Lethbridge: It Takes a County

Following a move to Canada from Venezuela a few years ago, Rafael Chavez – along with his sister Andreina and brother Oscar – reinvented their family’s South American cheese-making business. They engineered new cheese recipes to accommodate local ingredients and produce fresh-style cheese popular in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. With help from Leduc Food Processing Development Centre, the Chavez family purchased equipment and secured shelf space in major Canadian grocery chains and specialty food shops, winning product awards for their Fresk-O line in the process.

As production demands grew, their search for a permanent home for Latin Foods Inc. took them to Lethbridge. Alberta’s fourth largest city is situated in the prairie landscape of southern Alberta, a little more than 200 kilometres south of Calgary and about 100 kilometres north of the U.S. border.

Here, Latin Foods found the perfect setting to accommodate their ambitious plans—the rural district surrounding the City of Lethbridge in southcentral Alberta. Their production facility now utilizes 15,000 litres of local milk per month. Once their business receives export approval to the U.S., Andreina, who along with Oscar handles sales and marketing, forecasts a 20 per cent monthly production increase.

“We have been received like brothers and sisters here. The area has been super-supportive,” Andreina says of the county, local financial institutions and rural business development group Community Futures Lethbridge Region.

Latin Foods was not the only organization to recognize the City of Lethbridge’s economic potential. The city was designated 23 out of 133 international business districts on KPMG’s 2016 Competitive Alternatives cost-competitiveness ranking, and Canadian Business and Profit magazines declared it Canada’s second most business-friendly place the same year.

“Lethbridge is one of those communities that has always had to adapt,” says Economic Development Lethbridge (EDL) chief executive officer Trevor Lewington. Owing to its pioneer roots, the community’s barn-raising ethos and the impulse to adapt to new opportunities as they emerge is part of the entrepreneurial DNA here, he adds.

And the city has plenty to flout. Its workforce benefits from a low cost of living, two post-secondary institutions, and a bevy of cultural and recreational attractions that draw families.

Also, central to its economic draw is its stability and steady, predictable growth. On the outside of Alberta’s oil and gas sector, the city’s diverse economy has proven immune to economic fluctuation while maintaining steady growth of 2.5 per cent annually. With agriculture as its foundational element, its economic mix prominently includes manufacturing, with operations such as the Pratt and Whitney Canada jet engine plant, Kawneer Company Canada’s aluminum extrusion facility and Lethbridge Iron Works. The nance, insurance, real estate and public sectors complete the balance.

Housing 10 start-up companies, the 10,000-square-foot Tecconnect facility features meeting rooms, in-house business advisors and a whole lot of peer interaction. Photo: Jamie Vedres Photography

While large companies anchor the economy, smaller startup businesses with a notable emphasis on high-tech entrepreneurship nurtured in the city’s Tecconnect incubator, a partner of the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta (RINSA), which provides assistance from business planning and loans to prototyping.

“No matter how you enter the system, the idea is you’ve got all these networked partners that then figure out how to best support the business,” says Lewington.

Housing 10 start-up companies, the 10,000-square-foot Tecconnect facility features meeting rooms, in-house business advisors and a whole lot of peer interaction that has helped launch businesses such as Rick Johnston’s Autovance.

With the ambition to revolutionize automotive dealership sales software, his formerly one-man operation now has nine full-time employees and was recently purchased by Quorum Information Technologies. With Johnston remaining vice-president of the Autovance Division, the business will soon exit its four Tecconnect offices to settle in permanent headquarters.

Just knowing this is a place where a San Francisco kind of technology startup could be, really drove me to pursue that,” recalls Johnston. “They were incredible. Once you’re in here, all the programs that are accessible and the mentorship, all the pieces fall into place.”

Though the city has a population of just 100,000, with the engagement of the county and surrounding municipal districts, it flexes the collective economic muscle of a trade area that encompasses 341,000 residents. A trade area study estimates non-Lethbridge residents engage in $473 million worth of activity annually in the area.

The entire region surrounding Lethbridge is a hotbed of economic activity and has cultivated an enviable entrepreneurial culture bent on building and attracting development. The region has $1.278 billion in major developments underway or set to commence by 2019.

Lethbridge County enjoys the highest gross agricultural income of any jurisdiction in Alberta and features some of the country’s largest feedlots, numerous dairy, pork and poultry operations as well as extensive grain farming and specialty crop production. Its robust farming sector supplies an array of agri-food operations. Latin Foods is one of three cheese factories here, and other notable food facilities include a McCain Foods Canada French fry plant, as well as greenhouse operations Whole Leaf, and Broxburn Vegetables and Café.

Complementing agriculture and agri-food facilities, the county is pursuing further industries that play to its strengths. These include the bio-industrial realm, which combines plant fibres with resins and plastics to create strong, light construction materials and manufacturing parts.

Also utilizing plant material, but as fuel stock, alternative energy projects here include Lethbridge BioGas and biodiesel producer Invigor Bioenergy Company. Lethbridge County economic development officer Martin Ebel says southern Alberta’s abundant year-round sunshine and wind farms have also generated interest in solar and wind energy projects.

“This has great potential for the region, and that whole idea of sustainability,” he says. To this end, the city, county and surrounding municipal districts cooperatively operate the Southern Alberta Alternative Energy Partnership, which markets the region to renewable energy companies.

Tecconnect has helped launch businesses such as Rick Johnston’s Autovance. Photo: Jaime Vedres Photography

This co-operative, collaborative approach to economic development allows the region to punch above its weight in attracting investment.

“People from outside the region remark on the culture,” says Ebel. “Lethbridge is a city, but it has a small town feel. The network is close-knit, easy to maintain and easy to get to know.”

Emblematic of the region’s forward-thinking nature, it has forged links with China through a sister relationship with the City of Anyang and its own surrounding county. Delegations have been exchanged, cementing the promise of benefits for the Lethbridge region. Though the Asian country’s expanding middle class represents massive trade opportunities, negotiating its unique government, economic and cultural structures makes doing business with China a challenge.

Both Ebel and Lewington are confident in the Lethbridge region’s ability to build the required economic relationships, a process Ebel likens to building a rope bridge, one strand at a time. “We’ve made a conscious decision to be proactive,” he says. “We’re going to pave the way so our businesses can go over there and be successful.”