By Reg Warkentin
Throughout their term, Red Deer City Council has on an ongoing basis increased the cost and difficulty of doing business in our city in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in our provinces 114 year history.
When we look back on their ‘legacy’ we can thank them for their role in bidding and hosting the incredible and successful 2019 Canada Winter Games along with allowing the exodus of business from city limits to Red Deer County and downtown to be gutted.
The city’s Strategic Plan says Red Deer should “…have a strong, dynamic economy, fostered by entrepreneurship and innovation… with a revitalized downtown and a diverse local economy.”
Some of those things are true. Our economy certainly is fostered by innovative entrepreneurs. Unfortunately they are continually thwarted and frustrated by the tax cost and administrative burden placed upon them in our city. However, being the innovative type they found a way to avoid these burdens by moving their operations to neighbouring municipalities with favourable regulations and tax rates like Red Deer County and Blackfalds.
Its a regular occurrence to hear from investors, builders, developers and business operators about their frustrations in dealings with the city. A few have even remarked, “they’ll never do business with the city again.” Keep in mind that these are the same people that love our city and make incredibly generous contributions within our community.
Sadly the sources of frustration are varied. For some it’s the manner in which the City develops land and the restrictions placed. Capstone held its Grand Opening and ribbon cutting August 23, 2017 yet remains a muddy mess with zero dollars in private investment. For others it’s the cost and turnaround time to get a new project approved and permitted. For many its a simple matter of tax rates. For businesses with assessed property values in the millions the potential cost savings of locating outside of Red Deer is in the tens of thousands.
The Chamber ran into its own difficulties when we were denied our application to replace our ancient backlit letterboard sign with a new dynamic sign. The sign would be used to promote local business and nonprofits and fight the amazonification affecting local retailers. The application was denied because we are on a service road (with a Gaetz Ave address) directly adjacent to Gaetz and also because the sign would be less than 100 meters from a residential area, regardless that it would not be visible to the inhabitants. These were stipulations Council deliberately placed within their bylaw which by design have made dynamic signs unusable to the vast majority of businesses and nonprofits in our city.
Probably the most exciting development in Central Alberta is The Dome Sports, a 107,000 square foot indoor sports facility in Gasoline Alley. This will be of huge benefit to the hotels, gas stations, restaurants and retailers in the area. The economic benefit for businesses in the City of Red Deer? Not so much. I thought sports tourism was supposed to be Red Deer City Council’s thing.
In my personal opinion nothing encapsulates Red Deer’s shortcomings more than The Dome Sports decision of where to locate. The City of Red Deer’s inability to attract them within city boundaries is near scandalous and reflective upon poor policy that is insensitive to the realities of business, without vision and as a result, flat out damaging to our local economy and tax base.
With all that said, we at the Chamber remain optimistic about the future as we continue to lobby the city to adopt competitive tax rates and lower the regulatory burden. The new City Manager will bring a much needed change of culture that promotes business friendliness and economic growth. Yet, many of the bigger changes will require Red Deer City Council to make substantive changes. It is one thing to have a strategic direction of economic development, but an entirely different thing to undertake actions and changes to policy to facilitate it.
Reg Warkentin is the policy and advocacy manager with the Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce.