber guy, was running that for us for three and a half years, and his role was to help local producers access grants because government paperwork it’s hard, it’s intimidating and not everybody has the digital skills to navigate that. We landed tens of millions of dollars for projects in southern Alberta over the life of that program. Unfortunately, it was cancelled by the existing government,” said Casurella, who also explained the loss of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta. “Very sorry to say we lost the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta, which has a vote coming up to dissolve the organization. They were defunded and there just isn’t enough funding around to keep them rolling. They did a lot of great work putting southern Alberta on the global stage.”