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The Higher ED Blog: From Cars to Creativity – The Changing Dynamics of the Rural Economy in Essex County, Ontario

Nirvana Champion / June 8, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: From Cars to Creativity – The Changing Dynamics of the Rural Economy in Essex County, Ontario

The creative economy has become a widespread term in the theory and practice of economic development. When I started to conceptualize my graduate Major Research Paper for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development Program, it was the year 2008 and the world was in the throes of what became known as the ‘great recession’. The recession forced us as economic developers to re-examine how we build our communities. Economic resilience and diversity were the conversations of the day.

While strategies around building a creative economy resonated through communities near and far, the conversation was largely focused on an urban context. My graduate research sought to investigate the emergence of a creative economy in a rural context and the barriers to such an economic transition. I chose to examine one of the regions that was hardest hit by the recession–Essex County, Ontario–as my case study.

My central research question was: Is there evidence of a transition towards a creative economy in rural regions? This led me into important sub-questions such as: What are the potential pathways to a prosperous rural creative economy? What are the barriers and challenges associated with such a transition to a creative economy?

Towards a Creative Rural Economy

Based on the challenges faced by rural regions, new approaches to rural economic development policy have emerged. The literature suggests that new rural policy approaches must move beyond agriculture and industrial recruitment towards the promotion of local assets for economic development and enhancing the competitiveness of the local economy by investing in and supporting different sectors (e.g.: tourism, ICT, etc.). Scholars suggest that there are three approaches for rural places looking to build their local economies: place-based development, economic gardening, and cultivating creativity and talent.

A growing body of evidence supports the notion that rural communities with certain place characteristics can attract the creative class and contribute to higher economic performance in rural regions. Rural areas can be ‘havens’ for artists because of the factors such as natural amenities, arts infrastructure and the cost of living. These factors attract other kinds of creative talent too, including knowledge workers.

Scholars studying Northern Ontario have found that innovation in rural and remote regions is often overlooked because it is occurring in traditional industries (forestry, mining, etc.). Agriculture is one such industry, but has received notice recently because of the resurgence of interest in “terrior” and artisanal production, which marks a shift from highly mechanized farming to traditional methods and craftsmanship ethics.

While these are encouraging findings, rural economic developers and policy makers must consider the local context and transferability of the creative economy strategies from one region to the next.

The Case of Essex County, Ontario

Essex County is home to a traditional manufacturing and agricultural base and in the wake of the recession, I was interested in examining whether there was a movement to implement alternative or new economic development approaches. The research revealed several compelling stories and four emerging pathways to developing a prosperous creative rural economy in Essex County. Highlights from the research are summarized here:

Pathway 1: Arts, Culture, Heritage

Art and culture are considered to be one of the foundations of the creative economy.

A cultural asset mapping exercise of Essex revealed 2,593 regional cultural assets, demonstrating that there is an existing foundation to build upon.

Pathway 2: Creativity in the Local Food Economy

Essex is a region rich in agriculture and home to a vibrant food economy that has been married to tourism. However, one of the most compelling findings of this study was among entrepreneurs who started wineries after many years in other industrial sectors, including engineering and automotive manufacturing. They explained that they saw the potential in the region to build a successful wine and tourism industry and their decision was prompted by the state of the automotive industry.

Pathway 3: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Greenhouse Production

Just like the winemakers mentioned above, many growers left employment in the automotive manufacturing industry to pursue greenhouse production. The movement of entrepreneurs across sectoral boundaries provides early evidence of a regional shift towards innovation-oriented activities. It’s worth noting that one of the key ingredients driving success in the regional greenhouse industry is that there was a critical mass of greenhouses in the region, which lead to increased cooperation amongst growers.

Pathway 4: A Renewable Energy Hub

Renewable energy is another high-knowledge industry that has taken root in Essex. The greenhouse industry has a high demand for energy, and looked to renewable sources.  As a result, local farmers used their fields to grow dedicated crops for biomass production, and wind and solar farms started to pop-up across the region. To encourage the development of this sector, there were decisive policy interventions, such as the County of Essex Official Plan update, to include regulations for renewable energy (wind, solar and biomass).

Transitioning to a Rural Creative Economy? Challenges and Barriers

Although the research revealed four potential pathways to building a creative rural economy in Essex County, challenges and barriers were also identified. These are important to call-out as they have the potential to limit the impact that the nascent creative rural economy could have on the region. In summary, these challenges and barriers include:

  • Challenge 1: A lack of consistent place branding, image, and regional identity is a hindrance to emerging tourism and entrepreneurship opportunities (cultural, agri-and culinary tourism).
  • Challenge 2: The regional culture is still focused on manufacturing and resistant to change.
  • Challenge 3: A lack of tolerance and openness to new demographics, and to arts, culture and creativity-led strategies as new ways of growing the region.
  • Challenge 4: The need for stronger regional governance, coordination and leadership in moving towards “co-opetition”, rather than working in siloes.

What I found in 2010 – Worth Re-visiting the Research?

My research in Essex County started to unearth a deeply rooted creative economy that was only starting to emerge. The empirical evidence suggests that rural regions can sustain diverse, creative, and innovative forms of economic activity. The case of Essex County is instructive for understanding how rural regions can engage in the creative economy in three ways:

  • Consideration of existing local assets and the regional and institutional culture is necessary.
  • The appropriate policy supports need to be in place to create an environment that fosters these nascent and emerging creative and innovative activities, particularly to promote knowledge exchange and learning.
  • There is a clear need for collaborative leadership at the regional level to overcome the challenges of fragmented and disjointed economic development efforts at the local level.

Overall, my research concluded that the creative rural economy approach to economic development holds potential for Essex County, as well as other rural regions looking grow sustainable, competitive economies. However, at the time of writing the paper, it was too early to fully assess whether these emerging activities could result in long term prosperity and regional resilience. I issue two challenges, first to my economic development colleagues to provide further evidence from their municipalities and ways of monitoring these strategies; second to graduate students to re-visit this research and continually endeavour to understand the dynamics that shape the creative rural economy.

About the author

Nirvana Champion is an economic development professional based in Toronto, currently with the Economic Development & Culture Division at the City of Toronto. Her economic development experience is diverse and has traversed the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Prior to entering municipal economic development, Nirvana contributed to community building through economic development consulting, specializing in strategic planning, culture and creative economy and regional innovation systems. She also supported a variety of capacity building and policy development projects and the United Nations, Economic Commission for Europe and the Canadian Urban Institute. Nirvana completed her Major Research Paper for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development Program entitled: From Cars to Creativity – The Changing Dynamics of the Rural Economy in Essex County, Ontario, under the supervision of Dr. Tara Vinodrai.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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