From a recent TJ column:
Columnist Kurt Peacock recently wrote an inspiring piece about how the community of Sussex has combined its natural attributes with strong local leadership to foster a solid economic base in the community. He cites Sussex as an example for the rest of the province.
I have always believed that every community needs an economic raison d’être. There has to be a reason why firms would want to invest and create jobs in the community. We cannot rely on government to prop up the economy or on the ‘benevolence’ of entrepreneurs.
Some people hope a big multinational firm will ride into town in and save a community’s bacon. Others hope local entrepreneurs will rise up and get the job done.
Whether it is a global firm or Jane the local entrepreneur, if there isn’t an opportunity to make a decent return on their investment, they will not invest.
Why would a firm large or small want to invest in your community?
In a rural community the rationale may be a natural resources-based opportunity. It may be tourism-related. It could be a local niche opportunity in food services, retail or personal services.
In New Brunswick there is one dentist for every 2,600 residents. Many small communities across the province could make an effort to convince a dentist there is a market for his or her services in their town or village. Attracting a dentist would bring in a six figure income into the town and provide another important service in the local community.
I’ll wager there are very few communities out aggressively trying to attract dentists.
This is the problem when we rely on the provincial government to provide the vision and direction for local economic development. One more dentist in New Brunswick provides very little incremental economic benefit. One dentist in a small community could provide a significant economic boost. At the provincial level we can and should have the grand strategies for developing natural resources, manufacturing, information technology and other key export-oriented industries. At the local level, we need much more focused economic development.
Even larger cities such as Saint John should be trying to plug the holes from economic leakage. What services do people leave the community to access? Can we make the business case for that service in the community?
Who should be determining the community’s economic raison d’être?
To all my friends who say “let the market sort itself out”, I humbly disagree. Somebody in the community should be thinking about these opportunities and making the case for investment.
Preferably this would be a cooperative effort between business leaders and government but if business leaders aren’t interested in community development, local government should take the lead.
I have hardened in my belief that we have mostly missed the point when it comes to local economic development. We have these futile debates about government loans and grants. We are warned to avoid ‘picking winners’ and told government shouldn’t ‘distort the playing field’. Every opposition party talks about eliminating ‘corporate welfare’ and then institutes their own version when they take power.
Who is out there determining if there is a business case for a new dentist in Minto, a veterinarian in Hillsborough or home care workers in St. Martins?
What organization is trying to figure out how to develop niche tourism investment opportunities in St. Stephen or Stanley and then shopping those opportunities to potential entrepreneurial investors?
When was the last time we had a tourism investment opportunities trade show for the St. John River Valley and brought in potential investor entrepreneurs from across Canada and beyond to kick the tires?
I’m not arguing for a 19th century economic development model where every small community has a butcher, baker and blacksmith.
But I am saying entrepreneurs will invest where there is opportunity and we need to be identifying and making the case for investment in communities large and small right across New Brunswick.