M.D. council tries to figure out role in economic development

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

What do we mean by economic development? What’s the vision?

Those questions were asked of M.D. councillors at their Sept. 26 meeting.

The item was on the agenda as a follow-up to the recent Regional Tri-Council meeting, at which Town of Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman challenged tri-council partners to step up to make sure the regional economic development effort continues. It’s been running on provincial disaster recovery money for the past seven years, but that runs out at the end of this year.

Council discussed how the M.D. should address the matter of economic development – or indeed if it should at all.

“You have to have a vision of what you mean by economic development,” said CAO Allan Winarski in his report to council. “And what is the return on investment.”

Winarski had laid out three scenarios: one called ‘status quo’ was to continue with a tri-council committee looking after economic development, requiring a “significant infusion of funding.”

At the other end of the scale was to shut down the ec/dev committee, and “each municipality does its own thing.”

Somewhere in the middle was the idea of tri-council as a whole addressing ec/dev – although how and how much it would cost was not laid out.

Councillors generally agreed that staying in the game via tri-council was useful, but not the whole answer. It came up (as it often does) that whatever benefit there is through tri-council diminishes the further from Slave Lake you get.

Councillor Robert Esau pointed out that what’s needed to keep the community of Smith viable, for example, is to have more young families.

“We’ll get limited help from the tri-council for that,” he said.

Nobody advocated a break from tri-council. But councillor Brian Rosche said he was not in favour of an M.D. contribution of $70,000 – $80,000 for ec/dev/tourism, which is what Warman had suggested.

Reeve Murray Kerik and councillor Sandra Melzer both advocated a separation of tourism from other types of economic development. Lumping them together does not work. Kerik has said before he sees some tangible benefit in tourism promotion efforts, but not in other areas of ec/dev.

On the other hand, there’s the often repeated mantra that municipalities have to ‘do something’ to ensure viability in the face of the inevitable decline in the oil industry. Doing anything new as far as public infrastructure goes, Winarski said, depends pretty much entirely on Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grants. If that program is dropped, “We turn into an M.D. that just focuses on operations.”

But there are bright spots, Winarski continued. Tiger Calcium is a local success story. He also pointed to the Slave Lake airport and Northern Lakes College as excellent resources that can serve to draw and retain people and business in the region.

Along the same lines, added councillor Brad Pearson, when the M.D. builds roads and extends water and sewer lines, “that’s economic development.”

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