By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The province believes there is potential to build two more potato processing plants in the “agri-food” corridor along Highway 3, as well as apparently room to grow new crops and expand sugar beet production.
And it is taking a lead role in determining whether there is enough water in municipalities along the way.
That is the statement of Premier Danielle Smith who often discussed the heavily promoted “economic corridor” during a two-day visit to the southeast region this week.
She spoke Oct. 19 at the Chamber of Commerce “Leadership Breakfast” along with local political leaders who later in the day were set to meet with Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter, the parliamentary secretary tasked with work to create economic corridors.
“(Hunter) tells us we’ve now got more fields under cultivation – 65,000 acres for potatoes – than anywhere else in the country, including Prince Edward Island, and there’s more to come,” Smith told the crowd of 150 business leaders at the Desert Blume Golf Course. “Communities like Medicine Hat aren’t just participating in the rural Alberta Advantage – we’re at the forefront of it.”
For years the province has increasingly promoted “Canada’s Premier Food Corridor,” a joint marketing and business attraction effort of Taber and Lethbridge County, as a destination for agri-food processors.
Major new irrigation works and reservoir expansions are planned under a billion-dollar agreement between the province, Ottawa and irrigation districts, including the St. Mary River Irrigation District, which ends at Medicine Hat.
Smith has said her government will expedite Highway 3 improvements, and she hasn’t missed an opportunity to promote the converging issues.
This year, McCains announced it will double the size of its long-established plant at Coaldale, adding 260 full-time jobs in the $600-million expansion.
Local politicians would like to see any new entry consider locating further east, closer to the city’s labour market and wider transportation routes near Medicine Hat.
“That’s the hope,” said Cypress County Reeve Dan Hamilton. “Water is the major thing that keeps things moving, it’s all our growth, everything. The partners are moving together.”
In October, Medicine Hat and Cypress County signed on to take part in a review of water resources and treatment capacity in the corridor. They will submit their own estimates on water and sewer capacity, availability and potential requirements to create a survey of the region, possibly to mark out prime areas for private investment.
Partners are Lethbridge and Taber, their respective counties, Coaldale, Bow Island, Forty Mile, Cypress County and Medicine Hat are involved in west, central and east working groups.
Mayor Linnsie Clark said taking part is another sign that city hall is willing to work with regional partners on economic issues.
“We’re looking at water and waste water needs, so we can move some of these projects forward with the confidence that they’ll have sufficient (facilities),” she said. “We’re working to define our own competitive advantage. We know the whole corridor has different levels of irrigation and (other factors).”
Clark also cited a separate joint economic development study that is now underway.
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Justin Wright said the rural region and urban base of Medicine Hat “sets us up as a base for future growth for agriculture in the southeast.”
New processing plants require large amounts of water, but so too do crop producers. Irrigation is considered a critical condition in plant site selection, as it stabilizes production levels from year to year, taking weather out of the equation.
Event attendee Martha Munoz Gue, an active member of the Southeast Alberta Watershed Alliance, said she’s doubtful so many new irrigated acres could be added without “elbowing” into native grassland.
“Grassland is the most rapidly disappearing ecosystems in the world and we have the largest amount in Canada,” she said. “What commitment is there to restore and preserve ecosystems?”
Wright said the working group of five MLAs along the corridor is committed to including environmental impact analysis in study of the economic corridor.