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GROWTH Alberta reps call on Pembina Hills for help in setting new direction

Pembina Hills had withdrawn its membership in GROWTH Alberta back in 2016
New Pembina HIlls Sign

BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK — Representatives of GROWTH Alberta recently called on the Pembina Hills board to help the Regional Economic Development Alliance (REDA) chart a new path as it recovers from a turbulent past few years.

Town of Mayerthorpe Mayor Janet Jabush and Town of Swan Hills councillors Dean LaBerge and Terry Kuyek, all of whom sit on GROWTH Alberta's board of directors, visited Pembina Hills trustees during their March 20 meeting.

Jabush, who chairs the GROWTH Alberta board, said the school division was one of the founding members of the REDA, which was formed in 2001. It remained a member up until the start of 2016, when the board of the day pulled out of the organization mostly due to budgetary concerns.

Pembina Hills' departure indirectly marked the beginning of GROWTH Alberta's decline as more and more partners pulled out of the REDA. Today, its membership consists of Mayerthorpe, Swan Hills and Woodlands County.

In addition, Jabush said the REDAs — which at one point were staffed and managed by provincial employees — began to experience funding cuts, until finally GROWTH was forced to sign a three-year funding arrangement during Jason Kenney's time as premier that saw their operational funding cut to just $50,000 per year.

Jabush said that's when they were forced to part ways with former executive director Troy Grainger, as they simply couldn't pay him anymore with their minimal budget and low membership.

Recognizing that this was "not a sustainable way to do business," Jabush said they engaged a consulting company out of Sherwood Park. That in turn led to an engagement session being held at the start of February, which was attended by Pembina Hills trustee Melissa Hanna and representatives from many other communities, including the Town of Athabasca, the Town of Drayton Valley, the East Prairie Métis Settlement, the Driftpile Cree Nation and Sucker Creek First Nation, and the Northern Gateway School Division.

“The session at the beginning of February was intended as a reset for the organization because we recognize the way things have been going is not working," said Jabush.

“And to be fair, there is a lot of chatter right now on the REDA landscape about a re-imagining of the REDA model across the province. That's not coming from the provincial government; that’s coming from within the REDAs themselves. They all understand that the landscape’s changing and we’ve got to figure out a  different way to do things."

Jabush indicated there was a focus at the session on not just economic development, but the social impacts of economic development.

In addition to developing a new vision and mission statements for GROWTH Alberta, the participants in the session also developed a new list of values for the REDA — relationships, trust, inclusivity, diversity, stewardship of community and environment, learning and continuous improvement.

“When we opened that door, it wasn’t to tell people what GROWTH Alberta was. It was to ask what they needed GROWTH Alberta to be," Jabush said.

The most important piece to come out of the workshop, however, was a list of four goals: engaging and collaborating with partners to achieve desired outcomes for a 'community of communities'; fostering opportunities for the implementation of "instruments" for economic development, such as retaining businesses and fostering entrepreneurship; developing a strategic marketing and communications plan; and being a model of excellence in governance practices, as well as an outcomes-focused organization that prioritizes learning, transparency and accountability.

Jabush indicated the reason they came before Pembina Hills trustees that day was to ask for their input on achieving these goals, as well as to share that the GROWTH Alberta of old is effectively no more.

"For any of you that remember the GROWTH of old, we aren’t that anymore. And if you don’t remember the GROWTH of old, so much the better for me – that allows the people steering the ship to make a single impression," she said.

Board response

Trustee Victoria Kane asked if GROWTH Alberta had a plan to protect the businesses currently in operation within member communities if, say, economic development took off, resulting in staff leaving those businesses.

Jabush said it isn't strictly GROWTH's job to protect existing businesses, but it is their responsibility to be a catalyst for "managed growth."

To that end, she noted that many municipalities have economic development officers and GROWTH could assist them with hosting labour retention workshops or accessing funds that they normally can't receive.

The mayor said one of the more important recent initiatives of the REDA was to connect with a group called Local Intel and develop community profiles for each of the REDA members. These profiles contained information about the businesses in the area and labour statistics, as well as other areas.

Jabush and acting Town of Mayerthorpe chief administrative officer Karen St. Martin are set to travel to India in late April to promote the opportunities in rural Canada, Jabush noted that some people on social media had made the assumption she was heading to India with the intention of bringing back "planeloads" of foreign workers.

“I couldn't do that even if I wanted to," she said, adding her purpose in travelling to India is to have conversations with individuals who are qualified to invest in rural Canada, whether that's Mayerthorpe, Swan Hills or Barrhead.

Trustee Maureen Schnirer also asked Jabush if GROWTH Alberta would advocate on the division's behalf if economic development reached a point where local schools were "bursting at the seams," as is the case in other districts.

“That is ... exactly why we want your voice in the room. We need to know what impacts that kind of growth is going to bring to your schools," she replied.

“Like I mentioned before, economic development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are social impacts to economic development, probably none felt more than within the school systems and ... the health care system.”

Finally, trustee David Truckey asked Jabush what it would cost the division to rejoin GROWTH Alberta.

Jabush said that technically, GROWTH Alberta can't expand its membership until it changes its bylaws, which can't happen until the annual general meeting in June.

“For now, I don’t want any money. I just want to know you want to be at the table," she said.

Ultimately, trustees passed a motion to accept GROWTH Alberta's presentation for information.

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