Opinion: City council’s next job must be to lure new businesses

A national award for Red Deer’s swanky new welcome sign is well-deserved acknowledgement of the city’s forward-looking nature.

And modest business incentives that were discussed this week, to support revitalization of the city’s core, are proof of Red Deer council’s desire to make the hub of the community more desirable.

The downtown reflects the health of the entire city, so when it looks tired and in need of some care, it’s time to take action.

Reports produced years ago for the city identified some of the shortcomings Red Deer council is now seeking to address, as well as what’s at stake.

“Underutilized properties in the greater downtown represent less-than-optimal returns to the city in terms of property tax revenues and other revenues, such as building permits, business licences and spin-off revenues to the city related to employment and residential growth on these sites,” Red Deer council was told by a consultant in February 2016.

What’s important is the city is taking action, subject to budget discussions, which promise to be marked by many tough decisions.

A gap in the city’s economic development initiatives, however, is a commitment to attracting new businesses to Red Deer.

There are people employed by the city to encourage new investment in the community, but where is the evidence of their success? It’s proof of success that’s needed, of course, not glossy consultant reports sprinkled with feel-good jargon.

What major employers have been drawn to the city because of its enviable lifestyle, competitive tax rates and strategic location between Calgary and Edmonton?

Making it easier for downtown merchants to spruce up the outside of their shops, among other measures, is important, but these efforts don’t necessarily bring fresh tax dollars to the city, or create a greater number of jobs.

Indeed, if the city keeps an eye on tax rates, it may not have to provide targeted relief. Land owners could afford to carry out their own improvements — not just downtown, but throughout Red Deer.

The city should be focused too on bringing new businesses to the city. It should be aggressively looking outside its jurisdiction to find occupants for those empty spaces that are now all too common along Gaetz Avenue.

The city should also release its strategy to fill the large volume of space that sits empty in industrial parks.

It’s great that city politicians are poised to take action to help existing downtown businesses — even though it creates more of the red tape they vow to eschew — but they mustn’t neglect the need to expand the tax base by attracting more employers and the workers they will bring.

So far, Red Deerians have seen few results on that front.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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