St. Albert’s longtime director of business and tourism development was shocked to learn Monday that he’d been fired with no explanation other than the city was going in “another direction.”
Larry Horncastle was director for 12 years, which put him in charge of trying to help prospective businesses find suitable locations in St. Albert.
“I was just told that they want to go in a new direction and that’s all I’ve been told,” Horncastle said when reached at his home Monday evening.
He described his reaction to the news as “extremely shocked.”
“Total shock because it wasn’t expected,” he said.
Always a proponent of economic development, Horncastle was recently outspoken in council chambers when explaining why the city should pursue large scale servicing of light industrial land.
Earlier this spring, his department hired an Ontario-based consulting firm to perform an analysis of the amount of land the city should set aside for light industrial development. The result, a recommendation of 700 to 900 acres, was shocking to some councillors and even drew suggestions that the study had been tailor-made to arrive at the desired conclusion.
Council accepted the report on Aug. 15 and asked administration to come up with ideas for siting light industrial land in the amount of 260 to 300 hectares (642 to 741 acres) and also a lesser amount of 150 to 175 hectares (371 to 432 acres.)
“Council had accepted the land study and I thought we were moving ahead. I guess we weren’t,” Horncastle said.
“It certainly blew me away,” he added. “This is going to take some time to grapple with. It’s not pleasant.”
The decision to fire Horncastle came from Jennifer Jennax, the city’s general manager of business and strategic services and Horncastle’s direct supervisor.
“Larry’s done great work for the city and he’s made significant contributions,” Jennax said. “We need to take the city’s business development in a new direction that we believe requires a different set of skills and strengths.”
She declined to get into specifics, citing confidentiality reasons.
Recruitment for a replacement will begin immediately. The city is seeking someone who is an agent for change, who can build relationships and who can foster innovation, Jennax said.
“Building a strong relationship with the developers, that’s going to be a critical aspect,” she said.
Business leaders surprised
The business community was surprised to hear of Horncastle’s firing, said St. Albert Chamber of Commerce chair Charlene Zoltenko.
“Larry was a treasure to work with. He was great for the chamber and the business community in St. Albert. He was highly regarded in the economic community outside St. Albert.”
Horncastle spearheaded the formation of the St. Albert Economic Development Advisory Committee (SAEDAC), which advises city council on economic development issues. He was also the first to mention the 80-20 tax assessment split, which has since become a city target, said longtime friend Ivan Mayer, head of the Riel Business Park Association.
“In talking to a lot of developers, they felt that Larry was the one person they could talk to and that understood their needs,” Mayer said. “Without his guidance, we’re really going to be in a quandary.”
Horncastle was also behind the vision of Campbell Business Park North as a high-tech cluster, a vision that brought restrictive land uses that saw the land sit idle for years.
Mayer defended Horncastle by saying that he was the one who brokered meetings aimed at finding ways to loosen the restrictions and quicken development in the area.
Mayer wondered if Horncastle was let go because of his recent outspokenness about the need for more light industrial land.
“He fell on the sword for us,” Mayer said.
City Manager Bill Holtby, who must approve all personnel decisions, insisted that Horncastle’s ouster wasn’t based on a particular issue or one-time event.
“There is a shift in the direction,” Holtby said. “My opinion was that there was a need for a change in leadership as a result of that.”
“This is more of a shift in leadership style and what the current needs are of the corporation and the community, and not specific to something like [Horncastle’s recent performance],” Holtby said.