Strathcona County has exceptionally high quality urban and rural properties and assets. This gives the county unique prospects in multiple fields to continue to lead in Alberta.
One such opportunity exists to boost residential, agricultural, business and industrial growth to raise our living standards. There are also, however, numerous challenges to overcome.
• Conflicting values: Different stakeholders do not always see growth from the same perspective. For example, existing taxpayers expect a fair allocation of resources among old and new communities. Meanwhile, businesses focus on expansion and the jobs they create. Differing values and objectives can mean progress is stalled, as a gain by one is perceived as a loss by another.
• Costs: Even a limited build can run into the billions of dollars for just basic infrastructure such as water transmission, sewer, storm water and roads. At the end of the day, municipal bills must be paid by the taxpayer.
• Economic limitations: Municipalities are checked by statute and fiscal realities. The county’s debt parameters are limited to 1.5 times revenue, our debt service ratio cannot exceed 25 per cent of revenue and our capital strategic spend is curbed to approximately $20 million a year.
• High risks: Population growth, markets and the economy are notoriously unpredictable (often wildly), leading to the inherent risk of growth projects.
Private initiatives require a great deal of upfront investment (cash), need positive cash flow and are not easily disposed of (not liquid). On top of that, Alberta is particularly susceptible to boom and bust cycles, and we struggle to evolve our economy. Recent events like the Western Canada Select-West Texas Intermediate oil price differential have hit us hard.
• Limited resources: Some lands are better suited to a particular use, such as industry, residential or agriculture. Sustainable use of resources is now a solid mainstream value.
• Waste: The public votes with its feet and rejects unlivable and unaffordable communities. Clear planning and rational growth are table-stakes; overbuilds and failure to leverage existing infrastructure are not supportable.
Seven principles leading to positive growth
Despite the challenges, there are principles that provide firm guide posts when Strathcona County seeks to take advantage of opportunity and enhance growth.
• Best-evidence decisions: Make evidence-based decisions in the best interests of all citizens.
• Maintain a solid fiscal base: Citizens and businesses require certainty from government to allow them to take prosperity creating risk. Avoiding wild swings in taxes and managing debt provides predictability and stability. Meanwhile, increasing debt means services must decrease or taxes must increase.
• Create positive conditions for investment: We can use our municipal powers to make our community attractive for investment, such as maintaining our favourable tax regime (fourth lowest in the province amongst our peers and improving) and levies (lower on average than our direct competitors).
• Stick to governmental expertise; let business take the risk and realize the reward of the market: The county does not have the real estate know-how, nor the financial capability, to underwrite growth. Private interests take the risks, but also rightly earn the rewards, of its projects. Letting the market decide within sensible policies avoids costly mistakes.
• Promote economic development: Commerce helps pays the bills, therefore support agriculture, businesses, and industry. Agri-business alone adds $6.5 billion annually to the regional economy. Pursue 30 by 30: $30 billion in investment in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland by the year 2030.
• Smart growth: For more livable and affordable communities: densify, leverage existing infrastructure, grow from existing nodes, plan to fend off annexations and do not overbuild.
• Expand the pie: Success by one stakeholder group does not have to mean that another must lose.
A bright future
The citizen rightly demands manageable taxes and a sustainable use of resources. Business rightly expects a level playing field and fair rewards consummate with the risks it undertakes.
But, although, we face challenges, there is plenty of common ground and room to produce positive growth under the above principles.
Strathcona County is and will continue to be a highly desirable place to live, work, play and invest. Our median age is relatively low, our median income relatively high, we have a highly skilled workforce, we are home to the top industries in the country and we have nation-leading municipal services. On top of that, we live in a desirable region of 1.3 million people, producing one-third of Alberta’s GDP and produce over 700,000 jobs.
I have tremendous faith in our abilities and I look forward to our community continuing to thrive.
Follow me on Twitter @RodFrank12 or on Facebook at Rod Frank, on Linkedin @rfrank.ca, and website at rfrank.ca for continuing discussions on growth and other municipal issues and matters.
For clarity, legal guidance requires that I advise I am not communicating on behalf of council/Strathcona County. Also, I respect the decisions of council and their implementation, even where I do not agree with them. As a member of council, however, I can request that council consider changing decisions it has made in the past.
Rod Frank is Mayor of Strathcona County. He can be reached at 780-464-8000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.