The municipality of Sturgeon County lies in the heart of Alberta’s industrial centre. An area traditionally known for its rich agricultural grounds, Sturgeon County has recently thrived into a developed industrial region as well. This month, The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Chief Administrative Officer Peter Tarnawsky about the recent developments that have brought success into the region.
Sturgeon County’s economic backbone is based on three major areas: advanced energy, manufacturing, and value-added agriculture.
Sturgeon County has traditionally been an agricultural community. “We’re blessed with some of the best soil in the region, some might say in Canada,” says Tarnawsky. Sturgeon County produces a wide variety of crops, as well as dairy and beef. It also organizes annual events that promote agriculture, such as the Sturgeon Country Bounty, a tourism event that provides exposure to notable agricultural producers. “We have an abundance of farm products, we have great land, and we have proximity to markets,” says Tarnawsky.
Industrial development is why Sturgeon County has been catching so much attention as of late. Industrial development has been happening at a rapid pace, and with an ideal location near Alberta’s oil sands, economic development is highly visible. Many major employers in the heavy industrial sector have chosen locations in Sturgeon County, including Agrium, Northwest Upgrading, Pembina Pipelines, Williams Energy, Access Pipeline, and Bunge Canada.
The Sturgeon Refinery proposed by Northwest Redwater Partnership represents an important project in the area. The facility will upgrade heavy oil (bitumen) into synthetic crude oil and further refine it to low sulphur diesel and other products. The total project cost is $15 billion for three planned phases. Once complete, the first phase ($5 billion) has the potential to generate millions in annual municipal taxes, while creating a significant positive impact on the local and regional economies and the labour market. “We’re coming from agriculture but married to energy and the construction related to the energy industry,” Tarnawsky explains.
Another recent development from Williams Energy proposes to build a propane dehydrogenation (PDH) facility within Sturgeon County near the town of Redwater. The proposed facility would convert propane recovered from off-gas processing into propylene, an intermediate petrochemical that is used to create plastics and solvents. With an estimated construction value between $600 million and $800 million, the facility would be the first of its kind in Canada, marking an important milestone for the petrochemical industry in Alberta, and a point of pride for Sturgeon County.
A strong, supportive council represents a critical keystone in the successful development of Sturgeon County’s industrial sector. As part of the economic strategy, the council prioritized to the development of Sturgeon Industrial Park. Positioned just south of Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, Sturgeon Industrial Park fulfills the increasing demand of the expanding industrial focus in Sturgeon County.
In an effort to spur more development in and around the Sturgeon Industrial Park, Sturgeon County Council approved development and implementation of a competitive offsite levy of $28,350 per acre. “The upshot of this is that in the past 12 to 18 months we have had a 500 per cent increase in assessed value in Sturgeon Industrial Park, and, in parallel, we have seen numerous inquiries for development in that area,” says Tarnawsky. With several imminent developments on the horizon, the outlook is quite favourable. Sturgeon County Council has approved investment in infrastructure so more companies will consider the area for business. “This is so we can find ourselves in more of a ‘plug and play’ environment,” Tarnawsky explains. Sturgeon County’s significant investment in critical infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewers, will make Sturgeon Industrial Park even more attractive for potential developers.
“The challenge is that it takes some patient capital, and it takes some spending, and I think credit goes to council in terms of the vision they have expressed. They are all about pioneering opportunities and promoting initiative, but at the same time embracing that rural lifestyle that represents the roots of where Sturgeon Country came from.”
As a mid-sized, rural community, Sturgeon County has a number of towns within its boundaries. As a widespread rural region, the county faces challenges when it comes to distribution of funds and infrastructure development. Council takes a firm hand in placing parameters and segregating where industrial development will occur, and where to maintain and protect the region’s natural environment.
“Sturgeon County is an urban/rural or ‘rurban’ area, and council is considering other opportunities to develop infrastructure like roads and community centres that enhance quality of life. We received good constructive feedback from our citizens in regards to road maintenance and we prioritize maintenance and improvement spending, based on available resources and need,” says Tarnawsky, explaining that development is a long-term initiative. As the developers invest and tax revenues increase from additional industrial developments, council will have more financial resources available to put money into infrastructure projects.
The growth and successful completion of projects in Sturgeon County has been a product of an engaged staff and an aligned strategy. The success of Sturgeon County is largely due to the culture of support and commitment from its council. “It’s about an organization that is positioning for growth by putting tools and processes in place and a governance structure that takes focused steps and shows tremendous courage,” says Tarnawsky. “We have changed our culture here.”