Sunday, September 26, 2010

Economic Growth- Alberta Style?

How has the average Alberta community coped with economic growth in the past three decades? It’s about the same way a cowboy copes in the bucking chute as he waits for the bronc under him to settle down. He pulls down his hat, grits his teeth and nods his head; yells, “Let ‘er rip”, and hangs on for dear life.
There’s got to be a better way. The rodeo ride only lasts for ten seconds, but the economic and psychological impact of our boom and bust cycles has affected generations of generations of Albertans.
Yet economic growth is the fuel driving a community’s aspirations. What is the right kind of economic growth for active, committed, and engaged communities?
Growth driven from within the community enhances sustainability. A community supporting local businesses helps itself by creating new jobs boosting the local economy. Contrast the long-term community impact of locally-owned businesses with “here today, gone tomorrow” developments typified by the call center operations that seduced and then abandoned Lethbridge and Edmonton.
Economic growth should be consistent with the community’s values and aspirations. Should a community valuing its pristine air and water pursue large-scale garbage-recycling operations? Does a community priding itself on its’ tranquil, family-friendly social environment pursue economic growth resulting in a large influx of transient workers?
Some communities are paying the price for rapid, uncontrolled economic growth driven by industry promises to come or remain in the community if their demands are met. Yet there are also examples of significant economic growth that support a community’s values. Alix, Alberta, located between Red Deer and Stettler, is a community where a large-scale business supports local values and goals. Rahr Malting, a key driver in the local economy, actively supports community activities, and is a key steward of the community’s crown jewel, Lake Alix.
Seasoned bronc riders don’t pull the pin on the chute gate until they know they are ready, and communities don’t have to jump at every fast-talking promoter waving the promise of jobs. Communities don’t have to pursue developers lacking both the will and the resources required to remediate the negative community impacts of their operation. They can choose to exercise extra-special wariness when the developer is playing communities against each other.
It’s municipal election time, and citizens should know where their Council candidates stand on economic development. Do potential leaders favor planned development consistent with community values and aspirations? Or do they subscribe to the “never-seen an economic development proposal I didn’t like” philosophy guiding much of Alberta for the last thirty years? Smart voters will want clear answers to those questions before nodding their heads in the voter’s booth.
Next post- the lowdown on social growth

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Is Community Growth?

We’re in the warm-up to the most important day in Alberta community life, and no, I’m not referring to the day of the 2010 Grey Cup victory parade in Calgary. The most important day in Alberta community life is the triennial municipal elections, and Oct. 18th is the day for beginning our new municipal governance cycle.
Very soon now, candidates for local government will be at your door and a community hall near you, sharing their perspectives on local issues and asking for your support. Your job as a responsible citizen is to ask questions that get beyond the usual political rhetoric.
You might start with the word “Growth’. Most wannabee municipal leaders will tell you how they will promote “community growth”. That’s when you look them in the eye and ask, in your best Peter Mansbridge voice, what they mean by “community growth”. Do they mean community economic growth? Community social and cultural growth? Community environmental growth? And while you’re at it, why not ask them for their definition of “growth” in each of those areas?
If there were homes for abused words, “growth” would be one of the first residents. “Growth” has many potential meanings. It can be a carefully planned increase in depth and richness of existing attributes and assets, or an increase in diversity. Growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by local community aspirations and values- the Okotoks model. Finally, growth can be an increase in the volume or quality of activity or outputs driven by outside forces indirectly imposing their will on communities, as has happened in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Alberta’s seemingly eternal boom / bust cycle has given many communities first-hand experience of the outcome of growth driven by outside forces. Communities across Alberta reel from the cost of paying for boom’s excesses with today’s lighter wallets.
Might this pain be a direct result of seeing “growth” as only positive, and failing to measure the negative impacts of that growth on the community? If we’ve learned one thing from the latest recession, it is that “limitless growth” is a lie. Growth for the sake of growth is exposed for what it is- failed dogma.
That reality raises some interesting questions. Should communities independently develop and administer their own standards and plans for economic, social, and environmental growth? Should citizens expect their local governments to adhere to those plans? Must proposed “growth” respect and support those plans?
These are appropriate questions to ask our would-be leaders in this run-up to October’s vote. If Albertans hope to ever escape the Boom-Bust Monster’s grisly grip, heavy-duty thinking about growth is first on the to-do list. In my next three postings, I’ll examine the possible implications and permutations for “growth” on the economic, social, and environmental fronts. We’ll start by remembering Bill Clinton’s immortal phrase - “It’s the Economy, Stupid”.