Clearwater County has weathered the energy downturn and is now looking to map out a route to economic growth.
An economic development strategy is in the works for the municipality that the last census showed has a shrinking and aging population. In 2016, 11,950 people were counted, down from 12,278 in 2011.
County economic development officer Jerry Pratt said the oil and gas downturn was the main culprit to the population drop given the industry’s significant place in the county’s economy. The industrial and commercial sectors provide 90 per cent of county tax revenue.
However, the county is optimistic that it can develop a more resilient economy.
“We believe we can be a vibrant, growing community,” he said. “The world is changing around us so we need to look at the steps that we need to take to make sure we are growing.”
Besides oil and gas, the county can draw on three other industries, agriculture, forestry and tourism, he said.
An open house in Leslieville last week drew about 30 people and a business-focused online survey has been posted on the county’s website to get feedback from local residents and businesses. Another survey more geared to other residents will be posted in July.
Pratt said the county wants to find out what people see as the strength of the county and where opportunities lie. As well, the county wants to hear what ratepayers see as barriers to business growth.
But it is not only about the municipality’s role in promoting economic development. The county also wants to know what people feel local businesses can do to keep the economic wheels turning.
“It’s not all on the county. The county is absolutely responsible but all of the residents and businesses are responsible for the culture that we have here as well.”
Pratt said some suggested the community adopt a more innovative and pro-growth mindset. A more streamlined development approval process — a common item on many developers’ wish lists — also found favour.
The county is already looking at rezoning land north of Rocky Mountain House to attract investment.
Some suggested taking better advantage of what Mother Nature has provided the county by focusing on tourism opportunities.
There was also a recognition that the nature of work is changing, which has an impact on future growth.
“Jobs that 10 years ago didn’t require certification, today they do.”
The county is already encouraging residents to develop their skills through the Rocky Community Learning Council, whose mission is to promote and provide affordable and accessible learning opportunities.
The county is also looking at how it can improve broadband coverage in the county, which was singled out by residents as one of the obstacles to growth. Three open houses on broadband were held last week and an online feedback form has been posted.
“From an economic development point of view, future job growth and future business growth is going to need connectivity,” he said.
A Broadband Strategic Action Plan is already in the works.