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Saturday , 27 February 2021

Economic Development Plan for Bonnyville highlights areas for growth

Tourism, agriculture, and oil and gas seen as areas with more potential.

The Town and M.D. of Bonnyville have adopted a joint plan to try and bolster the local economy.

The Bonnyville Regional Economic Development Plan has passed both town and M.D. councils, which outlines opportunities to grow and diversify the economy, identifies strengths, and limit the rollercoaster of the oil and gas industry.

This plan was done with work by the joint economic development officer for town and M.D., Mark Laver, who began his position in the summer after the municipalities acquired a CARES grant, and the consultants who did the majority of the work, MDB Insights.

Included in the plan is the data from an economic development survey with 126 residents, 83 business interviews, 30 workshop participants, 15 “content expert deep-dive interviews”, and 10 one-on-one local influencer interviews.

With the plan now adopted, Laver said he will meet with the consultants and stakeholders, and expects an announcement on next steps soon.

“But broadly speaking, it’ll be in those three areas that we talked about. So business attraction, business retention and expansion, and the last one would be sort of general marketing,” said Laver.

“We heard that loud and clear from our stakeholders that the area doesn’t promote itself enough.”

Three sectors that received the most attention for areas to grow was tourism, agriculture, and oil and gas.

In the resident survey, which had 100 respondents from the M.D. and 26 from the Town, tourism yielded the highest response of greatest opportunities for the region with 31 per cent, with oil and gas in second at 22 per cent.

Lakes and natural assets were 1st and 3rd, respectively, under the greatest strengths of the region, while trails and tourism were 1st and 3rd when respondents were asked what should be done first.

“Tourism has been one that we’ve been eyeballing as well because there is a lot of opportunity and now that we see the results of the survey, and in conjunction with the economic development plan, I think there are some opportunities there,” said Mayor Gene Sobolewski on The Morning After last week.

“Especially when you start looking at the broad umbrella of tourism, there are a number of opportunities, and we’ll have to see where the committee takes it.”

The aspect Reeve Greg Sawchuk was most concerned about is keeping existing businesses’ doors open, which he mentioned when the adoption of the regional plan was discussed on Wednesday in M.D. council.

“We still have a lot of work to do. Obviously, the area is heavily weighted, especially because this was done with the town, it is heavily weighted towards the oil and gas industry. And we’ve got lots of participants already there. It did show some weaknesses in tourism and in agriculture where maybe there are opportunities,” said Sawchuk on The Morning After.

“The thing that I said from the very beginning when it comes to economic development is we want to make sure that we safeguard the existing businesses that we have already operating, the ones who have made the investment in our town and in our municipality because they’re the ones who support everything already. Let’s make sure that they survive.”

Laver said while talks about leveraging other sectors are growing, it is understood that Bonnyville is not getting out of the oil and gas sector.

“Oil and gas is going to continue to pay a lot of the bills in the area, regardless, in the immediate future. But in some respects, we have to at least keep our eye on the future as well, and look at some of these other opportunities that might be ahead,” said Laver.

“There’s an opportunity to maybe retrain workers in certain sectors, f those prove to be an option for us. But when you’ve got such a prominent industry, you don’t just throw it out overnight. It’s what pays the bills. So you have to support that industry in the near future. And look for opportunities for them as well.”

Two-thirds of residents indicated in the survey that they had thought about starting their own business, but various factors were holding them back.

When asked, residents said they spend $3,904 per year shopping online on average.

The overall business satisfaction in the region is healthy at 89 per cent, with 37 per cent very satisfied and 52 per cent somewhat satisfied. However, 40 per cent said their level of satisfaction has decreased compared to 12 months ago, while on 13 per cent said it increased.

As part of the survey, business owners were asked about their future expansion plans. Out of the 83 surveyed, 34 presented an opportunity for intervention–12 businesses were considering expanding and 22 were considering relocating, downsizing, selling, closing, or had a lease expiring soon.

About Michael Menzies

Menzies is the editor-at-large for Connected Media Inc. Born and raised in Vermilion, he started in May 2018 during his NAIT Radio and Television practicum and reports on local politics, sports, and community issues. He became the Bonnyville Pontiacs play-by-play voice during the 2019-20 season. He also comments on provincial and national issues. Menzies hosts Connected! Evening Monday-Thursday at 5 o’clock. He also likes to buy books and read some of them.