Diversifying One BioMile at a Time

I’m a big proponent of economic diversification, so naturally I was interested in this story coming out of Drayton Valley, Alberta. The city has secured the commitment of CLIB 2021, a German collaborative, to open an office as part of the BioMile, an initiative to create a biotechnology park.

It’s worth reading the full background on the BioMile, but here’s a bit I really like:

Rather than view the closure of the Weyerhaeuser’s Drayton Valley OSB facility as a detriment, we have been working to create new opportunities in using the wood bio-mass in new and innovative processes. Despite the loss of tax revenue and jobs that resulted from the OSB closure, we believe that the Bio-Mile will pull our community through these hard times.

Oil and gas, along with forestry, is still a big part of the local economy. These industries may yet prove to be drivers of the economy in the coming years, or they may not. Drayton Valley, and the Grande Alberta Economic Region of which it is a part, are playing it smart by reaching out to emerging industries, and finding ways to turn potentially bad situations (such as the Weyerhauser closure) into opportunities. I especially like how many of the BioMile initiatives tie into the forestry industry – using the present to build a stronger future. The BioMile is by no means assured to be a success, but it’s a positive step. The successful communities going forward are going to be the ones that invest in emerging and successful industries, and that have a diversified base to work from.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, we will be welcoming a new City Manager in January. Simon Farbrother, whose career started in the region, has served as Chief Adminstrative Officer for the City of Waterloo since 2005. In his time there, he was one of the drivers behind the Intelligent Waterloo initiative. The city has become a hub for technology and innovation, notably as the home of Research in Motion (RIM). This has been driven in part by the presence of the University of Waterloo, which is recognized for its strong math, physics, and computing science programs. Having been involved in Waterloo’s success, I’m optimistic that Farbrother can help spearhead similar initiatives in Edmonton.

Now, this is not to say that Edmonton (or any city) should necessarily strive to be a tech hub, or a hub for bio-industries. Those strategies may be right for Waterloo and Drayton Valley (respectively), but every city is different. The lesson is to use your existing strengths, whatever those may be, to work at diversifying your local economy and ensuring you are better prepared for the future. I’ll be watching Drayton Valley with interest, and hoping to see other communities follow suit.

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4 Responses

  1. Alex, I’ve followed Drayton Valley too. It’s a wonderful story and example.

    I know that Ron Gilbertson, CEO EEDC, has tried to find the fences that define Edmonton’s unique strengths. I’ve tried to learn more on that–maybe you know?

    I think it’s critical, in Drayton and in Edmonton, to do the baseline work that identifies and measures advantage. It is one of the most lovely characteristics of “place”–it can’t be everything. It can only be a relative few, brilliant things. And the best places in the work embrace that.

  2. Jeremy, I’m not up to date on Ron Gilbertson’s initiatives. I have heard him speak once or twice, but I don’t remember the exact details, and if I tried to relay anything from those speeches I could easily be mixing it up with other talks from business and community leaders.

    Agree on identifying and measuring our advantages. I think a city/region can be a number of different things, but it is likely only “really good” at a few of them. What are those few for Edmonton, and how do we build on them? I’d say on the lifestyle side, our river valley and outdoors, along with the culture/festival scene are definite advantages. On the economy side, our post-secondary institutions offer a lot of opportunities.

    Finally, it’s also important to understand not only our strengths, but what kind of city we want to work towards. That should inform how we approach building on our strengths and other initiatives.

  3. Was Farbrother around when Waterloo built its name, or did he arrive once it had already been established? It seems to me that Waterloo has been known for tech expertise for at least 15 years.

    – Mustafa Hirji

  4. He’s been there since 2005, by which time the tech industry was well established. He may be able to bring lessons and expertise over, even though he wasn’t there for the genesis.

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