Economic development and community are top priorities for an Okotoks council candidate.
Shawna Lawson, who is the chairperson for the United Way in Okotoks and an economic development professional, prides herself on seeing the bigger picture and working hard to strengthen community connections and businesses.
She said there can’t be one without the other.
“Economic development doesn’t happen without community development, and vice versa,” said Lawson.
Since 2002 she has worked with municipalities and governments to develop economic strategies and completed a workforce analysis on Okotoks in 2020.
While Okotoks has a good internal economy with a range of retail and service industry offerings, she said the town is weak in the two most important aspects of economic development: bringing in new wealth and preventing “leakage.”
“Everybody who commutes out of Okotoks, which is a very high percentage, they spend their money where they work,” said Lawson.
She said they’re also taking their valuable job skills to other communities, whether it’s Calgary or Fort McMurray, and creating wealth for other municipalities.
“We need to shift that wealth to Okotoks, so we could be not just a bedroom community, we could have our own strong economy,” said Lawson.
Part of the answer is to attract new business with quality jobs in town, but she said there’s also the potential to tap into existing businesses, such as home-based firms that could expand into a larger enterprise.
Bringing in more commercial, professional or light industrial business would mean lowering the tax burden on residents, she said. Okotoks has a lower non-residential tax base than many municipalities, so the cost of services is not split as well as it should be.
“It it’s 11 or 12 per cent tax in Okotoks from businesses, the rest is coming from residential, so our taxes are high,” said Lawson. “The average is about 35 per cent non-residential.”
As a trained planner she said there are red flags with the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board and its growth plan, which is currently before the minister of municipal affairs.
It was endorsed by the seven urban municipal members – Calgary, Okotoks, High River, Strathmore, Cochrane, Chestermere, Airdrie and opposed by rural members – Foothills County, Rocky View County and Wheatland County.
Lawson said she was disappointed with the plan.
“It’s very Calgary-centric and there was a third of a page on Okotoks or Strathmore or Cochrane,” she said. “My fear is that the plan looks at Okotoks as continuing to be a bedroom community, and that’s not good for us.”
Regional planning and development is important, she said, but no one partner should carry a veto vote and all voices should be heard at the table.
She said the plan is also based on outdated data from pre-COVID, with most numbers coming from 2016.
A lack of public participation earlier in the process was also alarming, she said.
Public engagements is important, and something she would encourage as a councillor.
“You need to consult, consult, consult,” said Lawson. “If you don’t know what’s happening in your community and what their dreams and aspirations are, how can you plan?”
With growth and the need to improve and expand infrastructure in the near future, she said engaging with residents will become important.
People who live in town should be asked how they envision their community 50 years from now, she said.
“What kind of infrastructure will be needed, can we support that growth?” said Lawson.
She said developing and improving downtown will be important because of the business in the area but also because a strong and unique core attracts tourism and residents to town.
Affordable housing will have to be constructed alongside single-family dwellings as well to continue building an inclusive community, she said.
The next council will have to envision all potential needs as the Town plans out its growth for the coming decades and it would help to have a planner well-versed in economic development and community needs involved, she said.
“It’s possible you’re looking at maybe no incumbents coming in,” said Lawson. “You need at least a few people who have some experience working with councils and knowing how they work.
“Hopefully I will be elected. I know I can make a difference.”