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Keeping rural business strong

Living in Alberta has many benefits, with access to some of the most beautiful parkland in Canada, those beautiful blue skies and robust economic growth. As Alberta’s economy continues to perform in a challenging global market, it is easy to think that the good times are here for every community in the province.

Associate Professor Victoria Calvert.
Victoria Calvert has seen otherwise.

An Associate Professor in the Bissett School of Business, Calvert has been working on a research project that highlights some of the challenges and opportunities that rural Albertans are wrestling with every day. Along with her colleague, Associate Professor Kalinga Jagoda and with funding from the Alberta Rural Development Network, Calvert chaired the Business Retention and Expansion Symposium, held on the Mount Royal Campus on May 30.

Also presenting was keynote speaker Dr. Nancy Miller from the Colorado State University, a specialist in rural community marketplaces, small business and business networks.

Connecting rural Alberta

Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) is a community-based economic development process that promotes job growth by helping individual rural business owners and community leaders identify barriers to survival and growth and to create concrete training, linkages and plans that will addresses those issues and opportunities.

The BR&E Symposium brought together representatives from more than 30 organizations and post-secondary institutions to share their findings and discuss strategies to build a stronger and more prosperous rural Alberta.

“The ultimate goal of the BR&E process is to build rural communities by improving the local economy,” said Calvert. “We started a pilot project in the Black Diamond area in 2010 and the interest expressed by other Alberta rural communities led to a provincial project that will reach 12 rural communities and 500 businesses.”

“Through the course of our research, we’ve found that while a lot of services for rural business are being offered, they aren’t always getting the message out to the individual entrepreneurs. Consequently, many rural businesses are not planning effectively, rendering them vulnerable and they are unable to move or adapt in a changing market. This really escalates the failure rates of rural businesses. By releasing these findings and getting these organizations together, I hope we can reverse that trend and give entrepreneurs access to the tools they need where they need them.”

Changing demographics

Sadly, Alberta’s rural communities are partially under threat because of the province’s own economic success. As the rural population ages, many young rural Albertans are looking to relocate to urban centres as well as the major oil and gas industrial centres like Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie. This effect has been compounded by the consolidation of farmland into larger and larger agribusiness, leading to the depopulation of individual farms into larger, more industrial businesses.

Associate Professor Kalinga Jagoda.

“When you look at the income and amenities offered in Alberta’s urban communities, it’s pretty hard for a young person to ignore,” said Calvert. “But the result of this demographic shift is pretty bleak.”

“When the majority of the population in rural areas is older, it becomes harder and harder to justify the community as a viable and sustainable place to live. There are 85 towns going through the defranchisement process in Alberta right now. When a community defranchises it loses the right to have schools and other services and it becomes less effective as a thriving community.”

As the rural population continues to age, and business owners seek to retire or seek new challenges, a gap is forming where the services and suppliers that sustain rural communities don’t have the necessary expertise or skillset to continue. Fortunately, the BR&E Symposium is bringing the right people into the same room to address their needs.

Bringing organizations together

The on-the-ground approach of BR&E has had tangible benefits, as well. With hands-on training with entrepreneurs through workshops and planning sessions, BR&E looks to create more sustainable ventures, with greater possibilities for long-term growth.

According to Calvert’s research, there is a gap between the services that rural entrepreneurs know about and what is actually available. “There are many different support agencies, but the entrepreneurs don’t know all of them and don't utilize them,” said Calvert.

“One of the key elements of the BR&E Symposium is to get these people in a room together. As they discuss and debate the findings of our research and listen to Dr. Miller, our keynote speaker, linkages and partnerships form that really underlie the practical nature of this research. By breaking people out of their silos, we can focus on what really matters – helping these entrepreneurs and their communities survive.”

— Colin Brandt, May 31, 2012