Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Lessons from EDCO 2016

Michelle Madden / February 8, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Lessons from EDCO 2016

Last week, hundreds of economic developers (and related professionals) gathered in downtown Toronto for the 59th annual Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO) Conference. It is a banner event for members of the field based in Ontario, and one I look forward to every year. For this week’s Higher ED, I bring you some of the lessons that caught my attention.

There are no tired businesses (or communities)

The opening keynote was Bonnie Brooks, Vice-Chairman/Chief Adventurer of Hudson’s Bay Company (and the famous voice behind those radio commercials). Bonnie embraced the conference theme, Ontario’s Transformation: Economy by Design, highlighting The Bay’s transformation from a tired department store to a leader in fashion.  She achieved this goal by tailoring the store’s products, branding, and in-store and online experiences to fashionable influencers.

Her most resonating takeaway for economic developers is that there are no tired businesses (or communities), just old thinking and tired leadership. Transformation starts at the top with progressive leaders who can skillfully execute a sound plan.

Downtowns are back

Bonnie extended her optimism for transformation to downtowns large and small. She still sees a place brick-and-mortar, particularly in downtowns where speciality products and services can thrive. Her commentary on downtowns was brief, but the conversation was resumed the next day when Roger Brooks, the President and CEO of Roger Brooks International, took the stage. After sharing his secrets for destination development (#1: narrow your focus, “something for everyone” will never work), he revealed that developers measure the health of communities by their downtowns. That makes downtown development a critical part of investment attraction.

Roger went on to share some interesting facts about consumer behavior. Did you know that 70% of retail spending happens after 6pm and 70% of first time sales are based on curb appeal? The latter is a compelling reason for beautification efforts, like façade programs, but Roger shared another reason to clean up your downtown. It makes women feel welcome and safe, which is important because they are responsible for 80% of consumer spending! More tips and tricks are available on Roger’s website.

Banish these performance measurement bad habits

The Economic Development Program had the opportunity to work with Louise Watson on a performance measurement seminar in Smithers, BC last fall and it was great to see her again on a larger stage. At EDCO, Louise alerted the crowd to 8 common bad habits that prevent organizations from understanding and maximizing their performance. Number 1 is using “weasel” words when setting goals. Words like quality, innovative, and dynamic aren’t specific enough to mean anything. Instead, goals need to be expressed with specific, clear, and simple language that a ten-year-old could understand. Other bad habits include brainstorming to find measures, mistaking ‘sign off’ for ‘buy in’, and separating performance measurement from strategic planning.

A clear proposal is a good proposal

Performance measurement is an important skill in economic development, and so is proposal writing. OMAFRA and MEDEI hosted a session sharing the secrets to great (and bad) proposals. In brief, great proposals start with carefully reading and addressing the funder’s guidelines.  From there, the key is to have clear objectives, and to show that the project is unique, needed, and wanted by the community. Another great tip: don’t be afraid to contact the funder to ask questions or get feedback.

If you missed the session or want more information like this, consider registering for our one day proposal writing seminar (registration is open, details will be posted soon).

Regional collaboration is easier when you build relationships

The Universities of Waterloo and Guelph recently finished a four-year research project that explored the challenges of regional collaboration in economic development initiatives. The team presented their findings at EDCO, including a series of lessons for policy and practice. There were a few that seemed to resonate with the crowd:

  • Negative attitudes can push regional collaborations off the rails. Support relationship building and networking between actors.
  • Rural communities often feel overlooked in regional collaborations. Everyone needs to feel included to make it work.
  • Staff turnover and volunteer burnout are barriers to long term regional collaboration. Build capacity and find stable funding.

A final report is almost done and will be shared by Higher ED. Previous blogs related to the project include Six lessons for improving collaboration across the urban-rural divide and What does regionalism mean for rural communities.

Feed your mind

The final lesson I’ll cover actually kicked off the programming. Clayton Shirt, a traditional native healer, reminded us that the greatest gift we have as humans is our minds. It was an appropriate message for the beginning of a learning event, and one that encouraged me to absorb as much information as possible over the course of the conference.

EDCO successfully fed my mind, how about yours? What did you learn at the 2016 EDCO Conference that you’ll never forget? Tell us in the comments or let us know on twitter at @UWecdev.


About the author

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 as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

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.

Feature image: Ripley’s Aquarium, venue of the EDCO Conference opening reception. Courtesy of Sarah Franklin.

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