By Cole Parkinson
As Alberta agriculture continues to be a major economic focus for post-COVID living, SouthGrow Regional Initiative is continuing to look at Canada’s premier food corridor as a lucrative market in southern Alberta.
The Municipal District of Taber is also hoping more development comes to the area as they look towards the future after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s where we think we have a chance to shine,” said Reeve Merrill Harris at the M.D.’s regular meeting on July 27. As a delegation, SouthGrow Executive Director Peter Casurella explained how the group hopes southern Alberta can take advantage of the opportunity presented to them at this point.
“The opportunity of the premier food corridor is the same opportunity that Silicon Valley has taken advantage of. And actually, weirdly enough, Atlanta, Georgia, is a flooring superpower. Apparently, if you’re in the world of flooring, Atlanta is the place to be,” he explained. “You create a cluster of industries all in one geographical location and not only does your region become known for that to help with your collective marketing efforts, but you also create an ecosystem that starts to take on its own weather. When you have a whole bunch of people working together in the same market space, they start to talk to each other and they have innovative ideas that start to cross-collaborate together. Then, a couple of people from this company say ‘hey, let’s start our own company.’”
Casurella explained how municipalities can promote the area to bring investors in.
“Number one, supporting the entrepreneur environment along the corridor with your economic development department so that new entrepreneurs have the opportunities and support they need to grow and to get past that initial hurdle of education of funding access scaling. Number two, to roll it into your collective marketing efforts with the other communities in that initiative so southern Alberta really starts to pull ahead as a brand. The brand has got great traction so far. You’ve seen the premier talk about it in announcements, which is fantastic.”
With suggestions made, council asked Casurella if the M.D. could do anything more to better prepare for any potential development in the area.
“We’ve got hamlets in our municipality and we’ll have Highway 3. What could we do as an M.D. to help prepare for that as well? They’ll want water, Internet and people,” stated Coun. Tamara Miyanaga.
“My advice here is partnerships, to be honest,” replied Casurella. “Building the utilities and the infrastructure for the utility environment is expensive and it’s difficult. You’ve got land and you have access to the fields. I would suggest increasing your partnerships with the town as far as utility provision goes. There’s definitely things to explore there. Wastewater is going to be one of the largest components that needs to be looked at in the future. Ben (Young, M.D. planning and economic development officer) is very well informed on this and can definitely advise on that front. Wastewater is the key to securing some of the largest industrials.”
SouthGrow also focused on the labour force. Casurella explained that would be a challenge for the area, though they hope it can be addressed.
“When it comes to the labour force, this is a serious issue in southern Alberta because labour issues always top the list of site selectors criteria when they’re looking at where to place it. Labour is the most important component for where you site something and you need access to good labour, affordable labour, the right kind of labour with the right skills, etcetera. We know we have a shortage of qualified labour here in southern Alberta. It’s a liability that constantly comes up in our economic development conversations. We did the skills gap study last year with participation from the Town of Taber specifically and a whole bunch of other partners throughout the region.”
With other prairie provinces also hoping to capitalize on the movement, it was asked how Alberta could provide more than other provinces.
“How (do) we differentiate ourselves between Saskatchewan or Manitoba where the provincial governments are actually throwing money at a lot of these food processors to attract them? How do we attract them without having the province throw a bunch of money at them?” asked Coun. John Turcato.
“That’s a million-dollar question, John,” answered Casurella. “Really wish I had an answer to that question. It definitely feels like trying to run up a hill with one leg tied behind our back when we don’t have support from one of the three pillars of government on this. I’m not a proponent of doing the race to the bottom, and when it comes to global investment attraction, I am pessimistic, to be honest. Alberta, as a jurisdiction, even with the low taxes that we have compared to other places in North America, we’re not a competitive jurisdiction on a global scale for placing investments from overseas. Not without those government subsidies or government assistance to lower your front-end investment. I’ve been a proponent of investing in our own people. Or working with entrepreneurs to support them and to give them the innovative ecosystems and supports they need to succeed because we have a lot of smart people here who actually have a lot of capital. (They) know and understand the opportunities. It’s the only thing I think that’s open to us without that big price ticket from various levels of government, in competing directly with places like Saskatoon.”