Economic development in spite of, not because of government

Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman asked some useful hypothetical questions recently in a discussion on economic development. Specifically, it had to do with the town’s role.

What is that role? How does council see it?

There’s always a lot of talk on municipal councils – not to mention higher levels of government – about what government can actually do to ‘bring business to town.’

Warman was questioning how realistic that notion is. If a coffee shop opens up in town – is that because of something we did, or did they just decide to do it? If a new industrial shop opens up – can we take any credit for that?

The implication is that developments in business – whether on the growth or the decline side – have little to do with municipal government. Dozens – maybe hundreds – of local businesses start up, run and close in spite of anything local governments do or don’t do.

But council still really, really wants to do something to make the community more attractive to investors and visitors. There has to be a role in there for local government, but spending money on an economic development office to actually find a business that would locate here that wouldn’t have otherwise? Probably not worth what it costs.

Besides which, where’s the money going to come from? Providing existing services is already difficult enough, at current taxation levels.

Our view: keep things in good repair. Enforce the bylaws; clean the streets, keep the parks and trails looking nice; fill the potholes. Lobby the province and the feds to do their bit. Promote the daylights out of our lakes, our beaches and so on, in ways that don’t cost a lot of money. Otherwise, industry will take care of itself. The forces that govern where it sets up and whether it sets up are far beyond any small municipality’s powers to directly influence.

You could probably say the same thing about the provincial government. It of course has a lot more money to work with, but the budget realities (i.e. not enough money) are the same. Can the province realistically do much to stimulate industrial growth?

Well, it could lower taxes, thus increasing profits. That would at least initially hurt the bottom line. In any case it’s a balancing act.

On a related note, last week’s news that Premier Notley has convened a panel of energy-industry experts to figure out how to coax oil prices back up raises some interesting questions. What will they tell her? Get pipelines built, is an obvious one. Refine more product here at home? Either way, billions in investment would be required. That has to at least mostly come from private sources, and investors need a reasonable likelihood of profitable return. If the numbers are right, the investment will come, regardless of government. If they aren’t, it won’t.


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