The City’s economic development work might draw the ire of some; however, Mayor Kerry Cook maintains that work is part of an effort to “regroup and reshape how we are going to move forward with economic development.”
A complaint is that there is little obvious work being done by the City’s economic development office or the economic development corporation — a business subsidiary of the City — whether it be related to information forthcoming from City Hall regarding policies on economic development or direct attraction through an increased business footprint on the ground, says realtor Henry Van Soest.
“Since the economy took a downturn here it’s become more critical. In my view there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered or at least some indication that they are on the right track,” he says.
In a recent interview with the Tribune Cook and the City’s economic development officer Alan Madrigga answered questions regarding the direction of economic development in Williams Lake and the role of the Economic Development Corporation.
The City says its economic development office works on initiatives that encourage industrial and commercial investment designed to increase the property tax base and facilitate employment opportunities.
To that end, the City points to its recently adopted Business Expansion and Attraction Strategy — to be implemented by the economic development office.
The strategy, to be followed up with a task force, is intended to move the City towards a “more diversified economy” and includes: reviewing mill rates for major industry, working with local mining companies to identify material suppliers located outside the Cariboo and exploring the potential of relocation of those suppliers; creating a website to promote Williams Lake to key target markets and sectors; addressing local rail issues for industrial clients; collaborating with merchants and land owners to enhance the growth and attraction of retailers and commercial enterprises downtown and support Thompson Rivers University in developing its northern campus and local program expansion.
The task force will prioritize strategy initiatives based on importance, capacity and likelihood of success and will make recommendations to council regarding implementation.
“We wanted to form that task force with key individuals with a short-term task (mandate expires in December) of prioritizing, which is basically setting the future direction of economic development,” Cook says.
“So with the recommendations I see coming forward priorities that would then, if there were budget implications, would come to council to adopt into the budget so basically what we’re doing with that is setting the future.”
This follows on the heels of the City’s adoption earlier this summer of an Industrial Revitalization Strategy designed to encourage new industrial development to locate in Williams Lake and encourage the expansion of existing industries through tax incentives.
Van Soest, however, says he isn’t so sure about the strategy.
“Industrial tax revitalization — would you consider that as part of economic development? It may be. I don’t feel that it’s really all that effective because we’re not attracting new business to the community,” Van Soest says. “If we were, that would be a different story.”
As for the City’s Economic Development Corporation both Madrigga and Cook admit its currently “on the shelf.”
They say it has been largely without task since the City, in 2008, renegotiated the terms of managing the Tourism Discovery Centre. The EDC had been involved in managing the facility as a business; that task has since been handed over to the Williams Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Because of its nature as a business subsidiary, Madrigga and Cook explain the EDC requires a specific business role it can undertake. Communities, Madrigga says, use EDCs when they have industrial lands to develop; they may hand it to the corporation to be run like a business. He cited Chilliwack as an example where the municipality took a parcel of land and gave it to the EDC which then subdivided it and went about attracting business to the land.
“So they were given an asset they could manage,” Madrigga says, adding the Williams Lake EDC is destined to fill a similar role. He points to development potential of the airport lands by the EDC if they were under the City’s jurisdiction.
Cook doesn’t know whether the task force will hit on any projects that could be a fit for the EDC.
“It depends. If you look at what the task is and how is the best way to implement the task. If it involves using a business subsidiary of the City then we would look at that but if it’s just a project that a staff person could do well we don’t need the corporation running that.
“But if we want to do land asset management and get corporate and private partners to put together a group of lands that we could market that might be a role for the business.”
Cook added that before the EDC was created the City had an economic development committee/commission which was the focus of frustration for some members who sought more autonomy from council.
The corporation consists of nine community members and two councillors who serve on the board for a determined time period.
The nature of economic development, says Madrigga, is it’s ever changing and requires a “good deal of analysis.”
“We can say, ‘Here is a thing we need to do,’ but if a new opportunity comes open then we readjust and so that’s one of the challenging things with economic development. It ends up being you have to do a lot of work just to find out something might not work. So there’s a lot of opportunity analysis, and understanding industry.”
Cook says the work of the economic development office in securing government grants — for the Stampede Grounds, for example — is a form of economic development in that it provides funds that employ community contractors and trades people.
“So there are things like that that are very intangible and nobody knows that we’re doing it,” Madrigga says.
The downtown, says Cook, is another priority for economic development.
“We’re working more closely than we’ve ever been before with the Williams Lake Central Business Improvement Area Association and we now have a draft memorandum of understanding saying that we need to work closer together setting our goals and priorities.”
Identifying and bridging gaps that serve as barriers to new business include addressing challenges with start-up costs like securing loans and attracting professionals and skilled workers to the community.
Cook says the reduction of crime is also paramount as are services that lead to a better quality of life in a community.
“More and more for people their career is their knowledge and they can take it wherever they want and so they are looking for more the lifestyle.
“If you can put what you have to offer for lifestyle out there then you’ll be more successful in attracting and retaining those workers,” Madrigga says.