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How to Build an Edmonton Empire

“If we want to be a player, we need to be aggressive about the future.”


If you’re keeping an eye on the Edmonton skyline, then you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the recent surge of development—development that certainly isn’t “ICE-olated” to the downtown core. Edmonton’s entire metropolitan region is busy with investments that promise to turn the region into a powerhouse, but it takes more than a few new buildings to build an economic empire.

As Chris McLeod, director, marketing & communications, Edmonton Global, explains, one of the most important things Edmonton and its surrounding communities can do right now is recognize that the competition isn’t with each other. “What we are advocating for is collaboration across the entire Edmonton Metropolitan Region and across all of our industries. When we collaborate, align, and harmonize our voices, we have the power to be heard and become far more competitive on a global scale.”

The Edmonton Metropolitan Region is home to 15 municipalities, and the past line of thinking was that those municipalities were in competition with each other for investment. McLeod, however, is adamant about that being the wrong strategy for attracting business growth and investment potential.

“When we package the Edmonton Metropolitan Region as a whole, we are able to compete with the top regions and cities in the world. Our GDP is $105 billion annually, we’re the fifth largest and second fastest growing economy in Canada, and we have a strong connection to four key sectors (food and agriculture, health and life sciences, energy and clean-tech, and manufacturing and advanced manufacturing). We are young, educated, and growing—we are the youngest community in the country and ranked as the best for youth work. We have seven colleges and universities with 100-130,000 students enrolled, and the University of Alberta is currently one of the top five research centres in the world for AI. That large talent pool and international leadership in AI is critical for the future of our region.”

However, “One of the things Edmonton Global has done is look at the competitiveness of regions compared to others, and we’ve confirmed that we are nowhere near as strong as we credit ourselves,” McLeod reports. “If we want to be a player, we need to be willing to look hard at ourselves and be aggressive about the future. Business practices that were put into place 30-40 years ago were valuable when they were created, but today we need to look at them and ask if they are empowering our future or keeping us locked in the past.

“Around the world there are companies and communities who are embracing AI, machine learning, robotics, and adapting their management practices. There’s a real danger in not realizing that many things that were science fiction 30 years ago are being done today. The biggest thing, though, is to recognize that the competition isn’t with each other; we are collectively competing with Austin, Singapore, and Shanghai. We need to collaborate together with the focus of winning on the global stage, but we have to get aggressive and there isn’t a ton of time.”

“It’s really about being ‘investment ready’,” says Grant Bain, director, planning & development, Leduc County. “Leduc County has its own internal economic development function, a key focus of which is to work with our regional partners, including other municipalities and Edmonton Global, to ensure we are well positioned to attract the right kind of investment.

“Investment readiness creates certainty for investors. Communities need to be prepared to invest in key strategic infrastructure; they must be nimble and responsive. We need to connect businesses that are mutually supportive from a supply chain perspective.”

“Leduc County is on a path to diversify its economy,” explains Bain. “The resource sector has been a foundation for the development of our economy for many decades, and it will continue to be important as we grow and diversify. While the Nisku Business Park has historically been heavily reliant on the oil and gas sector, recent development in Nisku and surrounding areas has seen the emergence of non-traditional businesses (a distillery, a mushroom company, large-scale cannabis production, etc.).

“We believe that a more diversified economy will help soften the peaks and valleys typically associated with the boom and bust cycle of the energy sector. As we see new investments in the County—like the Amazon warehouse, a project that is expected to create more than 600 full-time, stable and well-paying jobs—we are afforded opportunities to reinvest in critical infrastructure to further support growth in other sectors, particularly transportation & logistics and agri-business. We see these being attractive opportunities, given the direct access available to other modes of transport, especially Edmonton International Airport.”

“Leduc County is also part of a four-party partnership with the City of Edmonton, City of Leduc, and Edmonton International Airport to advance the Airport Accord project,” Bain adds. “The Airport Accord is a joint land use planning and economic development initiative focused on maximizing the economic potential of the airport as a key economic driver for the region.”

Parkland County is also looking into new ways to remain nimble and competitive with the goal to stimulate business growth and investment. “The intent is to bring new businesses and capital investment into the Edmonton Metropolitan Region,” says Robynn Holstein, interim director & business development officer, Parkland County. Their success has introduced businesses like Freedom Cannabis, Fountain Tire, and Stihl into Acheson.

Holstein points out that Parkland County’s former reliance on the coal industry makes diversification particularly important to the area. “The accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power generation has had serious impacts within Parkland County, and those will need to be offset by new economic development.” Development, she points out, that will support residents through job creation and through a more diverse tax base that will offer protection from market boom and bust cycles.

“Parkland County takes pride in our proactive role with large-scale infrastructure projects supporting the Acheson Area,” adds Jody Hancock, director, engineering services, Parkland County. “A number of planning studies outlining the long-term development of our infrastructure throughout the business park have been coordinated and completed by Parkland County with the intention of streamlining growth and supporting new investment. Our goal is to minimize risk, attract new development and to make it easy to get started and stay in Acheson.”

The Edmonton Metropolitan Region needs to work together with businesses supporting businesses. Darrell Petras, executive vice-president, business development, TEC Edmonton, explains that the high risk associated with the growth of successful new tech businesses is evidence of the importance of that level of collaboration.

“Professional service providers, mentors, affordable space, and investors are often all required to move technology companies forward. New tech businesses are built on new ideas that require testing. Post-secondary institutions can offer a good place to test ideas, particularly if prototype development or health testing is needed. Often, short courses and workshops can help entrepreneurs early on, as they learn from the success and failure of others. Tech companies offering a unique product or service must ensure they are solving a problem or addressing a need in the market and that the overall market will be large enough to support growth. The right mentor can be invaluable.”

Of course, the benefits of industry collaboration are reciprocal. Tech companies that are supported by their surrounding industries are able to influence those industries with their ideas. Further, “As tech sectors begin to establish, experts will be drawn into the region to work with the companies. As expertise and success increase, investors will gain confidence in those sectors in the region and more funds will move into the region. As seasoned and new experts achieve success, they may offer mentoring to others and start new companies. The output will be a diversified economy, a technology hub, and tech-based jobs.”

“We’re stronger together,” Petras concludes. “There’s currently a focus on collaboration within Edmonton as well as on working with our counterparts in Calgary. To really make an impact, we need to be working together, reducing gaps and seeking opportunities to build and support stronger businesses.”