WESTLOCK – Westlock County will not proceed with a formal business-licence program and instead focus on creating an online directory to catalogue the community’s commercial and industrial enterprises.
At their Nov. 22 meeting, councillors voted 7-0 to have administration continue development of a free, online business directory jointly with the Town of Westlock and follow the model set by Parkland County that sees businesses receive a development permit that includes a statement that advises the “permit is all encompassing” and acts “as a business licence where necessary.” As it stands, county-issued development permits, which cost $225 for permitted uses and $400 for discretionary, act as a business licence and can be used by companies as such — that said, once those permits are issued, there is no way to track whether they’re still in operation.
“I think the directory is a really good thing as we need to know who our businesses are and how we can help them,” said reeve Christine Wiese.
“If we do have a good directory and it’s out there, people will go on it and that serves the purpose that we were trying to achieve with the business licenses,” added Coun. Isaac Skuban.
While some councillors bristled at the current cost of the development permits, especially for home-based business, and wondered how many will sign up to be on a website if they’re not promoting themselves already, CAO Tony Kulbisky said they’re taking a “step-by-step approach” and will discuss the permit fees at the administration level before coming back to council with any recommendations. Ultimately, Kulbisky said they need to catalogue how many businesses are in the county as they’re only assessing 73 improved commercial properties, 10 season commercial properties and 96 improved industrial properties.
“We could go down a rabbit hole but that’s not the intent of what we’re trying to do here. We’re just trying to track how many businesses are in the county, that’s the first thing we want to unravel,” said Kulbisky, adding if a business does require a formal licence, they will acquiesce on a request-only basis and will add verbiage to the development permits stating it is a licence.
“The first thing we’re trying to do is simply identify how many businesses we have in our county because right now we don’t know … we think we know, but we don’t actually know. So, this is one tool to help get to where we want to be.”
Kulbisky’s briefing to council notes they contacted Parkland County, Strathcona County and Sturgeon County to “understand their processes” and learned all three don’t issue business licenses. While the Town of Westlock does have a business-licence program, Kulbisky previously told councillors that the county’s immediate rural neighbours like the County of Barrhead and Thorhild County also don’t require business licenses, just development permits.
Kulbisky’s briefing notes that Parkland County is part of a tri-municipal agreement with the City of Spruce Grove and the Town of Stony Plain that directs county businesses to obtain a development permit that acts as a de facto business permit to operate in either Stony Plain or Spruce Grove.
At their Sept. 20 governance and priorities (GPC) meeting, councillors spent more than 30 minutes debating not only the merits of business licences and the associated marketing they’d be able to do by collecting that information, but whether there should be a charge attached or if it would be a voluntary or mandatory program.
Ultimately, councilllors voted 6-0 to accept a 12-page report from administration that also included a draft business licence bylaw and detailed what neighbouring rural municipalities were doing. Previously at the county’s Feb. 8 meeting, Community Futures Tawatinaw general manager Kelly Harris-Martin encouraged councillors to implement some form of program to catalogue what exists within the municipality as “ … it’s extremely hard to help our local businesses when you don’t know where they are.”
At the September meeting, Kulbisky, along with the majority of councillors, agreed that the notion of creating a business licence program wasn’t meant to generate a windfall or create more red tape, but “to support business while providing as many benefits to the business as possible … ”
“In my opinion I don’t think it’s about making money as a secondary revenue source, it’s about addressing the needs of the businesses in our county so that ones that actually need a business licence would be provided that opportunity,” said Kulbisky at the time.
“The vision I see is that we want to make this as easy as possible for a business to join so we can populate the business directory. We can design a website application where it makes it easy for someone who actually needs a paper businesses licence. They can fill in all the information and then could print it off at their own office … it’s not meant for them to have to come all the way in here to get a certificate.”