Barrhead County councilors file decision citing need for more information
BARRHEAD – Barrhead County councilors voted narrowly 3 to 2 at their Sept. 6 meeting to table a letter of support for GROWTH Alberta as the organization seeks a grant from the Tourism Relief Fund (TRF).
Deputy Warden Marvin Schatz and Coun. Jared Stoik was absent during the vote. The discussion is expected to take place at the September 20 board meeting.
GROWTH Alberta president Janet Jabush, who is also the mayor of the town of Mayerthorpe, said she was seeking about $200,000 from the TRF.
The RTF is a $500 million program to support Canada’s tourism sector, with $485 million in regional priority funding administered by Canada’s regional development agencies. The fund was created, in large part, to help the industry recover from the impact of COVID.
GROWTH Alberta is one of nine REDAs. Its goal is to create economic growth through marketing.
At one time, the list of members of the organization numbered more than a dozen, but in recent years this number has decreased. Currently, GROWTH has five members, including Barrhead County, Lac Ste. Anne County, Woodlands County, Swan Hills and Mayerthorpe.
The organization is trying to rebuild itself, focusing on its new WILD Alberta tourism brand, featuring an annual brochure/magazine and website. Both have been inactive for about two years.
Com. Walter Preugschas, council representative on GROW, said they made the request several months ago, adding that Prairie Economic Development Canada (PrairiesCan), which administers the program, continues to make suggestions on how to improve their demand. Their final suggestion was to include letters of support from municipal members.
Reeve Doug Drozd suggested council needed more information on the application process before making a decision, asking to see correspondence between PrairiesCan and GROWTH.
“Because it’s taxpayers’ money (regardless of the level of government),” he said.
Com. Ron Kleinfeldt asked how GROWTH plans to use TRF funds.
Preugschas said he plans to use them to create promotional videos for various tour operators, podcasts, and ongoing work on the WILDAlberta website.
“It’s about promoting tourism,” he said.
Preugschas added that GROWTH hopes to expand its WILDAlberta brand, so it’s a stand-alone association under the REDA umbrella.
He added that if they decide to go this route, GROWTH should dedicate resources to creating a strategic plan for the umbrella organization.
“We also hope to provide training for tour operators,” Preugschas said.
Drozd reiterated his feelings that the board needs more information on the application, including communications between PrairiesCan and GROWTH.
Preugschas argued that the sooner the application is complete and hopefully approved, the sooner it will allow GROWTH to proceed with its plans.
He also noted that there was also a time limit attached to the grant, noting that all TRF funds received must be spent by March 2023.
“Couldn’t we condition our support on (County Executive Debbie Oyarzun) reading the request?” said Preugschas.
Drozd countered that if the process had taken that long, two more weeks wouldn’t make much difference, saying he would prefer more information to base his decision on.
Over the past few months, the board has questioned the benefits of GROWTH membership. In the spring, councilors asked administration at a full committee meeting to report back to council with a cost/benefit analysis of being GROW.
At the April 5 board meeting, Oyarzun added that there is a potential benefit to being part of a REDA in that the organization advocates for the region with the province when economic development opportunities (read investment) arise. However, Oyarzun admitted that the value might not be as useful as it once was due to the province cutting REDA budgets.
She added that GROWTH, particularly through the WILD brand, also gives the municipality the ability to network with potential investors and groups that could bring additional economic development opportunities.
Oyarzun suggested that while the county could duplicate the services provided by GROWTH, it would come at a cost.
Woodlands County Goose Lake/Freeman River County. Peter Kuelken also expressed his concerns regarding GROWTH.
“(GROWTH) really works in a vacuum because we don’t really know what we want to be when we grow up,” he said at the Woodland County Council meeting Aug. 17.
Kuelken said that while he believes GROWTH WILD’s efforts will be successful, thanks in large part to the contribution of Woodlands County Economic Development Officer Bert Roach, REDA has neglected the other part of its mandate.
“REDAs need to understand that if they’re just focusing on tourism, they were meant to be,” he said. “When I started looking for ways to do it, there really wasn’t any mechanism or structure or direction. We’re doing it the opposite of what we should. What happens is we we get funding and then we create a project.”
However, Kuelken said GROWTH hopes to provide professional help for advice on how it can align it with a strategic plan.
He said the organization needed to “engage with its member municipalities” so they know what resources they need to call upon.
“How can we develop an economic strategy without this knowledge? We also don’t have data to support what other municipalities would like us to do. Yes, we need to have regional tourism and destination development and promotion, but we also need date on key local industries and greater regional representation at conferences,” he said.
Unfortunately, especially for the latter, Kuelken said they didn’t have the budget.