You will recall my main concern when the province and the feds cut funding for regional economic development agencies. I wasn’t particularly worried about small business access to government financing programs. The Dept. of Economic development put new offices around the province to ensure that SMEs can access those programs. Bernie Valcourt said the Enterprise Agencies just ‘got in the way’ between ACOA and its clients. Fine. Now the clients can go direct and ACOA staff can help with business plans and all the other grunt work the enterprise agencies were doing.
My concern was that there would be no one left locally leading the charge for economic development. I have always felt that local communities – no matter how small – should play a role in their economic development.
After some time has passed since the defunding, it looks like at least the three larger urban areas may actually come out of this stronger. There is a renewed sense of focus in all three areas and there is serious work going on to determine potential areas of growth and to work on those opportunities. The private sector seems to be more engaged and willing to fund regional economic development and local municipalities have recommitted to funding support.
The defunding, in other words, may end up being a blessing in disguise. Now the agencies will not be cast as ‘government service delivery agencies’ but as true economic development agencies developing strategies and tactics to foster growth in key sectors, attract industry investment and foster ambitious entrepreneurship. When you are measured by how many people received funding from program x or y, that is how you see yourself. Now, at least in the three urban centres – Freddy, Greater Moncton and SJ, the measurement will be more like “we gave you xx dollars, how did you provide us a good return on that investment?”. How many new jobs? How much new business investment? How many high growth potential startups? How did you influence the growth of the local tax base?
I worry that there now won’t be enough people ‘thinking’ about economic development in rural and Northern New Brunswick. We really need to spend serious brainpower and horsepower developing new sector opportunities in conjunction with the private sector. I am not sure the new provincial model is wired that way.
But the three southern urbans provide a test case. If the agencies become even stronger advocates for their communities. If they re-energize regional focus and community engagement and if they do things that lead to better economic outcomes, we will have a new template for regional economic development.