A new economic development officer and a plan on how to boost economic development in Wheatland County are in the works. Art and Shawna Lawson from McSweeney & Associates gave a presentation to Wheatland County council that detailed the community’s profile, and opportunities for business and development of arts, culture and tourism.
The presentation also hit points like where the council excels, their challenges and areas where the county needs to improve.
The meeting also revealed that likely in early 2019 the county will be hiring a new economic development officer.
The county’s last economic development strategy was done in 2016. In the presentation there were four themes identified along with a top 10 priority action list.
“It’s all about building a strong foundation,” said Shawna Lawson. She also said that to create a direction you need a map. She explained that the consultants began their work in June 2018 with a tour of the county accompanied by Chief Administrative Officer Alan Parkin.
There was a consultation phase with local stakeholders, the province, and Siksika Nation before a working session.
There were a number of key areas where the county should be investing like having a web presence, an economic community profile, creating industrial and commercial land and building inventories, using marketing tools, adequacy and readiness of employment lands, and how the county handles investment inquires.
Some areas where the county excels are under its exports of items like pesticides, and fertilizers as well as the number of farms in the region.
There were 110 farms as of 2017 in Wheatland County compared to 102 in 2012.
There are also opportunities for development of the arts, culture and tourism.
Art Lawson explained that Wheatland County is also less dependent on oil and gas than other parts of the province.
“You’ve got a good labour force,” he said, but he remarked that some businesses need to recruit from larger centres to find more skilled labour.
Some of the county’s strengths include a good population of existing businesses and employers, a great location, small town lifestyle and it’s close to large urban centres.
A few of the challenges are the need for new infrastructure upgrading, and a problem with petty theft.
There is an opportunity to recruit younger people with families into the community.
Shawna noted that there were 220 people consulted through open houses, working sessions, one-on-one interviews and online surveys. There was a perception that the county is not open for business.
“You get better buy in if you engage residents,” said Shawna.
She explained that there is a need for a clear and consistent planning process, so that residents feel like it doesn’t matter who their planner is, the result will be the same.
The report notes that in the future, the county should work to boost relationships with Siksika Nation, and the local business community, as well as work towards identification of growth nodes.