With no sittings in Alberta’s legislature, the province’s minister of economic development, trade and tourism is taking her listening ears on the road over the next month.
Minister Tanya Fir, who represents the big city riding of Calgary-Peigan, has planned to visit 27 mostly rural area constituencies in order to find out what issues and challenges various business sectors are facing.
After hitting the Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding and the constituency of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, which happens to be held by Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Fir toured several facilities on Aug. 13 in the Lacombe-Ponoka riding.
“With this being a great opportunity for Albertans to explore all sorts of tourism opportunities in our own backyard, this tour is hoping to highlight some of those great offerings,” Fir said in an interview.
“Also, we are visiting with a lot of small businesses to find out how they have been faring through the pandemic. We also want to know if they have been able to take advantage of the provincial government’s supports as well as listen to them about how things are going and if there is more that government can do to help.”
When asked what she has heard early on, Fir commented that it has been just recently that businesses have been really hit hard.
“Things were already tough for the past five years, then the multiple whammies our economy has taken — the oil price collapse and now COVID-19,” she said.
“This has hurt small business the hardest, as a lot of them don’t have the resources or liquidity to make it through this.
“But, in rural areas you really see better than anywhere else, the resiliency and hard work small town businesses and people have — whether it’s adapting or just surviving.”
One issue on the radar Fir has heard about is how difficult it is to operate with spotty to no broadband, high-speed Internet.
“I’ve heard just how important that is to small businesses and to tourism,” she said.
“What I’ve also heard is that tourism operations want us to promote, market and give more attention to those opportunities as this province has so much more to offer than just energy, agriculture and the major tourist attractions like Banff and Jasper.
“Nothing I’ve heard is really shocking. We will never stop promoting our world-renowned sites, but we need to find that balance between that and supporting the smaller tourism spots.”
Orr added though, that one of the challenges facing the smaller tourism businesses is the help some need for training and education.
“(Some) need to understand what it means to be service-oriented, how to serve in a way that makes the customers feel like they had a great experience and help them to be engaged in marketing to get their name out there and make sales,” he said.
“I think many of our potential tourism opportunities that are not in key centres really don’t get those points, so they miss out.”
The tour is also looking into what can be done to grow the economy, something Fir stated she is getting feedback on.
“I’m listening and taking in as much as I can to what the challenges businesses are facing and how the recovery is going,” she said.
“But also, that is the beauty of our new investment and economic recovery plan, which focuses on the pillar of the economy — energy and agriculture. However, it is also about technology and innovation, aerospace, aviation and financial services. It’s about building, diversifying and creating jobs.”
Fir added the government knows diversification is important, since smaller communities that rely too much on a single industry tend to struggle if that slows down.
“Depending on how close they are to larger centres, they can diversify as needed, but some that are not can be devastated,” she said.
Some examples of that diversification include Ponoka’s RTS Services — which are developing various energy controls and other items and an Alberta company doing virtual reality safety training for big energy companies — and Lacombe’s Renn Mill Center that are exporting their agricultural equipment expertise around the world.
“These companies’ reach is going way beyond what was normally done and will actually lead to all kinds of innovations. We are developing within the energy sector, but it is also taking us way beyond where we used to be,” added Orr.