West Hants council is looking to book a special meeting to examine the pros and cons associated with joining the Valley's developing Regional Economic Network (REN 3).
It's a discussion that council hopes will finally help them make a decision on whether to join the network that's aim is to provide regional economic leadership by bringing together businesses, the province, municipal units and groups involved with economic development.
Launching into council's Jan. 14 discussion on RENs, CAO Cheryl Chislett informed council she was under the impression the municipality was not going to join REN 3 this coming year and had already sent out a letter to the municipal stakeholders saying as much.
“To be brutally honest, I guess I left the last committee of the whole meeting totally confused. I thought, though I had not officially read the minutes, that we would not be joining REN at this particular time. We were going to wait for a bit,” said Chislett to council.
At the Dec. 17 committee of the whole meeting that Chislett was referring to, council agreed to not provide the $9,300 in interim funding leading up to the REN 3 start date of April 1, 2014. They wanted to do more research before committing to the network. It was noted at that meeting that should they join, they would be required to pay $52,873 for the 2014-15 year. Also at that meeting, some members of council took issue with wording included in the draft REN agreement and wanted to investigate it further.
On Jan. 14, Warden Richard Dauphinee said Chislett just made a mistake and suggested council consider bringing in Michael Johnson, the executive director of regional planning and development for the provincial government's Economic and Rural Development and Tourism department, for an information-gathering special committee of the whole meeting.
“We will have Michael Johnson in and he'll explain it to us and everybody here will have the right to ask all the questions they want,” said Dauphinee at the meeting.
The warden said the fear is they will lose out on valuable funding partnerships should they reject joining the REN. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency requires the provincial buy-in for a project before they chip in funds, Dauphinee noted, so if the provincial government isn't willing to support municipal ventures outside of a REN atmosphere, then striking out on their own might not be in the best interest of the municipality.
“If you're going to lose that for the sake of not being in a REN at 50-some thousand dollars then that doesn't make common sense in my books,” he said.
The CAO said it's unfair to let the neighbouring municipal units wait much longer to find out if West Hants is on board.
“I guess what I was thinking was that in all fairness to the units who have signed on and made a commitment to proceed, they would probably like to know our decision as soon as possible in order to allow them to go forward,” said Chislett.
The municipalities that have signed on, at least in principle, to REN 3 include Hantsport, Windsor, Bridgetown, Middleton, Berwick, Glooscap First Nation, Kentville, Wolfville and Kings County. Annapolis County and the Town of Annapolis both declined the offer.
Deputy Warden Gary Cochrane has been critical of the benefits associated with joining the REN in the past and on Jan. 14, cautioned council to not forget about the opportunities that come with hiring their own economic development officer.
“As far as having your own economic development officer, I don't think we're comparing apples to apples. To have our own, we would be masters of our own destination,” said Cochrane at the meeting.
“If the center is down in Kentville or in Kings County somewhere, we're going to see nothing,” he continued. “If we paid $75,000 to $100,000 for our own economic development officer, that's their full time job. I don't think we should just lose sight (of that) and we'll get a cheap deal by going $50,000 (to join the REN).”
Dauphinee said council really needed to consider what the province will do for cost sharing on projects before they make any decisions.
“That's what we have to know because if you don't get funding from the province, you don't get funding from ACOA.”
Coun. Jennifer Daniels stated she felt it would be beneficial to join the REN, regardless of what county attracts new business, or where the REN headquarters would be located.
“If it ends up in Kings County, it's still going to have benefit in our county. We're going to have people that are going to find jobs from here, that could possibly move here; it's going to benefit all the way around,” she said.
Daniels noted that the municipality could still consider hiring an economic development officer down the road.
“We really need to look at this positively and we need to start looking at working and partnering with our municipal units,” she said.
Council has scheduled a special committee of the whole meeting Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. to further discuss joining the REN 3.