Employment Lands focus of workshop

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Frustration over a lack of developer for the Employment Lands dominated the conversation at an economic development workshop last week.

The workshop was an opportunity to discuss and define the principles of the economic development policy that will be presented to council in October 2016. Despite a heavy focus on growing the city’s non-residential tax base over the past decade, the city has never had any overarching principles to turn to when determining yearly economic development priorities.

The conversation often turned to the elephant in the room: the inability to secure a developer for the Employment Lands, located east of Ray Gibbon Drive, and whether or not the municipality should be in the business of purchasing lands to spur economic growth.

Coun. Cam MacKay half-jokingly suggested that finding a private company to take over the development of the lands should be listed as priority No. 1 in the policy.

Guy Boston, executive director of economic development at the city, asked council whether it was prepared to sell the lands to the highest bidder, or wished to ensure best use of land.

“The way it’s playing itself out, we’re going to be doing the ASP,” said Mayor Nolan Crouse, disappointedly. “The city is not in the business of land accumulation for the purposes of development, yet we got into it in Campbell and we got into it for the Employment Lands.”

Chris Jardine, acting city manager, defended the purchase, reminding council that the purchase (at farmland prices) was made to fill future municipal land needs, such as school sites and snow dumps.

To ensure the site is development ready, the city has already funded the guiding principles document, which was presented to council on Monday.

Council took a “surprising” stance on incubation, said Boston, stating it was also not in the city’s purview.

MacKay reiterated concerns over building a Centre of Excellence, an idea floated by council in the city’s draft incubation strategy. Staff reassured council that the centre was also meant to be virtual – a way to tour St. Albert’s Smart City initiatives.

The mayor reminded council that if the city did not incubate it would not have many of the successful events and entities it does today. The Northern Alberta Business Incubator, National Aboriginal Days, minor hockey, Arts and Heritage Foundation were all started by the city before becoming separate societies or organizations.

“In principle we shouldn’t be an incubator, but we are,” said Crouse.

While Coun. Tim Osborne felt that that the city should continue to expand on the success of such tourism events, others, such as Crouse and MacKay, did not share the sentiment.

Crouse was happy with the level achieved: “When the Tourism Master Plan was put in place (in 2007) there was no Servus Place, there was no Grain Elevator Park, there was no Riel Park and the number of events in the community was about 50 per cent of where it was today. I think we’ve more plateaued; I think it would take a lot of investment to take it up.”

In terms of business attraction, there were mixed feelings.

The general consensus was the city should work to attract light, or clean, industrial enterprises to its new industrial parks, but there were opinions expressed about what specific businesses were acceptable. Dog food plants and breweries were deemed too smelly; laydown yards not profitable enough.

“I think we need to be bold in the policy statement: it has to be compatible with our community,” said Crouse.

Coun. Sheena Hughes disagreed saying the city can’t be so restrictive. Instead of a flat-out no, the city should establish constraints. She also raised the issue of engineering standards, which have been perceived as much too rigorous by the development community in the past.

“When developers have complaints, the general feel I get is that we dismiss them and say ‘We have standards, live up to them,’ instead of saying there’s legitimacy to those concerns,” she said.

Osborne asked if there was any interest, with the changes to the Municipal Government Act, in showing support to mom-and-pop shops by creating a new assessment subclass that would benefit small business.

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Michelle Ferguson