Alberta is investing $6 million in a new program to help grow rural and Indigenous economies, Agriculture and Irrigation Minister RJ Sigurdson announced on Nov. 9.

The Small Community Opportunity Program is part of the province’s rural economic development plan and will provide grants of between $20,000 and $100,000 for community-led projects from Indigenous and rural communities or non-profit organizations that serve them.

“When you look at the Indigenous and small communities across Alberta, we wanted to make sure that we had a long-term economic policy that would help with their prosperity. And today, we announced that we’re backing those Indigenous and small communities in their pursuit to make a big difference, and grow their economic footprint,” Sigurdson said.

“This is all about building capacity in small businesses and growing the agricultural industry,” he said.

The program is open to groups from communities with populations of 20,000 or fewer, and have a workforce mainly focused on oil and gas, agriculture, or forestry. To be eligible, projects must involve rural business supports or entrepreneurship, support for labour force or skills development, tourism, or economic capacity building, and must be complete within two years.

These criteria set guidelines for the program, but there will be a lot of flexibility in determining how they apply, Sigurdson said. Some stipulations, like the distance implied in the rule that applicants can’t be near communities larger than 25,000 people, will be weighed on a case-by-case basis.

“We are looking at keeping this as broad as possible, understanding the unique challenges of every individual community. Because there are differences in those communities from north to south, east to west,” Sigurdson said.

“By empowering Indigenous and small communities to address their unique challenges and seize opportunities, we are fostering economic resilience and a brighter future for rural Alberta,” Jobs, Economy and Trade Minister Matt Jones said in a news release.

Sigurdson said the primary challenge expressed by small rural communities is labour force development, which could be addressed through mentoring, literacy, or skill-training-focused projects.

Following closely behind the lack of appropriate workers, the second major problem raised by rural communities was the difficulty attracting investment, he said.

“To be able to bring businesses into those small communities that are very important in supporting the area as a whole,” Jones said. “I’d say those are the top two areas that were really communicated to us by a lot of the small communities in rural Alberta.”

The opportunity program is aligned with the strategic directions set out in the Economic Development in Rural Alberta Plan, which was introduced in December 2022. Despite the economic importance of rural areas in Alberta, there was previously no specific rural economic development policy in the province.

“We really felt that it was necessary to start driving more economic policies that continue to support those small communities. Understanding that over the years we’ve seen rural decline, and policies like this will go a long way to make sure that those small communities across Alberta, that support farmers and ranchers and the industry in their area, are here today and continue to have the ability to grow in the future,” Sigurdson said.

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 16, 2023 at 09:42

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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