Apparently we are close to some form of announcement on the future of the regional economic development agencies (Enterprise agencies). One rumour circulating is the current 15 agencies will be collapsed into five to align with Statistics Canada regions in New Brunswick. There are a number of other government services aligned to these five regions. This issue is fraught with political risk as some of the urban areas don’t want responsibility over rural areas and some of the more rural regions want their own economic development agencies and feel they would be lost inside a larger urban one.
There is some logic to bringing the urban and rural areas under the same roof. In real terms, rural and urban economies are highly co-dependent. Urban areas rely on workers, raw materials, shoppers, etc. from rural and peripheral areas while rural areas need the urban areas for jobs, retail markets, personal and business services, airports, health care, etc.
In my view, we need good, strong rural economic developers now more than ever. I’m not talking about people that provide counselling to SMEs about government programs. That could easily be provided by the CEDAs or some other entity. What we really need are talented professionals working on development opportunities in rural areas such as natural gas, mining, forestry, agriculture, aquaculture, manufacturing, broadband-supported home-based workers, rural infrastructure, etc.
Also, we need folks that are working on the broader, structural challenges to economic development in much of New Brunswick such as seasonal EI dependence, a lack of reskilling because of the changing economic landscape, etc.
The other critical role will be around the integration of immigrant workers. While Freddy, Moncton and SJ are attracting increasing immigrants (still below what they should be compared to average urban areas), the rest of NB is attracting very few. However, raw demographics will mean that all of NB will need to attract immigrants for labour market survival. There is a huge role for someone in helping with this transition.
For those who want regional economic development agencies to be what someone termed “brochure stands for government programs”, that model is dead (if it ever existed). We need well resourced rural development activities – whether they are part of an urban effort or not.