Back to basics: The fundaments of economic development according to….well, me!
Having worked in economic development and tourism off and on ever since I graduated with a college degree in tourism, I have taken many different courses and seminars, attended educating conferences, built a (offline and online) network of fellow practitioners and did my fair share of reading. I noticed that there are many different views of what the basics of ED (no, not that one) really are.
I noticed it very much depends on who you are talking to and what their [the ecdev-er] respective experiences and opinions are. Some say it’s all about business development. Site selection, reverse site selection, zoning bylaws, commercial realtors, retention and expansion strategies and municipal strat planning are the terms of the trade, right? Or is it more about community development? Social enterprise, business incubators, recreation, amenities, housing and (sport) tourism?
The answer to the question “What is economic development?” –if you’d ask me- would be all of the above. Those of you who have been in this noble profession for some time now are starting to roll your eyes now thinking that this is old news and a pretty straight-forward-basic-ecdev-lesson, but don’t go away just yet. I am about to explain what the real fundaments of economic development are according to…well, ME! And I would love to hear what you have to say about it. And perhaps for those of us that are just starting you can use this to your advantage.
Before all the strategic planning can start and the die-hard ecdev guy or gal can hit the streets doing their thing, there is a foundation of (community) readiness that needs to take place. These are based on three simple pillars that without there will be no successful economic development strategy in your community. And it doesn’t hurt to once in a while go back to these principles and see if they are still in place in your situation. The trouble is that I have seen many small communities where this is missing. So, time to go back to the basics for a minute. Here they are:
1) Community support.
Pretty straight forward eh? But in my experience, often forgotten. Elected leaders, economic development boards and municipal administrators often ignore this basic and important fundament. And it’s up to us to correct that. It is important to have the support from your community for the economic development plans AND budgets. Community consultation sessions are sometimes seen as over-rated and useless exercises but I will stand to defend the need for it. It will give you ammunition to work with. Or in less violent terms, at the least it is a start for some sort of roadmap that will give you direction and focus. For us ecdev-ers it is also important to have the support from our councils as they are chosen to represent the community as a whole and sometimes come with their own agenda and roadmap. Not always in sync with your professional approach may I add. Make sure you talk to your community and to your mayor and council to see if all are on board with your plans. Lobbying and tact in your approach are needed to win this battle and get them on your side.
2) The ability to create partnerships.
Without strategic partnerships your economic development strategy will no-doubt fail. Sounds wishy washy and fluffy to you? Without partnerships, be it small or big, internal or external, you will not be able to move a whole community in the same direction. Your job will become frustrating quickly with less success stories to share. It is our role to bring people and groups together, share information, communicate and motivate. As the spider in the web we have the power to make the earth shake but only when you create connections and partnerships.
Timing would be a fancy ecdev term for LUCK. We don’t like to use the word luck in our profession as it leans too much towards something that appears to be out of our control (and we can’t take credit for!). So I am simply calling it timing. We all have seen that moment when the stars align. Project planning, community buy-in and partnerships are in place for this particular big thing you want to score sooo bad for your community and all of a sudden it appears. It never pre-announces itself and comes unexpected. The only thing you can do is be prepared. And when the moment is finally there you draw your guns, aim, shoot and win the battle. The victory is yours!!
Working with and for smaller communities I have noticed the struggle to get some sort of economic development approach off the ground. Opinions are divided and strong, a lack of planning causes a high turnover of talented ecdev staffers and plans fail. Other communities take a smart approach that includes community readiness, consultation and planning resulting in a action plan that will help them for years to come. These are the communities that are the most successful in this highly competitive climate.