Lethbridge takes its name from the owner of a 19th Century coal and transportation company, and coal-mining was the foundation of its early prosperity. As coal lost its dominance to oil and natural gas, Lethbridge developed further as a transport and commercial hub for southern Alberta, with agriculture as another mainstay. By the late 20th Century, half the workforce was employed in healthcare, education, retail and hospitality sectors and the top five employers were government-based. The only university in Alberta south of Calgary is in Lethbridge, and two of the three colleges in southern Alberta have campuses in the city.
Despite these advantages, educational attainment in the city is not particularly high because students have traditionally left town after graduation to seek their fortunes elsewhere. City leadership has responded to this challenge by laying the foundations of a knowledge economy in this city of 95,000, and doing so in close collaboration with business, institutions and citizens. In 2015, it opened a Trade & Technologies Renewal Center, which brings together students, faculty and industry to equip workers with the trade skills needed to satisfy local and regional business. With global oil prices near historic lows, Lethbridge wants to ensure that workers have the skills needed to prosper in the next boom, whatever its source.
Another project, TecConnect, has invested C$5.5 million in construction of a tech commercialization center and in data center equipment, which helped persuade BlackBridge (now PlanetLabs), a satellite imaging company, to locate its new headquarters and data center next to the center. Four years after opening, TecConnect has graduated five companies with combined revenues of C$1.5 million, is incubating six more, and has created 70 jobs, of which 80% are filled by Lethbridge post-secondary graduates.
A Connectivity Working Group convened by the city is engaged in analyzing existing broadband services and infrastructure and making recommendations for improvement. Focusing on wireless, it has collaborated in the design of cell towers to be added to a major retail center now under construction, and has implemented small-cell technology in new residential developments. The public-private Lethbridge Community Network provides public access to computers, education and IT for the unconnected population as well as training and IT solutions to local nonprofits.
Canada has a long tradition of commodity-driven economic growth, from agriculture to forestry to the oil sands that made Alberta rich in the new century. Lethbridge is betting on a different future, in which Canadian innovation creates a diversified economy that can weather the winds of global change.