More time for business strategy

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City staff have been given extra time to get its business incubation strategy right.

Council voted on Monday to extend economic development’s deadline to the end of the year.

A business incubation strategy was presented to council in December, the original deadline, but was rejected after St. Albert-based Northern Alberta Business Incubator voiced concerns over the document’s lack of direction.

The incubation strategy is part of the city’s efforts to attract and retain business in St. Albert. Economic development was criticized by NABI and council for failing to include timelines, dollar amounts or a clear overarching objective, as well as excluding stakeholders, like NABI, from the process.

“I hope that with the additional time there’s an opportunity to bring back something that is meaningful, purposeful and focused in terms of the city’s role in business incubation,” said Coun. Tim Osborne, who put forward the motion.

The deadline coincides with the completion of the Smart City Master Plan – a plan to use technology to benefit residents, for example using analytics to improve traffic – that was referenced several times in the rejected version of the incubation strategy, and the Economic Development Strategic Plan.

Osborne believes these “foundational documents” should help city staff shape a more detailed approach to business incubation.

Coun. Sheena Hughes wanted to see the strategy approved by NABI, given that it has been in the business of incubation for the past 25 years.

“Basically the motion as it’s currently worded gives permission to hand back what we said no to in December,” said Hughes. “We have millions, potentially tens of millions of dollars, depending on what goes forward in the strategy, on the line. I would like to think that somebody who is an expert in the field is actually supporting this, instead of moving forward blindly.”

Coun. Cam McKay agreed, comparing going forward on an incubation strategy without NABI’s approval to building a road without the support of the city’s engineering department.

Other councillors were concerned about the requirement. Coun. Cathy Heron argued that there are other successful models that should be explored, such as StartUp Edmonton, which connects entrepreneurs and product developers to skills and like-minded people by providing a shared space and a number of events.

The rejected strategy included a similar idea – a centre of excellence, which would act as a shared space to bounce ideas off each other and could connect venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

“By putting in (the motion) that NABI has to support our incubation strategy we might be hamstringing our economic development department and the direction that they’re going in,” said Heron.

Dar Schwanbeck, managing director of NABI, said it was never the incubator’s intention to rubber stamp the project; it spoke up in December simply because it could not support a strategy that didn’t include definite timelines or clear objectives.

“Let’s get some tentative goals in place,” he said. “Let’s pick some target markets that we think are worth pursuing.”

“None of those things had been defined,” he added. “That was our main reason for saying let’s not go down these dark alleys. Any path to the future will take us there if you don’t have defined paths in mind.”

A revised version of the City of St. Albert Business Incubation Strategy will be presented to council following approval of the Smart City Master Plan. The first draft of this plan should come before council on April 25.

A target date for the completion of incubation strategy has been set for the end of 2016.

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Michelle Ferguson