By Cole Parkinson
As funding is still tight for SouthGrow, the possibilities moving forward are still being looked at.
After Municipal District of Taber council carried a motion to invite the executive of SouthGrow to a meeting at their last September meeting, a delegation from SouthGrow joined council chambers virtually during their Oct. 13 meeting. While it was explained to council a decision wasn’t needed right at this moment, they were hoping for something by the end of the year.
“The first thing to note is we don’t have to make any decisions fast,” explained Peter Casurella, executive director of SouthGrow. “Previous management at SouthGrow had some big projects that came in through our doors funded that ended up putting a lot of extra money in our books for one reason or another so we have a fairly large reserve in place. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount to fund our operations and to keep us doing projects. We are in the enviable position where we can afford to take our time while we decide how to make SouthGrow sustainable in the future.”
“That does mean pulling about $50,000 from our reserves every year and we can only do that for a few years. And of course, if we take our time doing that, we gradually drain our reserves and makes the organization less sustainable by doing so,” continued Casurella.
With the provincial government reducing funding of Regional Economic Development Alliances (REDA) across the board, SouthGrow has been looking at a handful of options to make up that shortfall.
The good news for the organization is the reduction in funding was originally supposed to be a lot more than what the final numbers show.
“The basic situation is that we were getting $100,000 a year from the provincial government. That was matched by our member contribution from our member communities. SouthGrow has enjoyed the lowest per capita rate in the entire province. It was 35 cents when I came on two and a half years ago and now we are about 45 cents, and we have a mandate to go to 50 cents next year but that is as far as the board has decided to go to at this time,” continued Casurella. “Last year, the government of Alberta as part of their cost-cutting strategies, they had initially intended to totally eliminate the REDA funding, which we were rather shocked by that because we had received lots of assurances that ’no, no economic development in rural Alberta is very important to us and we will continue to prioritize this.’ That was before the election of course. When we found out that was no longer the case, Jim Willet, along with councillors from your council, as well as hundreds of others from across the province threw a giant stink. Our government relations efforts managed to reduce that reduction to $50,000.”
Funding has been secured for the next three years from the provincial government, according to Casurella.
Even with the funding of $50,000, SouthGrow finds themselves in a bit of a deficit which leads to the group needing to find a way to secure a steady stream of money before they completely empty their reserves.
Casurella estimated they could continue to dip into reserves until the next provincial election in 2023.
“We are still in the red by a little bit. The question put out to all of our members is — what do you want to do? We do have a number of options for what we can do to bring us to sustainability,” stated Casurella. “There are simple options such as the members can go ahead and fund the shortfall. Funding the shortfall would mean bringing our per capita rate up to about $1. Obviously, some of our communities, that’s a tough go for them right now.”
Casurella also highlighted another couple of options.
“The members could independently fund the organization which would look like $1.60 a head. That’s a tough pill to swallow. Or there are some other combinations of things we could do. There are opportunities for us to hybridize or amalgamate the association with other organizations. We could always approach Alberta Southwest and have a conversation with them about the challenges they are facing as well. We’ve worked very closely with them in the past and maybe there is a way where we could align our operations so that our strategic plans are built insync,” he said. “We could also see about having one of our municipalities take on the management of the association.”
Another possibility that has been discussed revolves around tourism.
“Another thing we have been looking at and considering is SouthGrow now has a mandate to work on tourism because tourism was shoved into our ministry and part of our grant agreement that we signed, tourism was put on there as a line item,” said Casurella. “Given the gap we have been aware of in SouthGrow for a while, there is definitely an opportunity there. Tourism is one of the major growth industries that we could be looking at over the next few years.”