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GROWTH Alberta asks county to support tourism grant application

County of Barrhead councillors table decision citing the need for more information
Coun Walter Preugschas-Sept 6,2022
County of Barrhead Coun. Coun. Walter Preugschas, during the Sept. 6 council meeting, suggested that they should not delay writing a letter of support for GROWTH Alberta's TRF grant application.

BARRHEAD – County of Barrhead councillors narrowly voted 3-2 at their Sept. 6 meeting to table a letter of support for GROWTH Alberta as the organization seeks a grant from the Tourism Relief Fund (TRF). 

Deputy reeve Marvin Schatz and Coun. Jared Stoik were absent when the vote was taken. The discussion is expected to take place during at the Sept. 20 council meeting. 

GROWTH Alberta chairperson Janet Jabush, who is also the Town of Mayerthorpe mayor, said they were seeking about $200,000 from the TRF. 

The TRF is a $500 million program to support the tourism sector in Canada, with $485 million in regional priorities funding administered by Canada's regional development agencies. The fund was created, in large part, to help the industry recover from the impact of COVID. 

GROWTH Alberta is one of nine REDAs. Its purpose is to create economic growth through marketing.  

At one time, the organization's membership roster counted more than a dozen, but in recent years that number has dwindled. Currently, there are five members in GROWTH, including the County of Barrhead, Lac Ste. Anne County, Woodlands County, Swan Hills and Mayerthorpe.  

The organization is in the process of attempting to rebuild itself, focusing on its newly relaunched WILD Alberta tourism brand, characterized by a yearly brochure/magazine and a website. Both of which have been inactive for about two years. 

Coun. Walter Preugschas, council's representative on GROWTH, said they made the application several months ago, adding that Prairies Economic Development Canada (PrairiesCan), which administers the program keeps making suggestions on how to improve their application. Their latest suggestion was to include letters of support from municipal members. 

Reeve Doug Drozd suggested council needed more information on the application process before making a decision, asking to see the correspondence between PrairiesCan and GROWTH. 

"Because it is taxpayers' money (regardless of the level of government)," he said. 

Coun. Ron Kleinfeldt asked how GROWTH planned to use the TRF funds. 

Preugschas said they planned to use them to create promotional videos of various tourism operators, podcasts and continued work on the WILDAlberta website. 

"It is all about promoting tourism," he said. 

Preugschas added that GROWTH hopes to be able to expand its WILDAlberta brand, so it is a standalone association under the REDA's umbrella. 

He added if they do decide to go down that avenue, GROWTH would need to spend resources on creating a strategic plan for the umbrella organization. 

"We also hope to provide training for tourism operators," Preugschas said. 

Drozd reiterated his feelings that council needs more information on the application, including the communications between PrairiesCan and GROWTH. 

Preugschas argued that the sooner the application is complete and hopefully approved, the quicker it will allow GROWTH to proceed with its plans. 

He also noted there is also a time limit attached to the grant, noting that any TRF funds received must be spent by March 2023. 

"Couldn't we make our support conditional upon (county manager Debbie Oyarzun) reading the application?" Preugschas said. 

Drozd countered that if the process has taken this long, another two weeks would not make much difference, saying he would prefer more information to base his decision. 

In recent months, council has questioned the benefits of GROWTH membership. In the spring, councillors asked administration during a committee of the whole meeting to report back to council with a cost/benefit analysis of being in GROWTH. 

At the April 5 council meeting, Oyarzun added there was a potential benefit of being part of a REDA in that the organization advocates for the region with the province when economic development opportunities (read investment) present themselves. However, Oyarzun admitted that value might be not as useful as it once was due to the province cutting REDA's budgets. 

She added that GROWTH, especially through the WILD brand, also gives the municipality the opportunity to network with potential investors and groups that could bring additional economic development opportunities. 

Oyarzun suggested that although the county could duplicate the services GROWTH provides, it would come at a cost. 

Woodlands County Goose Lake/Freeman River Coun. Peter Kuelken also raised his concerns about GROWTH. 

"(GROWTH) is really operating in a void because we don't really know what we want to be when we grow up," he said, during Woodland County's Aug. 17 council meeting. 

Kuelken said while he believes GROWTH's WILD efforts will be successful, in large part due to the contribution of Woodlands County's economic development officer Bert Roach, the REDA has neglected the other part of its mandate. 

"REDAs have to understand that if they only focus on tourism, they were meant to do," he said. "When I started to look at ways we could do that, there really is no mechanism, structure or direction. We are doing it the opposite way than we should. What is happening is we are getting funding and then creating a project." 

However, Kuelken said GROWTH hopes to bring in professional help to get guidance on how it can align it to a strategic plan. 

He said the organization needs "engage with its member municipalities" so they know what resources they have to call on. 

"How can we develop an economic strategy without that knowledge? Nor do we have any data to support what other municipalities would like to see us do. Yes, we do have to have regional tourism and destination development and promotion, but we also need market date on key local industries and more regional representation at conferences," he said. 

Unfortunately, especially for the latter, Kuelken said they do not have the budget. 


Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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