New economic dev. group appears dead

Richard Froese and Joe McWilliams
For the Lakeside Leader

A regional alliance on economic development – highly touted a few months ago – appears to be a dead issue.

Big Lakes County council heard at its Feb. 13 meeting the idea seems unfeasible. This was the outcome of a Jan. 30 meeting with Alberta Economic Development and Trade.

Summing up that meeting for council, county CAO Jordan Panasiuk said, “The general feeling was that the region is not in a position to pursue another economic development agency.”

The AED&T reps at the meeting were there to pitch the idea of regional collaboration on economic development. Represented at the meeting in addition to Big Lakes County were the Town of High Prairie, Town of Slave Lake, M.D. of Lesser Slave River, Peavine Metis Settlement, Sucker Creek First Nation and Northern Lakes College. Invited, but not attending, were East Prairie and Gift Lake Metis Settlements, Driftpile, Kapawe’no and Swan River First Nations and the Town of Swan Hills.

Talks of a new regional economic alliance started last May after the Alberta government cut annual funding of $100,000 to the Lesser Slave Lake Economic Alliance (LSLEA). That followed the withdrawal of several key players from the LSLEA, for reasons that were never discussed publicly. Those included the Town of Slave Lake and the M.D. of Lesser Slave River.

The LSLEA has continued, much-reduced in size. Its website lists the M.D. of Opportunity, the Town of High Prairie and three Metis Settlements as its members. Its chair, High Prairie businessman Barry Sharkawi, is still disappointed the provincial government chose to not support LSLEA as the regional ec/dev agency.

“Economic projects with different partners each time are an inefficient way of doing business,” says Sharkawi. “There is a gap in economic development in central northwestern Alberta. LSLEA continues to work in our region to try to fill this gap.”

Sharkawi’s reference to ‘different partners each time,’ refers to what seems to be the preferred way forward for the county and other regional players. That is, they’ll work together on a project basis.

As county reeve Richard Simard said at the Feb. 13 meeting, “Consensus at the meeting (the Jan. 30 one) was that it’s okay to work on ongoing projects when we have…projects of common interest.”

That pretty much mirrors what the Town of Slave Lake and M.D. of Lesser Slave River councils have been saying about the situation in recent weeks. They don’t see any benefit in joining another larger regional alliance, but don’t close the door to collaboration with regional partners when it makes sense.

There’s a price for not forming the larger alliance. The province has been dangling that $100,000 in annual funding as an incentive. Slave Lake, MDLSR and Sawridge First Nation have been lobbying for some of that ec/dev cash for their smaller ‘tri-council’ group, but the province so far hasn’t bitten.

Former Big Lakes reeve Ken Matthews was a proponent of the new regional alliance. His successor, Simard, seems more skeptical.

“Why are we trying to do this when we don’t have any projects to work on?” he asked at the Feb. 13 council meeting.

Making it that much less attractive is the fact that the province has withdrawn the offer of the $100,000! Asked last week about the matter, Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman said what the province is pushing for the bigger region, but with the money off the table, the tri-council partners have no reason to go in that direction.

“If we want to work with Big Lakes on something, we’ll just call them,” he said.

Big Lakes County Reeve Richard Simard

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