The province will be cutting funding to Alberta’s nine Regional Economic Development Associations (REDAs) in half as of April 1, and this short-sighted decision has local rural community representatives steaming, says SouthGrow executive chair and Mayor of the Village of Coutts, Jim Willett.
“The current funding for the REDAs ends at the end of March,” Willett says. “What we have been told unofficially we will get $50,000 per REDA, which is half of what we require to operate. The way the deal goes is you get operating funds from the province of $100,000 a year and then we get membership fees from our participating municipalities to do projects. (This cutback) is funding to fail, because it gives you enough to exist, but it doesn’t give you enough money to really do anything other than have a guy sit in an office and make phone calls.”
Willett says the province’s handicapping of the REDAs like SouthGrow will impact rural communities like his particularly.
“My village is a perfect example,” he explains. “I have got 245 people here. I am not going to go out and hire an economic development officer. Even if I collaborate with the Town of Milk River with their 900 people. Or the Village of Warner with their 300 people. Still, even together, we don’t have the money to hire an economic development officer to follow all of the leads on economic development. So by going with a regional association like the REDAs, you are able to all benefit from having a full-time office that is doing nothing but economic development for the region.”
Willett says he doesn’t understand why the province would punish success when the REDAs have proven their value over and over again.
“I can point at the Peaks to Prairies (locally); the electric vehicle charging stations that went into 20 municipalities because of the efforts of Alberta SouthWest and SouthGrow,” he says. “We can already point to over $2 billion in investment in agri-food that we have a direct hand with putting people in touch, and making things happen. Economic development is not just local; it is regional. And you have to have these organizations to do that. You are talking about less than $1 million for the whole province to have nine REDAs representing a vast majority of rural Alberta full time, and literally billions of dollars worth of economic development at a time when we can use that development and investment as a province.”
Willett said Premier Kenney has been talking a lot in recent weeks about the need to diversify Alberta’s economy away from oil and gas, which is what the REDAs already help with.
“It boggles my mind when we are talking about economic diversification we are hung up over less than a million dollars to do that diversification,” he says. “This is a no-brainer. If you look at the numbers, you look at the results, if you look at what we’re trying to do as a province to diversify, at this time to not fund the REDAs so they can continue to get to work — I just shake my head. I am hoping sanity will prevail. I am so frustrated. What I really hope is at the last minute somebody will say, ‘OK, you are getting your $100,000 so you can continue the good work you are doing.’”
SouthGrow is better off than most REDAs, Willett admits, with some strategic reserves in place, but on such a small annual budget the loss of $50,000 in operating money will set back its project work significantly.
“We depend on the money from the government to keep the lights on, and for keeping our executive director paid,” he states. “And then all the money gathered from the municipalities is used to leverage matching funds for grants, and that kind of thing. For example, this year we took our $100,000 collected from fees and turned it into $600,000 over the course of the year.”
Southern Alberta Newspapers requested comment on the issue from the office of the Minister Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Tanya Fir.
“Operational funding for Economic Development Associations is typically not provided in other jurisdictions,” said the minister’s press secretary Justin Battinga in an emailed response, “and REDAs are still receiving support from Economic Development Trade and Tourism. REDAs already charge membership fees as significant revenue streams and can also still receive funding from other provincial, federal and private funding sources.”
SouthGrow represents 26 municipalities and 170,000 people in southwest Alberta.