The Town of Slave Lake held its first annual (it hopes) ‘State of the Lake’ economic development brainstorming luncheon on April 5.
Held at the Legacy Centre, it brought together reps from the oil and gas and forestry industries, Northern Lakes College and the town to make presentations and answer questions. Not on the agenda, but added as a bonus at the end of the program, were three political speeches.
In her opening remarks, Slave Lake’s mayor-elect Francesca Ward talked about the creation of the town’s economic development department. Its priorities include efforts to attract new business, to support existing business and to promote tourism. Anyone wanting to participate in the new economic development advisory committee, Ward said, should get in touch with economic development officer Jason Swanson.
Speaking first for Northern Lakes College was Michelle Mitchell. She outlined all the ways the college is involved in getting people ready to enter the workforce. Those numbers are up significantly in the past couple of years, with about 12 per cent growth in enrollment both those years, Mitchell said.
Amy Saitz of NLC talked about trades training specifically. NLC has full programs for welding, carpentry and electrical, she said, as well as pre-apprenticeship training in others. The college is open to bringing on other courses. She gave the example of firefighter training, which was a request from the regional fire department. By teaming up with Lakeland College, the training was arranged.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out,” Saitz said.
One program that hasn’t worked out yet, Mitchell said in response to a question from the audience, is cook training. The new campus in High Prairie has the facilities, but so far not enough people have shown an interest to run a program. The college is hoping that changes.
In other programs, the demand is very high. The limiting factor in many cases, Mitchell said, is finding enough practicum placements for students with employers in the area. If you can take any students on for periods of practical training, please let us know, she said.
Aspen Dudzic of the Alberta Forest Products Association took the mic next and spoke about the economic impact of the industry, provincially and regionally. Needless to say, it’s big!
Slave Lake is not like most other forest industry towns, she said. With four mills, it’s quite unusual.
Dudzic talked about the high standards maintained in reforestation, and about innovation that is improving the prospects for the industry. Examples are advances in ‘engineered’ wood products, expanding the range of uses for them; another is the production of energy from wood waste.
Finding workers is a big challenge for the industry, Dudzic said; so is unreliable access to rail transportation.
Oil and gas
Kevin Screen of Tamarack Valley Energy talked about how good the times are for the company these days, with the price of a barrel of oil pretty high, and production increasing in the Clearwater Formation, east and north of Slave Lake. Tamarack plans $250 million in capital spending in the area this year, plus a few tens of millions more in operational. It has 38 full-time employees in its Nipisi and Marten Hills operations, all of whom live in or around Slave Lake.
Screen estimates the total oilfield investment in the area could easily be as high as $10 billion.
A question from the audience was about the shortage of affordable housing and industrial land. This makes it tough to attract workers and new businesses, he said.
Responding, Ward spoke about the town’s recent efforts to find ways of stimulating development at the Fournier Place subdivision. On the industrial land side, she said it’s tough because there isn’t that much land for development, but the town is talking with the M.D. of Lesser Slave River about opening up new lands for industrial lots.
The town’s economic development officer, Jason Swanson, picked up on that topic. He added the town and M.D. are getting a market and fiscal analysis done on industrial land, so as to find out “where we can get the best bang for our buck.”
Attending the meeting were Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen and Lesser Slave Lake MLA candidates Scott Sinclair of the UCP and Danielle Larivee of the NDP.
Viersen said he plugs northern Alberta as “the promised land,” where people come to find good jobs. He slammed the federal government for its deficit spending and being soft on crime, as well as for its carbon tax.
“Hope is on the way,” Viersen said in conclusion, and predicted a new Conservative government under leader Pierre Poilievre.
Larivee talked about the challenges of attracting people to the region. To do it, she said, attention needs to be paid to improving housing, health care and education. She promised people would be hearing lots more about that from the NDP during the upcoming election campaign.
On the economic development side of things, Larivee praised the oil and gas and forestry industries for their innovation.
“Economic development doesn’t happen by accident,” she said. It takes effort in building relationships, leverage, diversification and so on.
Going last, UCP candidate Scott Sinclair talked about what he sees as the need for people of his generation to step up and give back to their communities. He’s all about practical solutions, Sinclair continued.
If he was to be the minister of anything, it would be of common sense, he said. One thing that means to him is reduction of red tape, lobbying against the federal carbon tax and remote training for people in Indigenous communities.
In his closing remarks, MC Swanson spoke about Slave Lake having recently received its designation under the Rural Renewal Stream, which allows it to recruit foreign workers on behalf of and in collaboration with local employers. Check out the portal on the town website, he said.
by Joe McWilliams
April 12, 2023
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