Full speed ahead for economic development
Council unanimously endorses growth plan
By: Viola Pruss
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 03:16 pm
They pored over the report and peppered him with questions, and 45 minutes later, St. Albert city council voted unanimously in favour of Guy Boston’s economic development plan.
Boston, executive director of economic development, presented the report to council on Monday night. Its chief purpose is to reduce the city’s residential tax burden. Among its key elements are attracting new investments, expanding local businesses and promoting St. Albert as a business-friendly community.
Tourism and branding will also play an important role in attracting more people to the city.
“Once the city can attract non-residential development and provide for future employment and housing needs, decreasing residential taxes will come naturally,” Boston said.
The plan is to establish St. Albert as a centre of development for Northern Alberta and the Edmonton area. Boston said collaboration between the city and local organizations involved in economic development, such as the St. Albert & District Chamber of Commerce and the St. Albert economic development advisory committee, remains crucial for the plan’s success.
With a major focus on attracting new businesses, Boston added that working with local businesses is just as important as attracting new ones. The department will hold a business breakfast on Feb. 26, 2013 to present its future vision and host a number of potential investors to the city.
Land development agreements and incentive reports are going to be presented to council on Nov. 15.
With land development being a frontrunner in the plan’s schedule, many of the report’s concerns focused on the issue of land ownership in the employment lands west of Ray Gibbon Drive.
Mayor Nolan Crouse reminded Boston and council that the most critical aspect ahead of them was to convert unwilling landowners to willing landowners. Asked by Coun. Wes Brodhead whether he knew why land in St. Albert was more expensive than land in Edmonton, Boston replied he could not speak for the landowners.
“As you know we don’t own any of the land. We don’t know what their strategies are,” he said.
Brodhead said he wondered about involving developers and landowners in the collaboration efforts to avoid changing land bylaws in the future. Campbell Park underwent a number of changes after unsuccessful attempts to attract business as a high-tech business park, he said.
“I don’t want to see that happen again,” he said.
It remains important to attract both non-residential and residential growth, he added. A proportion of the employment lands will be set aside for rooftops. Affordable housing is part of the department’s consideration.
“We see it as a significant strategy to attract non-residential development by showing that we have a growing neighbourhood,” he said.
Concerning changes to the existing perception of the city, Boston said one investor told him St. Albert was already the best-kept secret in the region. Speaking with stakeholders and giving early presentations had spread the word that the city is open for business, he said.
“I heard through second, third-hand collaborations and co-operation that even having these discussions already started to change what people may have had as perceptions,” he said.
Coun. Len Bracko and Coun. Cathy Heron expressed some concerns regarding transit and the lack of affordable housing in the city. Heron added commercial development should not be restricted to the employment lands and St. Albert Trail. Local neighbourhoods lack grocery stores and their creation would bring sustainability and commercial tax revenue outside the industrial centres, she said. Boston said the department was pursuing the idea of neighbourhood stores.
Crouse reminded council to remember that the report was a step in the right direction but certainly not the beginning of economic development in St. Albert. Building projects such as Veness Road, Ray Gibbon Drive and LeClair Way were all part of previous economic developments.
“We have to be sensitive to the fact that work has been done for decades. This is the beginning of a new plan,” he said.
Councillors congratulated Draper and Boston on their work, and on assembling the report. Coun. Lemieux said the report was a kick-start in the right direction.
“There are a lot of questions to be answered and there’s money to be found but I have the utmost faith in the action plan and I look forward to the business case presentation and to support this motion,” he said.
Boston later said he felt encouraged by council’s vote of confidence.
Asked what land investors could purchase now, he said 200 acres are readily available in South Campbell and South Riel, depending on what the company’s requirements were. These lands, however, are not enough to bring down tax revenues to an 80-20 rate.
He expects the 700 acres of employment land could see first developments within two to three years once the 12 landowners are willing to give them up. Altogether the cost for servicing these lands would be in the range of $30 million.
“We are not ready for two or three years but we are talking less than three years for some of the property owners to sell their property,” he said.
If the land could not be made available, Boston said the city would have to narrow its focus on existing businesses.
“That doesn’t remove our overall goal of marketing and attracting,” he said.
Mike Keating, vice president for Colliers International, said he did not see the employment lands as the way to the magic residential tax reduction goal. He said nobody knew whether the landowners would sell their property in the near future.
“The 700 acres, to me they are something way off on the horizon. It is good that we plan for the future but from what I can understand it probably will be many years before we see any business on that land,” he said.
“And South Riel is still a year or two away before anything can be done.”
Keating said economic development should focus on local businesses that are leaving St. Albert because there isn’t sufficient land available for expansion.
Instead of focusing on the employment lands, he suggested the city should buy its own land, control it and bring it to the market – much like it tried to do with Campbell Business Park several years ago.
“Every other municipality in the greater Edmonton area does that,” he said.
“We don’t have to invent something different that’s complicated or add another layer of standards that create a lot of questions.”