Editorial – Build a better community

Jeff Burgar
There once was a Grande Prairie county councillor who had an opinion about economic development.

“You can’t do anything about economic development,” he would say. “It just happens.”

In many ways, he was correct. So correct in fact, that in the county and municipal district circles this fellow travelled in, it was and still is in many places, certified fact and wisdom. Growth just happens!

Obviously, no matter how hard you wish for it, you can’t put oil in the ground where there isn’t any. It’s silly to build a logging and mill operation where there are no trees. One does not build a factory needing 1,000 workers at a location where there are barely 50 able-bodied adults ready to work.

But of course, the story does not stop there. The resource argument, the idea one cannot put resources in a certain place, is a good one.

But, in this day and age, trucks haul raw material hundreds of kilometres, if not more. Maybe not ore from a gold mine, or undiluted bitumen from oilsands, but refined and semi-refined products.

There comes a point where it can be cheaper to haul to an existing plant or expanded plant, than to build a new one. Case in point are all the American Gulf Coast refineries rebuilt to handle heavy oil from Canada and North Dakota. It makes it hard for a brand new refinery in Alberta to compete.

What about factories with no workers? People will go where the jobs are. Case in point: Fort McMurray, Southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Texas.

Tesla, the electric car company that everybody said was destined to fail, [it was an article of faith for our former Conservative government, there will never be a car factory in Alberta] is now building it’s giga factory for batteries in the Nevada desert. Build it, and they will come.

The arguments go on. Economic development might “just happen”. If someone discovers coal at Grande Cache. Or the oilsands at Fort McMurray. Or the Elmworth natural gas fields. Or a strandboard mill in High Prairie like Tolko that draws on local resources. That is not the whole story, not by a long shot. Anybody who stops at “resources must be there” misses much of the picture.

If the High Prairie region could snap their fingers and produce an Elon Musk [Tesla Motors] who would smile and invest hundreds of millions of dollars that would be wonderful. It could happen.

There is no rule that says people in Enilda, or Joussard, or Driftpile are any less creative, less inventive or less hard-working than people in Calgary or Brandon, Man. They could very well invent or discover something new and build an empire.

Add to that people being people, and even though so many of our young people move to larger centres, there is always an affinity to “home”. It should not be a given one has to move away from family and friends to pursue their dreams, or even to create a successful career.

Maybe the community doesn’t sit on a vein of gold, or an oilsands deposit, or some unknown mineral the future might want. What can anybody do to take the community beyond “economic development just happens.”

To be continued.

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