By Cole Parkinson
With 2019 reaching the final few months of the year, the Municipal District of Taber was apprised of what SouthGrow has been working on and what they have coming down the pipe.
SouthGrow was busy over 2019 and the group had several projects on the go throughout the year.
“Our primary focus is to accelerate and advance the quality of life for our communities by pursuing regional economic development initiatives. That means for us, focusing on things like agri-food, renewable energy, transportation and whatnot. The large pillars that really make sense,” said Peter Casurella, executive director at council’s regular meeting on Sept. 10. “We try to focus on projects, it’s not community economic development like Kirk (Hughes, M.D. director of planning and economic development) does for you, we assist with that where and when. We do the things council can’t do on their own like leveraging funding for large-scale research projects.”
Casurella himself has seen his schedule continue to be booked solid.
“It has been busy, especially since I am your only employee working full-time for SouthGrow. I have about six or seven contractors working full-time or part-time for me, depending on the time and project and I have the five dedicated executive board members who pour in a lot of time.”
Another area SouthGrow is exploring is renewable energy.
With southern Alberta continuing to be an expanded market for renewables like wind and solar power, SouthGrow has been heavily involved in trying to bring more opportunities to the region.
“SouthGrow, Alberta Southwest and Economic Development Lethbridge started pushing on the renewable energy file way back in the early 2010s. Since then, even the last four years alone, you have seen over $1 billion in capital investment in southern Alberta in renewable energy at a time where all of a sudden that industry has hit the break-even point where they are competitive without any incentives. So we are no longer having to funnel government money into that. You have seen that right here in the M.D. of Taber with the two large facilities going up north. I suspect there are more talks behind closed doors about more facilities from private companies,” stated Casurella.
In continuing to highlight the many efforts of SouthGrow, Casurella continued to list the many different items on the group’s checklist.
“Some of the regional programs we have, we’ve done multi-year focus on investment readiness and helping our communities bootstrap growing efforts as far as getting ready to accept investment. There was the big business retention, expansion and marketing plan that went out in 2017,” he said. “We have a current four-year ongoing foreign direct investment project leveraging the work we started back in 2016 when we had a business trip to China. The Chinese file has obviously shifted rapidly over the years and we are still putting those investment opportunities on the foreign desks over in Asia, not just China but Korea and Japan as well. We are focusing much more heavily on Europe as you are aware of.”
One continued concern among rural residents across the province has been broadband.
In March earlier this year, the M.D. provided $1,000 from the 2019 municipal operating budget toward the SouthGrow Rural Broadband Project.
“You have invested in our cost-benefit analysis project that is going to be coming up this fall,” explained Casurella. “Basically, that project is showing that every dollar invested in rural broadband, there is a larger return to society in terms of economic growth and GDP growth.”
Casurella also highlighted the Universal Broadband Fund which would see the federal government provide $5 to $6 billion over the next 10 years to expand rural broadband.
As part of this, it would help Canadian’s access high-speed internet at minimum speeds of 50/10 megabytes per second.
“It is a significant chunk of money considering that estimates for building outs all over Canada range from about $40 to $60 billion and the previous big chunk you had was only $750 million,” continued Casurella, who also stated he expects the internet to become a utility. “I look at that as an election promise coming from the current federal government. If they win again, maybe we see that $6 billion materialize. If they don’t win, all bets are off.”
Council was also very focused on getting expanded rural broadband for the region as they felt it was hampering economic opportunities.
“A concern is broadband and the internet. I think we are finding more and more, that in order to attract agri-food, water and wastewater, the internet is their number one need. That is restricting us, I think, in a rural setting and attracting some of these larger companies. That is probably number one or number two of the things they ask about,” said Coun. Brian Brewin.
While rural Alberta is struggling to reach those numbers, Casurella expects the larger urban areas to get to them very quickly.
“I feel that we have reached the point in southern Alberta where all of our urbans can get to the CRTC benchmarks and they can do it this year. That is what our big push for the urbans is this year, for all of the villages and towns within SouthGrow. We have nine already that have full-fibre builds and Cardston is this close to getting done. Vauxhall has done an interesting other design which is kind of like the next wave of fibre mesh network. It costs almost nothing to do, which is exciting,” he explained. “When it comes to the rural M.D.’s, we have to think a little bit longer because obviously economies of scale. The report we are putting out this year, hopefully, will be able to give you the confidence you need to your ratepayers to say ‘we have invested money into infrastructure here, there is a long-term return and this is a smart investment.’ There are going to have to be creative solutions for the rural environments and I don’t feel we can count on money coming from the province or the feds. The message we have consistently been sending to the folks up in Edmonton is that we don’t need a made in Edmonton solution to rural. What we need is a government that understands that people have been working without direction from the top on this file for a long time. There is a ton of different programs out there that we need for you to get behind.”
In terms of other economic opportunities for the area, Casurella highlighted the M.D.’s open approach to the agri-food business which has continued to grow.
With that continued growth, he expects more opportunities to come to southern Alberta.
“For opportunity and goals for the M.D. of Taber, obviously agri-food processing. You have seen a lot of success and you are going to see a lot more success. Canada’ premier food corridor has gotten a ton of play.”