The editorial in the Telegraph-Journal this morning called for a complete dismantling of Opportunities New Brunswick.
It’s probably a good time to think about what is the best model for economic development in a smaller province such as New Brunswick.
It is wrong to think that there is no role for economic development at the level of a provincial government. If you think about activities such as efforts to attract national and international firms to locate in the province, it is hard to envision a model where Greater Moncton or Edmundston could mount a large enough team to effectively pursue global investment. It’s hard enough to envision this at a provincial level which is why I have always advocated for ACOA and the provinces to collaborate on a regional investment attraction plan. I know that many policy wonks in New Brunswick are skeptical of this because of the fear of the big, bad Halifax getting ‘everything’ but I don’t subscribe to that view.
So the real question is which economic development activities are best done regionally (Atlantic), or provincially (New Brunswick) and which are best done at the regional level within New Brunswick (e.g. the Saint John region) or locally (in the municipality)? You might easily argue that we should be talking national but in my experience this has been problematic. If you don’t believe me just ask any economic development group in New Brunswick when was the last time they got an investment lead out of a federal government embassy or consulate around the world. I still remember reading the annual report for something called the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance back in the late 1990s/early 2000s and being surprised that a large share of investment ‘leads’ for that organization were coming from federal government entities located around the world. This doesn’t happen in our region. The federal government is a very important partner – but not necessarily to drum up investment and trade activity around the world. I could be wrong about this and would be happy to be wrong.
In my opinion we have really dropped the ball in the past 20 years on regional economic development within New Brunswick. I firmly believe that developing a culture of economic development at the city, town and local level is fundamentally important to long term economic growth (along with efforts to ensure we have enough people to meet labour market demand).
What opportunities are there is your village, town, city or urban region? What capacity is there to develop these opportunities?
This is not about picking ‘winners’ or socialism or industrial policy or anything remotely similar. And it certainly isn’t about doling out cash to move opportunities forward although there may be competitive situations where this might be a legitimate tool.
Does your town have enough demand for a new hotel? Then put together a business case and take it to market (i.e. hoteliers). Don’t assume the ‘market’ is omniscient. It’s not.
When was the last time you did analysis of tourism investment opportunities in your region? Maybe other areas are attracting really interesting tourism operators. Why not you? Were you just waiting for someone to knock on your door?
Do you have an existing cluster of firms in an industry where other firms would benefit from joining the cluster to create more benefits from scale?
Do you have natural resources in your area that are not being developed? What are you doing about it? Waiting (hoping) that someone else will take the lead?
Do you have a university or college doing interesting research that could result in new startup companies or could attract national or international firms to invest in your community? You working on that or hoping someone else will?
Do you have a port, airport, beaches or any other natural or physical infrastructure that could be levered to attract private sector investment? Who’s working on it and how are they measured?
Do you have any geographic advantages – at the centre of a larger population area – that could be exploited for economic opportunity? Who is working on it?
Do you have any unique population or labour market dynamics that could be levered to foster new investment and growth?
Almost all of the answers to these questions and many others are local.
“It’s not my responsibility” is the phrase that kills local economic development.
As a community leader you have two options:
1) wait for ONB to come and save the day, or;
2) get busy working on the opportunities in your local community.
Let’s quickly move the (tired) conversation away from corporate handouts or from helping our small businesses and to a conversation about what are the opportunities in our community and how can we drive them forward?