James Van Leeuwen wants to see technology improve life in rural communities.
And Fort Macleod is just the place to start, Van Leeuwen told council last week.
Van Leeuwen rolled out a plan to bring broadband Internet to Fort Macleod, which in turn would attract industries that rely on the ability to transmit large amounts of data electronically.
“For as long as I’ve been interested in technology, I’ve been particularly interested in the difference it can make in rural living,” said Van Leeuwen, whose company Ventus Development Services is based in Pincher Creek.
Van Leeuwen talked to council and people in the gallery in council chambers about the feeling of isolation that was part of his youth on the farm.
When he got involved with technology in the 1970s Van Leeuwen immediately saw the possibilities of using computers to overcome the isolation of people living in rural areas.
“They have become some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal,” Van Leeuwen said.
Computers link people to the outside world, regardless of their location.
For businesses, that ability to connect with the rest of the world means they can set up shop anywhere — not just in large urban centres.
“There is a tendency in some corners to look at them as toys, but the reality is they are tools and they are changing how the world works,” Van Leeuwen said of computers. “They are changing economies, both globally and local, and they are changing society and the way people engage each other.”
Van Leeuwen was contacted by a friend who runs Cybera, Alberta’s research and education network.
Cybera connects all the post-secondary institutes in the province with fibre-optic connectivity that enables them to share information.
“The fibre-optic networks carry vast amounts of data,” Van Leeuwen said. “Because of the kind of things that the researchers and the educators are doing at universities and colleges in Alberta they need a lot of band width.”
Cybera has expanded to serve school boards, and has a mandate to serve non-profit and government agencies.
Cybera is looking for a rural community that can serve as an incubator — a place to grow technology businesses.
“If you have an entrepreneur with an idea, he needs a place where he can actually pursue that idea,” Van Leeuwen said.
Van Leeuwen determined Fort Macleod was the perfect place to set up the infrastructure that such an entrepreneur would need.
Fort Macleod is centrally located, there is fibre-optic cable already in the ground and there are many tourism sites that would benefit from broadband Internet.
Van Leeuwen said there are people in Fort Macleod ready to provide a place for a business accelerator to set up.
“You’ve got some visionary leadership,” Van Leeuwen added.
Van Leeuwen set up a meeting with people from Cybera and Mayor Rene Gendre to discuss Fort Macleod becoming the community partner.
Gendre in turn invited Van Leeuwen to make the presentation to council and members of the public.
Van Leeuwen and Gendre contacted the Treaty 7 Management Corporation in Calgary. Fort Macleod’s facility could serve the Piikani Nation and blood Tribe.
Van Leeuwen said there is funding available through Western Economic Diversification to get the project under way.
The amount of money available is dependent on the partner community.
Following the presentation May 26, Gendre and Van Leeuwen decided to wait until the next round of funding to have more time to put together a proposal for Western Economic Diversification.
“I want it to happen somewhere in southern Alberta,” Van Leeuwen said. “I chose Fort Macleod because of what you have here.”
Council later in the meeting discussed providing Van Leeuwen with a letter of support for the application.
“I would like to know what it’s going to cost the town,” Coun. Gord Wolstenholme said. “I would like to know who we’re dealing with.”
Wolstenholme said he did not have enough information to make a decision.
Coun. Mike Collar also wanted to know what level of commitment was expected from the town.
“It wouldn’t cost us anything,” Gendre said.
Gendre said if a grant was approved, then the town would have to determine what was needed to put in a fibre-optic network.
Coun. Trish Hoskin was not willing to commit the Town of Fort Macleod to anything without having more information.
“I’m not prepared to vote on this tonight,” Hoskin said.
Coun. Michael Dyck said he got the impression from Van Leeuwen’s presentation Fort Macleod was already committed to the project.
“There was no commitment,” Gendre said.
Gendre told council the discussions only started the previous weekend but he recognized it as a good opportunity for Fort Macleod.
Dyck said if council decides to move forward, Gendre should step back and let municipal manager David Connauton represent the town.
Bryan Campbell, a Fort Macleod resident who was in the gallery in council chambers, joined the discussion.
“There is nothing wrong with it,” Campbell said of Gendre being involved in the project. “You guys have all got to work together.”
“The town has to grow,” Campbell added. “We’ve been 3,100 people all these years. We voted you guys in to make us bigger. Let’s do it.”