“Economic development, so the joke goes, is a lot like working in IT. When things are going great, people ask ‘what do you do all day?’ and when times are tough and growth is slow, people ask ‘what do you do all day?’” laughed Paintearth councillor and longtime area champion, George Glazier.
The Battle River Innovation Center (BRIC) on Castor main street has been home to multiple seminars, and workshops for small businesses since 2020, following two years of intensive program development, small business walks and needs assessments that have included Castor and Coronation businesses as well as small businesses within Paintearth County itself.
As the chairman for the Battle River Economic Opportunities Committee (BREOC), Glazier has been working for the past several years to combat the effects of federal energy policy on the Battle River region’s economy as seen in the loss of support for one of the larger secondary industries in Paintearth, that being coal-fired power generation.
Recognizing at the federal level that policy decisions were going to have drastic negative effects on the local quality of life for hundreds of workers with a looming end date on employment, the Federal Government has pumped millions into projects like BREOC across the prairies.
“While we grumble that federal politics has put a dent into the region’s cash flow, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Prairies Canada, the federal arm that promotes growth in western Canada, has been very passionate about funding programs that create new opportunities for the region.”
“The strongest way to grow any local economy is from the ground up. Sure it’s nice to chase big development, that’s every municipal council’s dream,” Glazier said.
“Dreams sometimes come true, I admit. But in the business of growth, especially in our beautiful county and towns and village, that dream doesn’t always come true.
“It’s more fruitful to connect with your local core of small businesses and help them develop their weak spots, connect them with experts to coach them forward to growth, and give them hope that they’re not on their own.”
BREOC has quietly operated in the background of everyday life in Paintearth. Through the pandemic, the use of remote work software like Zoom and Teams kept BREOC Board members connected and focused on their project implementation plans to increase the capacity for local businesses to adapt to the changing world of e-commerce, supply chains and market access, digital marketing and software, HR, legal and accounting supports and staff training and skill development.
“Millions have come from PrairiesCan since 2018, with support from the province, as well, to help establish the Castor BRIC and a sister office in Forestburg tasked with solving the same problem.
“We’ve been a very motivated group with a lot of unknowns, and I am pleased to say we’re finally hitting our stride in the communities we serve with delivery of programs and assistance to individuals impacted by Coal Transition politics.”
As BREOC Program funding is set to wind down in coming months, the question looms as to whether or not municipalities participating in the project will continue to support the Center’s operations financially, in hopes of keeping doors open for more federal or provincial funding to support business development in the Paintearth region.
“All municipalities involved have some soul-searching to do,” Glazier said.
“Flagstaff County and the Village of Forestburg have been a strong allied presence on the north side of the Battle River, and Paintearth County and the Towns of Castor, Coronation, and the Village of Halkirk have been strong collaborators on the south side,” Glazier said. “While we know we can’t expect complete support from higher levels of government all the time, as funding pockets come and go, we’re optimistic that BREOC can continue forward with injections of municipal funds, proportionate to each municipality’s ability. Putting our own skin in the game a little longer may be enough to convince the feds to keep supplying program funding that will help local businesses stay strong and grow.”
By the numbers, BREOC has worked with over 100 businesses since 2020, with 34 per cent seeing their program efforts through to completion. Another 23 have completed business enhancement support programs or skills enhancement support programs, the bulk being after 2022 when lockdown ended.
“I’m not a stats guy like some keeners out there, but I’m pleased when I see the numbers in our reports to the federal government showing small businesses received program supports that were grant funded ranging into the six-figure territory over the past three years,” Glazier said.
“We’ve been able to help a further 22 businesses locally develop video profiles highlighting what their business has to offer, something that you don’t see often in rural Alberta.”
Critical topics to rural life such as farm succession planning have been well received by rural area farmers trying to figure out the best way to hand their farms down to children without seeing statutory tax laws taking a big dip into the farm’s bank account.
“Whether it’s a new shoppe in town, or starting a side business on the farm, I think we’ve done a good job of helping those that ask for it. I just hope we can continue our work with our municipal partners, even if it’s for another year, just to get that many more startups on their feet,” Glazier said.
At a recent county council meeting, a commitment was made by the County to carry a major portion of operating costs until the end of March 2025. The decision comes after the county was awarded a grant of $2.3 from the Coal Community Transition Infrastructure Fund (CCTI-IF) to help finish the final mile of sewer infrastructure needed to make the County’s Crowfoot Crossing Industrial Park development ready for new investors, with the County covering the balance of project costs while simultaneously assisting the Town of Castor by providing much-needed new lift station infrastructure at no cost to the Town.
That project is expected to go to tender over the winter months, with major construction starting next spring.
“We understand each of our urbans have financial pressures. We’re doing what we can at the County to let everyone have a win, however we can make that happen,” County Reeve Stan Schulmeister said. “County council’s decision to press on was unanimous. We’ve had great success with our urban elected colleagues to this point, and so long as the political will exists in those communities, we’ll continue to support their ability to grow their economies.
The awarding of the $2.3M from Prairies Canada to the County of Paintearth was the direct result of being involved with the BREOC initiative, which oversaw the allocation of $8M of earmarked funding for our region, half north of the river, half to the south,” Schulmeister said.
Without participation in BREOC, Schulmeister believes the project would never have seen the light of day, having sat unfinished for the past decade in terms of water and sewer servicing for remaining lots.
“We’ll put the sewer in, with the federal dollars, and we’ll chip in to get water in and fibre optics that will be placed in the hands of our up and coming municipal broadband corporation.
These are milestone projects that are all coming together sweeter than spring rain. It’s an exciting time for us in Paintearth, after a long dark,” said Schulmeister.
Under the CCTI-IF grant program, both Castor and Coronation could also possibly garner $891,000 of project funding for job-creating infrastructure related projects simply by virtue of remaining in support of the BREOC’s operations.
“That’s good business by any standard,” Schulmeister said. “Typically, the feds haven’t had a major presence in our area over the years, however in an effort to reverse impacts of coal transition, the support has been welcome.”