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Alberta’s Rural Diversification Initiative

Community Futures Alberta’s Rural Diversification Initiative (RDI) is an important WD-funded program that is helping to deliver significant economic gains through partnerships between communities and entrepreneurs. In order to compete, rural communities must build long-term sustainability, adapt to the current economy, and maintain a broad economic base with a variety of businesses and jobs. The following are just two examples of how RDI is working in Alberta.

Online technologies help diversify Alberta economy

In September 2008, RDI invested more than $150,000 towards the implementation of the South East Alberta Technology Strategy (SEATS). The Strategy, led by Community Futures Entre-Corp, brings technology-based businesses and Medicine Hat College together to address the growing demand for skilled workers and leverage business opportunities in the technology sector. To date, the project has provided one-to-one support to several technology clients and allowed Medicine Hat College to kick-start a new technology co-op program.

The SEATS project, which also receives funding from the Government of Alberta, has enabled Community Futures Entre-Corp to become an approved service provider to the province’s Innovation Voucher Program. To date, seven businesses have been awarded vouchers including Accessible Accessories Ltd., a software company already participating in Community Futures Entre-Corp’s Business First Incubator.

The Medicine Hat software developers – a husband and wife team – only needed a little support from the local Community Futures office. Today the company is responsible for supplying the web interface for the online accessory shops of numerous car dealers. They’ve also added five employees.

“You don’t even notice that it’s not a GM or Ford site,” said Sean Blewett, the General Manager of Community Futures Entre-Corp.

Part of the impetus for the project, Blewett added, is the fact the technology sector tends to work with clients from outside the region, and doesn’t have a strong local profile. As a result, companies have difficulty finding skilled employees. “There’s a lot of demand from employers, but not a lot of young people are going into the technology programs,” said Blewett. “They’re used to the idea of just walking out of school into the oil and gas jobs.”

So, in addition to the kind of training and office support the Community Futures program gives companies like Accessible Accessories, the project is also working with Medicine Hat College in the hope of convincing more students to pursue high-tech jobs.

Toward a healthy business community

For a town that got its start in one of the dirtiest of industries — coal mining — Canmore has come a long way. Today, this picturesque southern Alberta town near Calgary is working hard to win the title of healthiest community in Canada.

“Healthy Canmore” is a fledgling project born out of the realization that the town had become a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts, who in turn were attracting large numbers of health and wellness practitioners to keep them in shape. Three years ago, a summit at the Silvertip Resort led to a loose alliance that is on the verge of becoming a formal organization this year.

The advantages of a trade association are well known, but it’s not always a simple matter of convincing disparate interests to join forces. Canmore boasts dozens of health and wellness professionals, but there are sometimes divisions between the conventional physicians and the alternative medicine practitioners.

“The biggest problem is these two sectors don’t always talk to each other,” said Jodie Eckert, Economic Development Coordinator for Community Futures Centre West, which is managing a $198,000 grant from RDI to turn the Healthy Canmore vision into reality. “Instead of having everyone working alone and in their own silos, we’re trying to have them come together.”

Already, the “Canmore – A Community of Healthy Living and Wellbeing” project is finding success. After completing a study of the area’s health and wellness sector in 2008, the second phase of assembling an alliance has already generated considerable positive publicity. So much so, said Eckert, that at least one new practitioner has relocated to Canmore to take advantage of the cooperative business environment.

“Everybody likes to come into a community that’s going in the same direction,” she said.

Among the project’s goals is to see four new health and wellness businesses open by March of 2011. So far, Eckert reports, ten new businesses have signed on. They’re also aiming for a two per cent increase in employment.

Helping draw new interest is the annual Canmore LifeFest, an industry expo that features workshops and showcases from a wide range of exhibitors, including everything from medical practitioners to massage therapists. The third expo was held on November 13, 2010.


Building a gateway for foreign business

Although CentrePort Canada, Winnipeg’s new inland port, may still be in its infancy, it hasn’t stopped businesses from across the country from wanting to take advantage of a unique opportunity.

From high-end agricultural products to windows, the list of candidate goods for shipment through CentrePort seems destined to be a long one. And that’s without even trying.

“We actually are not marketing ourselves right now because we’ve been focused on the foundational elements,” said CentrePort CEO Diane Gray. “At the same time, companies are coming to us. We’re working with a dozen firms who are interested in working in Winnipeg.”

CentrePort is a 20,000 acre transportation, trade, manufacturing, distribution, warehousing and logistics centre near Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. CentrePort will offer businesses two primary advantages. Using Canada’s tax and duty advantages, exporters won’t have to pay duties and tariffs until their products reach the consumer.

“It’s about easing cash flow management,” explained Gray. Second, Winnipeg has few rivals when it comes to transportation options. No airport in Canada sees more dedicated daily cargo flights than Winnipeg’s. Add to that three Class 1 rail carriers — CN, CP and Burlington Northern Santa Fe – and the options for moving goods are immense.

Those factors convinced a group of public- and private-sector organizations that met in the summer of 2008 to call for the creation of CentrePort. WD and the Province of Manitoba provided $3.5 million in October 2009, for start-up and operations.

The next step, while fielding calls from those eager to get involved, is the servicing of the land required to host the port. Gray said some businesses are eager to take advantage of “single-window access” to the federal government’s programs as soon as possible.

Gray and her colleagues are also wasting no time establishing relationships with other North American inland ports. In January 2010, federal, provincial, municipal and business leaders joined her team on a tour that included stops in Guanajuato, Mexico; Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois.


Commercializing top technological ideas

From designer crops to nuclear engineering, Saskatchewan is growing its reputation as a technological innovator. However, these innovative ideas and products still have to make it to market.

“We’ve had some very advanced research,” said Susan Gorges, the CEO of SpringBoard West Innovations. “But it is a fact that economic benefit only comes if those discoveries get into the marketplace.”

A three year old, non-profit organization based in Regina with a mission of commercializing the province’s best technological ideas, SpringBoard recently opened a second office in Saskatoon with $3.3 million in support split equally between the provincial government and WD. The organization works with high-tech entrepreneurs to fine-tune products, business plans and marketing strategies.

“They know how to run a lab and do research, but they don’t tend to be great business people,” said Gorges. “That’s where we come in.”

The new Saskatoon office will work closely with the University of Saskatchewan, where many entrepreneurs do their early work. The goal is to give small- and medium-sized businesses some of the advantages typically available only to large corporations. The major players in communications technologies are revamping their product line every six months, pointed out Gorges, making it tough for start-ups to compete. “How do I slip a new product into that environment when Nokia or Motorola are doing that kind of thing every six months?”

But with SpringBoard’s help, Saskatchewan is competing. Michel Fortin, CEO and President of Prevtec Microbia West, can testify to that. Thanks to assistance from SpringBoard’s new Saskatoon office, his biotech firm is approaching the final stages of licensing for a trio of pig vaccines that will be produced in collaboration with the Saskatchewan Research Council. When approved, the vaccines could be   providing work for as many as 20 staff in the province.

“We might have been able to do it all ourselves,” said Fortin. “But without SpringBoard West, it would have taken a lot more time and it wouldn’t have been at the same level as it is.”

In all, SpringBoard has fielded more than 175 inquiries since it opened in 2007. As of March, it was working with 24 active clients. The new office brings its full-time staff to 10, including four innovation officers. Gorges said they are sometimes referred to as the “surround sound” team because of their multidisciplinary approach to advising clients.