Council turns down incubation strategy

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City staff snubbed NABI input despite 25 years of expertise

When asked to develop an incubation strategy to encourage more businesses to set up in St. Albert more than a year ago, city staff were told to tap into the expertise of the Northern Alberta Business Incubator.

So imagine their surprise when NABI managing director Dar Schwanbeck showed up to Monday’s council meeting to express the organization’s concerns over the strategy.

Calling the document a “grab-bag” of broad themes and initiatives with very little detail and no defined outcomes, Shwanbeck cautioned council against approving the strategy as it stood, worried that it would take a life of its own with political endorsement but no real direction.

“If you and I want to go mountain climbing the first thing we have to decide is which mountain,” said Shwanbeck.

The strategy, as presented to council on Monday, built on the botanical arts brand and upcoming smart city master plan by identifying target sectors in the tech and green construction areas. It hinged on the creation of a Centre of Excellence – a building where entrepreneurs, city staff and private investors could cohabitate, mingle and exchange ideas – as well as a living lab concept that would see the city test out new technologies developed in their own backyard.

Guy Boston, executive director of economic development, acknowledged that the plan was vague. He told council that details were forthcoming and would be presented in the winter. He also told council that NABI had a say throughout the entire process.

But NABI didn’t feel that way. When the original committee was disbanded after a few meetings, NABI continued to sit on a smaller working group, but did not think its ideas were welcomed.

Upon receiving a draft version in October, it responded with an extensive letter outlining issues and recommendations, none of which were incorporated into the strategy presented Monday.

“Although it appeared through (economic development’s) presentation that NABI was part of the process, we really didn’t feel that we were part of the process and we really didn’t want anybody thinking that we endorsed the strategy as it was put forward by the city,” said NABI chair Joe Becigneul.

Some of the initiatives in the strategy actually went against some of NABI’s best practices, such as focusing resources on certain sectors over others.

Shwanbeck said extensive research has shown the incubator that developing human capacity regardless of industry is the best approach to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation and not to pick and choose winners and losers.

There was also concern from both council members and NABI that the Centre for Excellence building would overlap with services currently being offered by NABI, which leases office space to entrepreneurs and small businesses, as well as offers shared services such as board rooms and on-site secretarial services.

“NABI costs zero tax dollars. Why would we say we want the city using tax dollars to replicate what NABI is doing?” asked Coun. Sheena Hughes.

Becigneul said this type of capital investment is risky to the taxpayer: “Just because you build it doesn’t meant that they will come.”

Council was not pleased to hear that what was supposed to be a key partner in the development of the strategy had not been adequately consulted.

“We have one of the best business incubators in the world in our community and when they don’t support this strategy, I’m not likely to overrule them and vote against the experts,” said Coun. Cam McKay.

Hughes questioned why the committee was not recalled once it was decided that the strategy needed more work.

Boston told council that economic development wanted to wrap up the incubation strategy in a timely manner. The strategy was originally slated to come before council in March of this year.

“We’ve defined and we’re very comfortable with the niche that’s been determined through our analytics. We’ve got what we believe is a very tenable plan here,” he said.

Council disagreed. In a 4-3 vote, it did not approve the strategy.

Schwanbeck said he hopes NABI can continue to help the city fine-tune the strategy over the next few months. The St. Albert-based incubator has graduated over 300 businesses and entrepreneurs over the past 25 years, and provides start-up counselling to about 200 entrepreneurs each year.

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Michelle Ferguson