The role transportation plays in economic development

Dan Dibbelt
Smoky River Regional
Economic Development
Economic development is a very diversified topic. Sure it is about keeping the businesses and industry we have in the region.

Sure it is about trying to attract new businesses to the community or help existing ones expand. And sure it is about creating employment and generating tax revenue for a municipality.

But economic development is also about all the components that go into the ability to make those things happen. Things like recreational facilities, schools, access to post secondary, proximity to commodities and transportation are all key to retaining and bringing in new businesses and jobs.

It may not always be clear why they are important but a little reflection on what brings people to a community makes them crystal clear.

Most people when deciding to move to a new community, check out how the schools are, what is there to do in the region, and how stable is the community before they will invest in buying a house.

Fortunately, the Smoky River region has a great selection of schools, recreational facilities and has long been a very stable region. Sure our population has dropped, but so has the majority of Canada’s rural municipalities. The reality is that more and more people are relocating to large urban centers.

We are also very fortunate in our region to have a group of volunteers that ensures we have opportunity to grow our existing list of amenities, whether that be FABuLAS, the Smoky River Regional Economic Development Board or the McLennan Chamber of Commerce.

What may be harder to understand is the role transportation plays in economic development. Roads and rail seem to be all around us and air service is available at most major centers and for most of us, getting from point A to point B is pretty routine.

Sure we may complain about the state of the gravel road we travel on everyday or the fact that the town or village is too slow to clear the snow from our roads, but on the whole we get around pretty easy.

Passenger rail service has been gone for more years than most of us can remember and we have even lost the service of the Greyhound Bus Lines to many of our communities. Transportation, however, is not just about moving people it is also about moving goods, something we have a lot of in northern Alberta. We produce considerable forest products, a multitude of agricultural products and a whole lot of oil as well. What we don’t produce is value-added products.

There are several reasons we do not produce a lot of value-added products but the primary reason is simply because of the transportation issues.
While we do have two major provincial highways and a rail line running through our region our distance from major markets is a challenge.

Most manufacturers prefer to be close to major centers because it is more profitable. Shipping costs are lower. Additionally, there is often a challenge in having a value-added operation in northern Alberta because of the challenge in obtaining trained staff. Like all businesses, attracting workers to relocate to a northern community can be a challenge. True, we can train local people – we are also fortunate to have Northern Lakes
College in our backyard – but even northern youth often look to settling in larger urban centers, simply because they want something different.

While all that sounds grim with regard to our ability to attract value added opportunities, it does not mean we should stop trying. A number of vale-added ventures have developed in northern Alberta, quite successfully. And with the downturn in the economy, there are new opportunities around. The only real difference is we need to start focusing on small and medium enterprises instead.

New government policies like the carbon tax, will help create greater local opportunities, as the cost of driving will go up and hopefully, more people will source products locally. This will give local entrepreneurs the opportunity to create locally crafted items. Examples of this exist on an ecommerce website featuring local products.

The businesses on this website have created products that often use local commodities, they value-added to them and are now selling them on-line. If you have an idea in mind, visit the website and see what opportunities for value-added products there are, and perhaps you just might get inspired.

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