Alberta must move forward

Optimism has long been a cornerstone of economic planning in Alberta, from government offices to corporate boardrooms to the kitchen tables of Albertan families. When you have an abundance of resources and a resourceful attitude, can a resurgence ever be far away?

Optimism has long been a cornerstone of economic planning in Alberta, from government offices to corporate boardrooms to the kitchen tables of Albertan families.

When you have an abundance of resources and a resourceful attitude, can a resurgence ever be far away?

But as a dismal economic year is ushered out, we should not bank our future on such optimism.

In fact, more than ever before, we must be prepared to look forward with a clarity of purpose and a commitment to change. The issues that brought us to this particularly depressed state will not simply disappear as natural gas markets improve and oil prices push back up over $100 a barrel.

Of course, an improved energy market will restore some of the lost prosperity — but it should not mask the fundamental flaws in Alberta’s economic foundation. And it should not fool us into merrily marching headlong into the next slump without addressing critical issues.

Alberta’s economic morass, of course, has not been created in isolation. We are clearly just marionettes, manipulated by the broader global economic situation.

And that is precisely the problem: we are tied inextricably to the fate of world markets.

In many ways, we have abandoned the notion of adding value to our products, controlling their processing and advancing the technology that harvests and refines those products. It was a philosophy forwarded by Peter Lougheed, given lip service by Don Getty, and largely ignored by Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach.

And that shows a lack of leadership and vision. Neither Premier Stelmach nor Klein before him have embraced education as a key component to change and growth. Stelmach’s commitment to infrastructure investment as a stimulus strategy (however much that infrastructure had decayed under Klein) is at best a stop-gap. And it has focused on roads and buildings, not improving human capital or building the kind of research and development community that will pilot our future.

The better investment for the future would be in educating the workforce; providing them with the skills to advance our homegrown technologies, create new efficiencies and products; and establishing an expertise that is in demand around the world.

That is an investment that has a lasting value, and one that has a multiplying effect on human potential.

Certainly we will struggle back, given our own devices. In Red Deer, and other parts of Alberta, we have seen signs of stability, if not revival:

* As the year neared a close, construction starts on single-family homes neared 2008 totals. Red Deer’s year-over-year decline in housing starts is the second lowest of Alberta’s seven largest urban centres.

* October 2009 house sales in Red Deer surpassed 2008 totals, at 314 from 287 in the same month a year ago. “The market continues to firm up,” said Central Alberta Realtors Association president Derek Austin.

* A national survey of manufacturers showed that the Alberta sector has been least hurt by 2009’s depressed economy. Only 15 per cent of Alberta respondents said they expected to cut staffing; that’s the lowest total in the nation.

* Analysts continue to be optimistic about the core of Alberta’s economy, and the Edmonton-Red Deer-Calgary corridor that fuels it. “I think you’re going to see a rejuvenation of conventional oil and gas activity in Western Canada,” Canadian Western Bank president and CEO Larry Pollock said recently.

* After jobless numbers quadrupled in Central Alberta earlier in the year, the devastation seems to have tapered off. Unemployment in the region has been stable at about 7.0 per cent in recent months.

* The overheated rental accommodation market has cooled significantly in the past year, creating housing options for renters and a deflated average rent.

But none of this reassuring news addresses the critical issues for Alberta as a new year dawns: if we remain stagnant, we will ultimately wither.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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