The Lacombe and District Chamber of Commerce hosted ‘A Business Conversation’ with Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr for Lacombe, Ponoka and Blackfalds chamber members on April 27.
Orr gave a presentation on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic before responding to questions from participants.
“I really appreciatee the opportunity to try to address some of your concerns,” said Orr.
“I know that this last year has been incredibly hard, both on businesses, and just with life.”
COVID-19 created a lot of negative impacts on business, and while the government acknowledges that, the challenge becomes how to respond appropriately, with the right balance of measures, to support both people’s lives and their livelihoods, says Orr.
Orr reviewed some of the things the UCP has done to mitigate some of the negative effects on businesses, while acknowledging, “It’s never really enough.”
Orr says Alberta is struggling with debt, and if these were different times, the government might be able to offer more assistance, but they’ve heard the “desperate cries” of businesses.
The UCP recently announced an additional payment for the Alberta Relaunch Grant which can provide small to medium-sized businesses with a $10,000 top up.
“The relaunch of this grant will ensure we can get the funding into more hands of Albertans as much as possible,” said Orr.
“I know that everyone would rather just have their doors fully open right now, but that isn’t really a viability right now,” he said, adding the number of active case numbers continues to be high in this area.
“I know we’re all looking forward to a return to life, Blackfalds Days, Lacombe Days and the Ponoka Stampede.”
Orr says he has been trying to help health officials understand how agricultural events could be held safely without spectators.
He’s had weekly meetings with health officials about the Ponoka Stampede, but most of the athletes are in the States to develop points, and to come back to Canada for the Calgary or Ponoka Stampede requires national approval, says Orr.
“So we’re working with Ottawa.”
Orr says he’s been working with the Ponoka Stampede Association as well to create multiple seating zones and other details to try to solve multiple issues.
“We’ve received very diverse questions today,” said Monica Bartman from the Lacombe chamber.
The province is moving ahead with Alberta’s recovery plan.
The UCP’s strategy for Alberta’s economic recovery includes building on existing strengths, such as agriculture, and investing in industries with high growth potential such as tourism, petrochemicals, the financial sector and aviation.
As a landlocked province, commercial aviation is actually a ‘big peice’ says Orr.
The majority of tourism is statistically somewhat local, driving by local events, such as baseball tournaments.
“In Alberta, we sometimes don’t celebrate that as much as we should.”
If you can find a way to hold an event safely that will generate local tourism dollars, you should do it, says Orr.
Orr says that the construction of a biorefinery, BioRefinex, is to go ahead this summer thanks to a $10 million grant investment.
The Lacombe Agricultural Research Centre is staying where it is, which is something Orr advocated for, and there will be a new relationship with Olds College regarding that.
“There was some fear that (it would be moved) but I was fairly vocal with the minister and it’s staying,” he said, adding there is, however, reduced staffing.
The province is also emphasizing agricultural food processing and results-driven agricultural research.
The government’s manufacturing strategy will look to reverse stagnation and innovate growth, Orr says.
There has been some interest in big businesses coming to the province and those announcements are coming, he says.
The UCP estimated that red tape reduction has saved Alberta businesses half a billion dollars.
“Unfortunately, COVID, has created a whole new set of regulations and continues to create challenges, and I will continue to advocate for lifting them as soon as possible,” said Orr.
Orr says he’s told his caucus members and the premier that the restrictions are killing Alberta businesses and giving unlimited opportunity to big box stores.
The province has recently abandoned the idea of “essential services” he says.
Orr says he’s been working with various hard-hit businesses including dance studios and horse racing.
“You will see horse racing open this summer because of some of the work we were able to do.”
Orr has brought forward the issue of shortages of doctors in Ponoka and efforts have been made to fill vacancies.
The government has also been trying to provide BizConnect, fielding over 15,000 inquiries to get access to critical supports and information.
Orr says he hopes that when people have access to vaccines they will actually take them, so the province can get back to normal.
A participant also asked about the federal carbon tax.
Orr replied that although the carbon tax is a “federal game,” that “We want to hear the questions” because the province is going to need to decide if they should take back control of the carbon tax or leave it with the federal government.
He added the provincial government welcomes any submissions chambers can provide regarding opinions about carbon tax.
Orr mentioned that the newly appointed associate minister of mental health had a meeting with him recently, sharing tragic letters with him.
In Blackfalds, there is a woman who has lost 10 years of savings and her home because of being locked out of her job.
“The costs associated are huge. It’s something we’re aware of, it’s something that’s brought forward constantly to the government and it’s something we’re trying to address.”
The stress levels for employees during a pandemic, particularly health care workers and government officials, tends to peak 18 months in, and so it’s expected to get worse, he says.
“I’m hoping to see there will be some additional services provided.”
There has been a concerted effort to ensure vaccines are being distributed to rural areas, says Orr. All communities with pharmacies should receive vaccines, although some have not.
Orr added that maybe that’s a concern that isn’t founded on what is actually happening.
If the roll out has been messed up, he says it’s not AHS’s fault, as it’s worked out through the minister’s office with the pharmacies association.
He says what bothers him more is the anti-vax movement and the media pushing minimal issues with some of the vaccines, causing fear and people not wanting to get the vaccine.
“I think the bigger challenge is overcoming the resistance to it.”
Orr says Bill 66 doesn’t give more authority to the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH).
“That’s completely bizarre.”
He says the idea the bill takes power away from ministers, giving more to the CMOH is a “stretch of the imagination.”