Woodlands County councillors voted 5-1 during their Sept. 1 meeting to approve the creation of a “no fee” Business Directory that businesses within the municipality may voluntarily choose to be listed in.
Economic development officer Bert Roach presented the proposal to council on behalf of the county’s economic development committee, which held discussions in July about ways to enhance business retention in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his report, Roach said the committee members realized that they do not have an accurate understanding of the depth, width and scope of all the economic activity within the county because Woodlands does not have a process for building and maintaining a business directory.
The benefits of a directory include building legitimacy for businesses — in order to be listed, a business would need a development permit from the county — and promoting the Woodlands business community as a whole.
Consumers could also potentially benefit by having better information on local options for imported goods and services, and it could also be a resource for tourists and visitors to quickly understand local shopping options.
Roach suggested in his report that it would also help identify gaps in local markets where business might be able to further develop and grow, as well as help retain dollars within Woodlands County.
Coun. Ron Govenlock, who voted against the motion directing the creation of the directory, objected to the potential expense involved in the project.
He also pointed out that the Whitecourt Star produces its own community business directory and he didn’t see how the directory would be unique or why people would actually want to use it.
He also indicated that there are other organizations like the Whitecourt Chamber of Commerce and Community Futures Yellowhead East that exist to serve and promote local businesses
“I’m not here to justify an economic development officer or an economic development budget. And that to me is what appears to be the case,” he said.
Noting that several councillors actually sit on the committee, mayor John Burrows said the portion of Woodlands County that exists outside of Whitecourt is a large reason why this directory was proposed.
“We do have a lot of businesses … in Woodlands County that may not be getting the kind of recognition that they should, because people aren’t aware of them. So we’d like to know where they are and how we can help them, if we can help them,” he said.
Roach also stated that the intent of the project was to work within the budget already allocated to the economic development committee.
He also pointed out that the development of a business retention strategy was a top priority within Woodlands County’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.
Govenlock argued it was still an unnecessary expense and pressed Roach to provide a dollar and cents figure for the project.
Burrows also argued that Woodlands County has been focused on asset management recently and this was part of the process of gaining control over the municipality’s assets, which include local businesses.
“I would like to see Woodlands county start taking charge of its own future and its own information and its own residents and its own businesses and its own services,” he said. “This is a step in that direction.”
Provided this project stays within the committee’s budget, Coun. Dale McQueen said he didn’t think the creation of a business directory was a bad idea at a time when businesses are folding “left, right and centre.”
He also pointed out that some of the business promotion and retention efforts headed up by groups in Whitecourt don’t extend to the whole county.
“On this side of the river, we don’t see none of that,” McQueen said. “It seems like the information stops at Blue Ridge.”