Assistance for small business and rural community economic development has taken a variety of forms in Alberta over the years. While traditional banks most often provided services for small businesses, including general advice, planning and loans, economic development was left to municipal governments that took the initiative to make this a priority. Although government and commercial banks continue to play a critical role in this regard, one of the more consistent resources for business and economic development in rural Alberta are the 27 Community Futures (CF) organizations located across the province.
For more than 30 years, the Community Futures Network of Alberta (CFNA) has focused on creating businesses and jobs outside of major urban centres. Supported by Western Economic Diversification Canada, managed by locally appointed volunteer boards, and supported by paid staff, local Community Futures offices focus on the opportunities and challenges of economic growth. Each Community Futures office provides a variety of services ranging from strategic economic planning, business plan development, loans to small and medium-sized businesses, self-employment assistance, and services targeted to youth and entrepreneurs with disabilities.
Here are the core services offered by Community Futures offices throughout Alberta.
Business Planning and Advice
Many new entrepreneurs need assistance in developing a business plan. Sometimes existing businesses need help brainstorming new ways to enhance profits or create new revenue streams. Community Futures organizations offer this service free of charge.
Gerry Webster received funding from Community Futures to set up his health supplement store, A1 Fitness and Wellness, in Lac La Biche. After a couple of years of growth, he received additional support to expand his business to offer healthy meal preparation. Webster says that besides providing start-up dollars, Community Futures ensured that his business plan made sense.
"There are certain things you miss when you are new to starting a business, things you never really think about. Sometimes things look good on paper but are they actually going to work?" Webster says that Community Futures provided him with the necessary structure for his venture, and offered a sense of business viability prior to taking a risk.
Training and Professional Development
Once an entrepreneur receives a loan to start or expand their business, Community Futures continues to provide advice, in-house training, and connections to other professional development opportunities. Duane Melchart is the owner of Hearing Loops Canada in Red Deer. After receiving initial start-up funding from Community Futures, he was encouraged to participate in their BizStream Small Business Program. The program offered best-practice information and mentoring to help new businesses be competitive right from the start. Melchart describes the process as a two-year journey that focused on marketing and business plan strategy.
"As a small business owner, being asked to participate in the BizStream Program was one of the best things that could have happened to me and my company," Melchart said. "The program allowed me to look at and understand my business in ways I never thought possible."
One of the fringe benefits of completing the program was being able to qualify his company for SECOR (Small Employer Certificate of Recognition) certification, recognizing the establishment of a health and safety management system. The support of Community Futures and these development programs seem to be working. Melchart has recently expanded his business to Edmonton and Calgary.
Community Futures offices are often involved in economic development activities, most often in partnership with the local chamber of commerce, municipal district, or other levels of government. These activities could be events like trade shows or conferences, or initiatives that inform the regional business community, such as hosting workshops about a variety of subjects that affect the success of local businesses, like bookkeeping, marketing or customer service.
Supported by a CFNA managed lending and investment pool, loans of up to $150,000 can be offered to Alberta entrepreneurs that are not successful in securing a business loan through a bank.
Success by the Numbers
Through loans and the provision of business training, coaching and a variety of economic development projects, CFNA makes a significant impact on the economic success of rural communities across the province. The CFNA 2017-18 Annual Report outlined that in that year alone, Alberta CF offices accomplished the following:
- 5994 Alberta clients served
- $21 million in loans to clients
- 518 new community-based projects
- 777 businesses created, maintained, or expanded
- 211 entrepreneurs with disabilities helped
These benefits are shown in a recent report from Western Economic Diversification Canada demonstrating the success of the 90 Community Futures offices in Western Canada. Between 2010 and 2015, the annual employment growth rate of CF-assisted businesses was 7.5 per cent, compared to non-assisted firms that had a growth rate of 2.6 per cent. The annual sales growth rate of CF-assisted businesses was 8.9 per cent, compared to non-assisted firms that had a growth rate of 4.4 per cent. The report also points out that in 2017-2018, 68 per cent of CF-assisted businesses had at least a five-year longevity rate, as compared to 46 per cent for those businesses that were not assisted by Community Futures.
Partnerships Make a Difference
Community Futures is part of the Canada Business Network and has relationships with organizations such as Business Link, Futurepreneur and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), as well as a host of local agencies, to support their clients. Whether it be connecting with a regional college to offer business training or a workshop, working with the municipality to gather business intelligence, or collaborating with the chamber of commerce to host a networking event, the success of a local Community Futures office relies heavily on its ability to partner with regional organizations.
“Successful partnerships are the key to both economic development and business sustainability,” says Gene Wesley, general manager of the Community Futures office in Lac La Biche. Wesley points out that CF offices are committed to both the success of small businesses and the overall economic growth of their own region. In the case of Lac La Biche, Wesley is excited about the possibilities offered by emerging industries like the agri-foods sector and industrial hemp that have unlimited growth potential in the region. Since it's inception, Community Futures Lac La Biche has provided financial support to 475 businesses, totaling over $53 million.
Many citizens of rural Alberta are quick to tell you that the health of their community rests in their ability to retain young people and attract young families to the community. Lower taxes and house prices, educational facilities and stable employment, along with reliable services in the area, are all part of that formula to sustain rural communities in the province.
“Although many people know Community Futures as a place to get a business loan, we are so much more than that," Wesley said. And he is quick to mention that some of the more successful businesses in Lac La Biche County got their start through Community Futures. He also emphasizes that new initiatives by CF to support youth and Indigenous entrepreneurs, as well as innovative and collaborative approaches to economic development, are crucial to the future of rural communities throughout the province.