Asset Management

Economic Development Helps Mono-Industry Towns Evolve

As industries throughout the world change and evolve to adapt to new technologies, the towns and cities where they have established themselves must also change. This evolution isn’t always smooth, especially for mono-industry communities who were established to support one main employer. For small towns in Alberta specifically, there is an urgent need to develop economic strategies that examine short-term solutions that address long-term change. In late 2016, the Government of Alberta passed the Climate Leadership Plan that will phase out coal by 2030 in an effort to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Urban-Systems-wayne-robert-site
Wayne Robert – Economic Development and Management Consultant

Wayne Robert, Economic Development and Management Consultant at Urban Systems, is working closely with many of these communities to help them identify their capacity and ability to continue thriving ahead of the phase out. He has worked with municipalities around the world for more than twenty years, helping them plan for the impact of industry closures, with a focus on community economic development that also includes social and environmental influences.

Recently, Robert began working with the Town of Hanna, part of the Cactus Corridor, just over 200 kms northeast of Calgary. The community is proactively looking at the impacts of the closure of the Sheerness Mine and Sheerness Generating Station (ATCO). As Robert explains, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “No two communities are the same, and so a community economic strategy that works for one town may not work for another.” By acting as a facilitator, he uses a collaborative process to engage the residents and various stakeholders, including the private sector, to build the capacity to undertake the planning and implementation of a community strategy.

One of the first, and arguably greatest challenges is changing the mindset of a population that has spent generations relying on the existence of one large employer. “The willingness to change and accept a new reality can be difficult,” Robert points out. “It helps to first identify the rich diversity that already exists within the community.”

While a significant coal mine or generating station may employ a number of people from the area, specifically 200+ people in the case of Hanna, there are still small, micro-businesses that must exist to support the community. The presence of places like the local grocer, hairdressers, taxi drivers, truck servicing, small retailers and other service oriented businesses are at risk beyond the mine-life, and maintaining those businesses while building further economic diversity will work to have long-term benefits for the community.

That’s not to say that mine and generating companies don’t see the role they play in supporting the communities that have been built around them. In rural communities especially, these companies have existed in a symbiotic relationship with the community, and as such, some have recognized the need to be a thoughtful participant in determining the impacts of closure.

Sheerness Mine and Generating Station

In both Hanna and Paintearth County, ATCO Power has been engaged in the process from the beginning. “They have been an active part of the dialogue in exploring what a successful transition looks like,” Robert explains. As community citizens themselves, they are helping in providing information about what could be possible for future community strategies. This includes examining what community assets have been created as a result of their presence in the area, and how those could be turned into valuable assets for the surrounding communities, not the least of which includes their existing workforce.

Robert is looking at key economic drivers that can help places like the Town of Hanna and Paintearth County move away from their dependence on local industry. Many of those drivers focus on the impact younger generations can have. For established towns, an aging population means that there are a number of business owners approaching retirement, and this provides an excellent opportunity to develop succession plans. In creating a strategy for onboarding youth from the area, there is not only the opportunity to pass on their knowledge as entrepreneurs, but also to maintain an employment source that would otherwise disappear if they simply closed their doors.

Furthermore, they examine ways to deal with “brain drain” – the concept of highly trained or educated people leaving a given community. Robert identifies that many young people don’t want to feel locked in to their current location, and communities that support them going out to experience the world, and then welcome them back when they want to return to the place they call home, see a greater retention of a skilled and intelligent workforce.

Known as the “Diaspora Strategy”, as the youth population leave their hometown to pursue higher education and experiences, local business owners are encouraged to maintain contact in order to foster and enable that connection to their home. This of course helps the next generation establish and build their network outside the community, but also develops civic loyalty, so when they get older and think about possibly moving somewhere quieter to raise a family, they are more inclined to return to the place where they grew up.

This is also particularly beneficial as employment markets become more entrepreneurial, meaning large factions of the population can work or own businesses remotely from anywhere with strong telecommunication infrastructure (internet). “Communities that have identified strategies to retain the remote worker and small businesses that export (out of the region) their products/services have been highly successful,” Robert reveals.

Through his 20 plus years of experience in economic development, and, most recently, his work in places like the Cactus Corridor and Paintearth County, Robert is aware that residents, more than ever, want to be engaged in the design of their communities. That’s why on economic development projects, so much emphasis is placed on participatory planning, and bringing everyone together to distinguish the future vision of their home. “We help them identify what the common threads and key assets are and build on them,” explains Robert.

Creating economic resiliency forces communities to think a decade or more into the future. However, it is equally important to ensure some early successes in order to keep the community on course to a sustainable future. Robert sees the work as an investment in maintaining the vibrancy of these communities. “The ultimate outcome is an increased quality of life. Economic development is an immediate investment to improve the long-term. It’s definitely a journey.”

Urban Systems is working with a number of communities throughout Westerns Canada to develop strategies for Economic Development. To learn more, visit our Practice Page.

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