02/18/2015 01:30 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Alberta Axes 3 Trade Offices To Save $3.1 Million

Ottawa, Chicago, and Munich offices will be closed

EDMONTON - Premier Jim Prentice has dropped the axe on five international trade offices, saying Alberta needs to save money and focus on emerging markets in Asia.

"It's a question of priorities. It's a question of focus," Prentice told a legislature news conference Wednesday.

"We want to maximize the bang for our buck, and those are the choices we're making."

Prentice said offices in Ottawa, Chicago, and Munich will be shuttered, and planned offices for San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro will not go ahead.

The closures, among other cost-saving measures, are expected to shave $3.1 million off the overall $15-million budget for the offices and involve the loss of six jobs.

The choices were recommended to Prentice in a report by Ron Hoffmann, Alberta's senior representative in the Asia-Pacific basin. His report urged renewed focus on markets in Asia, particularly China.

The government is keeping three existing offices in China — Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai — and add one more in Guangzhou.

It is also keeping offices in India, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

Hoffmann said in his report that the Asia market is critical to Alberta's success, given the region's exploding demand for more and diverse food products, better education, travel and high tech.

"The greatest shift in world affairs continues to take place in Asia," he wrote.

The government is also reconfiguring the London office to be its European trade hub and the one in Washington, D.C., will take on that role in the United States.

Alberta also has two offices in Mexico.

Several of the offices were opened by former premier Alison Redford. Prentice, even before he became premier, questioned whether they were delivering value for money.

He said Wednesday that the collapse in oil prices has taken the legs out from under Alberta's economy, so the province needed to sharpen its focus.

"It's certainly not a good time at this point to be looking at Brazil and California," said Prentice. "They don't fit within the priorities that we're currently pursuing."

Prentice said he never saw the necessity of an office in Ottawa.

NDP critic Brian Mason applauded the changes, but said they were too long in coming.

"From the beginning, the Alberta NDP has been a staunch critic of these international offices, which have all too often served as places of patronage for faithful Tory insiders and their privileged friends,” Mason said in a news release.

Hoffman is to replace Gary Mar, a former PC cabinet minister and current Asia trade representative.

Mar's contract expires in June and Prentice announced last fall it would not be renewed.

Mar, a failed leadership rival to Redford, became a symbol of the profligate spending that ultimately led to her resignation a year ago.

After Mar's appointment to Hong Kong, it was revealed he held down one of the most lucrative jobs in Alberta's public service with cash and benefits exceeding $500,000 a year.

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