By Trevor Busch
Identifying a series of objectives targeting economic growth and quality of place for Taber, town council recently reviewed the findings of a new Regional Economic Development Strategy.
In late November 2017, council approved support for the completion of a regional economic development strategy to be jointly funded by the Town of Taber and M.D. of Taber with matching funds from the Alberta Community and Regional Economic Support Program. MDB Insight was later retained to complete the project.
As part of the background for the strategy extensive stakeholder engagement was undertaken, including a survey of 67 local businesses and several workshops to gather input. Primarily, the strategy provides the town with an “action plan for initiatives and projects” the Planning and Economic Development Department can undertake in coming years to enhance the business climate and competitiveness of Taber.
Much focus was placed on action items the town can pursue with regional partners such as the M.D. of Taber, Town of Vauxhall, Joint Economic Development Committee, SouthGrow and Community Futures to address regional concerns. Entitled “Growing Our Economic Future: Taber Region Economic Development Strategy” the report was presented by Paul Blais of MDB Insight at council’s Dec. 17 regular meeting.
“You have an incredible opportunity here for investment attraction, especially on the food processing front,” said Blais. “And those impacts are region wide, so the more that you can continue to work with the M.D. and other communities in the region, even working with Lethbridge County and the City of Lethbridge. The more that you can position this part of southern Alberta as a world-class destination — you really are a world-class destination for certain aspects of food processing, particularly with the protein cluster — the more that you’re going to able to leverage the town’s investment.”
In collating their report, MDB Insight analyzed local demographics. Between 2006 and 2016, the Taber region’s population grew by four per cent reaching 8,428 in the town and 7,098 in the M.D. Median household income for the region in 2016 was $71,181, more than $20,000 below the median household income for Alberta ($93,835). In the area of education, 34 per cent of people over 25 have not completed high school, compared to 11 per cent across Alberta, while 27 per cent have a college/university education, compared to 53 per cent for Alberta.
Specific to Taber itself, between 2006 and 2016 the community experienced a growth rate of 11 per cent, with a median age of 36 very closely aligned with the provincial average of 36.7. Median household income was $73,894. Between 2011 and 2016, the average value of dwellings grew from $239,826 to $250,465. The average rental price was $820 per month in 2011, growing to $882 by 2016. More than double the proportion of Taber adults over 25 (26 per cent) have not completed high school compared to the province (11 per cent), while 31 per cent have a university certificate, diploma or degree at the bachelor level or above compared to 27 per cent for the region and 53 per cent for Alberta.
“If you get your community to 10,000, more franchises will pay attention to the community,” continued Blais. “They look at the numbers, and they want to know how much local population is available. If you can achieve that positioning you’ll see more interest from regional chains which is effective for some parts of the economy.”
In the Town of Taber’s SOARR Assessment as part of the strategy, strengths were identified as the Eureka Industrial Park, highly-competitive manufacturing, strong capacity for water and wastewater treatment, various recreational amenities, and Taber Cornfest and other festivals and events. Opportunities were seen in conducting a community exchange, cannabis product processing of oils and resins and research in advance of legalization of edibles, working with manufacturers to identify supply chain gaps, and developing a newcomer campaign.
Risks were identified through youth not returning to the community after leaving for post-secondary education, and while plans are in place to minimize impact, drought and long-term climate change issues could have “significant influence on investment.”
As one of the key findings from interviews conducted with community and business leaders from across the region in September 2018, it was reported that “some people also noted that Taber has a socially non-inclusive image.”
Strategic objectives identified locally for the Town of Taber included supporting existing businesses by addressing their top concerns in meaningful ways that improve business satisfaction, ensuring retail and personal services thrive and the town remains a hub for regional spending, improving the overall quality of place and attractiveness to newcomers and visitors, continuing to grow investment attraction through targeted methods, and to collaborate with regional communities in common areas of mutual opportunity or concern.
“While investment attraction is the one that will make the headlines in the local newspaper — new company comes to Taber and employs 50 people — research shows that it’s the existing businesses, the addition of one or two people at a time across the entire business community that actually adds more economic vitality and economic growth within the community,” said Blais.
Various goals and actions to achieve these results were recommended in the report, and included enhancing business retention and expansion surveying and visitations, assembling internal and external small business resource repositories, assisting in identifying access to training for employees, tracking top labour force needs and projections, and conducting an annual review of competitiveness.
Other recommendations suggested working with area grocers to create a local products section, monitoring retail trends and reporting bi-annually to the Taber and District Chamber of Commerce about the results, and initiating a Trip Advisor advocacy campaign.
“Some of the outcomes of this include an increased awareness of some of the goods that are produced in the region, grown in the region, and stimulating more local purchases,” said Blais. “You’ll have business owners that aware of the possible opportunities and threats through retail trend reports.”
Also promoted was the implementation of a storefront bylaw, continuing with the momentum of the recent Coors One Horse Town festival, revitalizing underdeveloped commercial spaces, continuing to advance an affordable housing initiative, and undertaking a “community exchange program” to inspire place-making and beautification opportunities.
“Thinking specifically of the downtown, there’s some key properties that are underdeveloped or not developed on at all. Some communities are stimulating investor interest by doing their own initial work on the possibilities of those sites — even if it’s a privately-owned site — working with the private landowner to determine what the potential is, and showing that there is a strong return on investment possibility,” said Blais.
To grow investment attraction, the strategy targeted leveraging existing market strengths, promoting the LocalIntel site selection tool via targeted outreach to site selection firms affiliated with target industries (agri-food, oil and gas, transportation and warehousing), and developing an investment cost-calculator to assist investors and lead generation.
“There are opportunities to fill gaps in the supply chain,” continued Blais. “Not every supply and service is being provided here, and through the workshops that we had with local businesses there were some that really came to the forefront though the agricultural industry, for instance. A lot of the professional services required by farmers or food processors aren’t available here, they’re needing to go quite far and wide to find some possibilities to fill those gaps in the supply chain.”
Coun. Garth Bekkering would inquire about an emphasis on shopping local, and how successful various initiatives can be without structural change in the community’s business environment.
“There’s no question that it’s an issue,” said Blais. “You can only go so far in guilting people into shopping local. They need a real reason to shop local. That’s why I was suggesting that the communities that are very successful at it have a different mix of businesses in their downtowns that you can’t find on the outskirts of Lethbridge, for instance, or a neighbouring community.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas felt an emphasis on downtown revitalization could only be effective with the addition of large-scale employers in the area.
“Unless a community has a lot of agri-food processors interested in coming to the area, the saturation of the marketplace in small communities is a real concern. How many pizza joints, burger joints, hair salons and fingernail places can you have in a community? How do you rationalize redoing downtown main street to enhance culinary experiences when the marketplace is already over-saturated for those types of businesses?”
Blais argued diversification can occur on all fronts.
“I guess what we’re trying to emphasize is inspiring entrepreneurs to do something different, and to look at ways of maintaining the dollars that are leaking from the community to stay in the community. You have an over-saturation of certain types of businesses, but maybe they’re not appealing to all the tastes in the community.”