The Higher ED Blog: Best practices in rural economic development delivery
Michelle Madden / November 30, 2015
It was clear during this fall’s federal election campaign that jobs, small business, and the economy are hot topics in Canada right now. While Ottawa has a major role to play in the health of the economy, it’s local municipalities that are doing the grunt work for nurturing, retaining and attracting jobs and small business.
Many municipalities have an economic development function. Large cities usually have an appropriately large economic development office with many specialized employees. Rural areas obviously don’t have the same capacity, often expecting a single employee to manage the economic development file or relying on a committee of elected officials and community volunteers. A study by the University of Guelph’s David Douglas in 2004 found that less than a third of rural Ontario municipalities felt that economic development capacity was in place.
For small municipalities wanting to improve their capacity, it’s hard to find guidance on local economic development strategy because there isn’t much out there speaking to the rural context. This is what Andrew Redden, the Economic Development Manager for Hastings County, discovered when he went looking for studies on rural economic development best practices. He decided to fill the gap with his Year 3 paper for the Economic Development Program, Is there a best practice? A better understanding of local economic development in rural Ontario.
Andrew surveyed a random sample of 100 economic developers in rural Ontario municipalities, asking them about how economic development is facilitated in their community, and to suggest an exemplary municipality from rural Ontario. Prince Edward County, the Township of Stirling-Rawdon, and the City of Stratford were the most frequently named, and Andrew interviewed representatives of those communities.
Based on his findings (which are fully reported in his paper, and worth reviewing) Andrew recommends four core best practices that any rural municipality can reasonably work into their economic development strategy.
1) Understand your communities’ markets and assets
Every good strategy starts with some homework. Do some high level analysis of the local economy to determine strengths, weaknesses, assets, and gaps. This is an internal exercise that will inform and guide the remainder of the strategy. As such, it’s important to be unbiased and brutally honest.
2) Invest in a full time economic development officer
For communities without a full time EDO, hiring one will focus and strengthen the community’s economic development efforts. They will provide capacity for expanding the analysis of the local economy, and preparing and implementing an economic strategy. That said, this person should be filling gaps, not repeating services offered by higher level governments and other community partners.
If hiring an EDO is not possible (for financial or practical reasons), then the municipality can and should build relationships with EDOs in upper tier or regional governments.
3) Recognize efforts of existing community organizations
Expanding on the above reference to community partners, municipalities should understand and recognize what groups like Chambers of Commerce, Business Improvement Areas, and Community Futures Development Corporations are offering. New economic development efforts should complement these services and the best way to understand what they’re doing is to actively work with them.
4) Partner with neighbouring municipalities and participate in regional consortiums
Municipalities of any size can benefit from collaboration, but partnership is especially important for small municipalities. Working with neighbouring municipalities and regional consortiums (such as the Southwestern Ontario Marketing Alliance) maximizes resources while ensuring that competitors become allies. Partnerships extend the capacity of each member much further than they could on their own. For more insights into this topic, read the Higher ED articles on regional collaboration and partnering across the urban-rural divide.
Andrew’s research was completed in 2009 but it still rings true six years later. Rural municipalities looking to expand their economic development capacity will find these four actions to be an accessible and realistic starting point. While these four actions may seem straightforward, they are gateways that will open up a wide range of possibilities for taking local economies to the next level.
About the authors
Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program. She has authored a number of the articles in this series on behalf of the students, and has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.
Andrew Redden, a native of Campbellford, Ontario, is the Economic Development Manager for Hastings County in Eastern Ontario. A graduate of Carleton University, Andrew also holds a Master’s of Science degree in Planning from the University of Guelph. As well as being a certified economic developer (Ec.D. F), he is a Registered Professional Planner (RPP) and full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners.
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.