Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: One community’s failed attempt to engage youth, and how it rallied

Michelle Madden / March 14, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: One community’s failed attempt to engage youth, and how it rallied

It is well known among economic developers that youth are important to a community. Like other migratory creatures, a strong presence indicates an ecosystem in bloom, while their departure is a sign that the community is going into hibernation. Most rural areas are familiar with this problem and taking steps to retain and attract youth. However, figuring out the right way to address the problem is a challenge.

Lyndsay Tee, the Economic Development Coordinator for the Town of Greater Napanee, recently submitted a paper on youth engagement to the University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program. She profiled an unnamed community’s efforts to meaningfully engage high schoolers in community development. Their challenge, eventual success, and ensuing recommendations may be informative for municipal governments in a similar situation.

Reaching out

“Community A” is described by Lyndsay as a small centre, population 15,000, with an urban and rural mix. The case study begins with the formation of a Community Development Advisory Committee, which collectively identified youth retention and attraction as a top priority. Their goal was to find ways to lure back their post-secondary students after graduation, and to attract new young professionals as well. They decided to start by recruiting local teens to sit on the committee.

The committee connected with the local high school and had a business teacher encourage her students to attend committee meetings. Unfortunately, only one student responded to the invitation, and quickly lost interest.  As Lyndsay put it, “In theory this concept was great, but the committee quickly learned that their structure, timeframe, and agendas were not necessarily as youth-friendly as they had originally thought”. As a result, the committee received no real input from youth.

Undeterred, the committee tried again the following semester with a stronger strategy. This time, representatives from the municipality and the committee visited the grade 11 business class and delivered presentations directly to the students. The presentations explained how Town Hall operates, highlighted the importance of youth involvement and input, and asked them how the municipality could improve.

The group decided that a focus group would yield the best data. The committee hired a professional facilitator from outside of the community to reduce bias and encourage constructive criticism. Over two days (at the local high school), the facilitator had the students identify positive attributes of community in the categories of housing, employment, social life and quality of life, suggest enhancements, and discuss what role they might play in those enhancements.


The focus group resulted in a series of recommendations for the municipality in each of the four categories above.


Drawing from his experience, the facilitator provided an additional set of recommendations to further connect with teenagers (local) and 20-somethings (local and non-local).

recommendations 2

Engage youth early

This case study highlights the growing recognition among municipal leaders that retaining and attracting youth starts with engaging them while they’re teens and pre-teens. A young person is more likely to stay or come back if they feel that the community cares about them, but is not intrusive or controlling. Once this foundation is in place, future retention and attraction efforts will be easier and more effective.

This community opted to undertake a focus group exercise to engage their youth, but clearly there are many other engagement strategies available. Since this exercise was completed shortly before Lyndsay wrote her paper, the conclusion is optimistic about having information and recommendations, but can’t report on outcomes.  Instead, I’ll leave you with these resources for improving youth retention and attraction so that your community can start working towards its own outcomes.


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 many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

Lyndsay Tee is the Economic Development Coordinator for the Town of Greater Napanee. She is currently on maternity leave.

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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