Q&A with Dan Dibbelt, Peace Region Economic Development Alliance (PREDA) Executive Director

Dan Dibbelt, PREDA Executive Director, and Elaine Garrow, Chair of PREDA Executive Committee

Tell us a little bit of the genesis of PREDA.
PREDA has been around since 1999. It is a membership-based not-for-profit made up of municipalities with a common goal: economic diversity and prosperity for our region. What truly makes PREDA unique is that our member municipalities really work well together – they genuinely wish success for each other. In addition to municipalities, PREDA also has industry, post-secondary, community futures and chamber members. And we have been growing. We cover the territory from Highway 16 north up to Mackenzie County and the area from the County of Big Lakes to the BC border.

Talk about some of the successes of PREDA in its collaborative work with municipalities and businesses in terms of bringing fresh foreign or domestic investments in Central Peace as well as the Peace Region?
There has been a surge in specialty food production items, whether that be organic products or plant-based protein products. This has become more mainstream and more people are willing to pay more for these products. Northern Alberta is known for the high quality of their agricultural products. Our honey, alfalfa, fescue, oats, among other agri-products, show superior quality – thanks to our northern location featuring long summer days and cool nights. This has been noticed by other countries that are now looking to source agricultural commodities from pristine locations. PREDA has toured investors from India through our region. These investors are looking at opportunities to purchase sites to develop value-added businesses. Two of these tours were specific to canola crushing. The investors are looking for locations to set up a plant to process canola, with the final product actually being shipped back to India. There, there is a surge in population demanding food commodities sourced from areas such as the Peace Region. While we have considerable interest we have some challenges in succeeding and therefore our municipalities have started building business cases to show potential investors of the opportunities available.

What are some of the challenges that hinder inflow of investment in Central Peace in particular and the Peace Region in general?
Transportation. Location. Perception. Transportation is always an issue in northern Alberta. We have one rail line serving the north, and our location puts much of our region between four and eight hours from Edmonton. This adds shipping costs to any products we produce. Investors need to factor that cost into the product as compared to a development located closer to, say, Edmonton. So our location is a challenge. How long does it take to get a container from the Peace Region to tidewater? Transportation time can be an issue. And perception of life in the north. Foreign investors we have toured in the region are amazed by our wide open fields and clear blue skies. But they question what our winters are like, and they question whether they can get employees willing to work up here. We all know the reality, but for foreigners it does create hesitation.

What are some of the innovative economic-development ideas that municipalities and business groups outside of the Peace Region but within Alberta that you think might potentially work in our area?
REDI, the municipality in Mackenzie County, hosted a brilliant program called the Business Bootcamp. They worked with Northern lakes office and developed a series of workshops ranging from bookkeeping to HR practices for the area businesses. It was well-received and is carrying on for another year. PREDA is working with its municipalities to deliver the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp targeting people who want to start a business but don’t really know where to begin. We are planning two-day seminars that will feature business owners, HR specialist, financial specialists, franchise opportunities, demographic information, and so on. Our intent is to help people start successful businesses.

What are some of the projects PREDA is currently working on?
Tying into the foreign investment, PREDA is just completing a commodity study that is capturing every commodity – whether agricultural, forestry, oil and gas or mining – that is coming out of the region. The study will be broken down to the municipality. This data is very important, as it allows municipalities and potential investors to get accurate data on where they can draw commodities from for an investment.

Additionally, the report is looking at how the products are shipped out of the region, where they are going and what are they doing with the product in the final destination. The purpose of this is to help determine if there is an opportunity to create a small scale plant in our own region, value-add locally and create jobs.

The other exciting project is the Northern Transportation Advocacy Bureau (NTAB), which is a partnership with REDI and includes CN Rail and the NWT. This organization focuses on northern transportation issues. But our primary focus right now is a transportation corridor between Fort MacMurray and Alaska. We are working with Generating for Seven Generations, a group proposing a rail line from Fort MacMurray to Alaska. The intent is the line could move oil through Valdez Alaska as well as agricultural and forest products. The rail line would include spur lines through the PREDA region. This would allow our producers a more efficient and timely access to tidewater, something that would help sell our region to foreign investment.

Who are your members? What services do you provide for members?
PREDA has 27 municipal members and we have been growing over the years. We also have two post-secondary institutions, two community futures, all the Chambers of Commerce and some industry. We work closely with all our municipalities. PREDA has an institutional researcher, and we subscribe to various databases so we can supply our members detailed breakdowns of data they may need for projects. PREDA assists all our economic development officers and CAOs on their projects. A big focus for us is research that is useful to our municipalities.

We also offer four networking session every year with a variety of speakers that benefit our members. In the past we have worked on everything from retail gap analysis, health statistics, fibre optics and most recently commodity reports.