Rethinking things

Maybe it’s because I have worked with 11 different economic development agencies (federal, provincial, local and U.S) over the past 12 months. Or maybe it’s because I leave this Sunday on a three week vacation. Or maybe it’s because I am tired.

For whatever reason, I am starting to think we need to do some real serious rethinking about economic development in the Maritimes. We have been discussing things and debating ideas but I don’t thing there has been a systematic rethink of what we are doing – process wise – in 20 years.

I don’t think I am up to writing my thinking on these topics but I will post the questions here today and we can work them out over the next few weeks.

And then, as Mike Myers’ Barbra Streisand loving character would say “talk amongst yourselves”.


  • Should local economic development agencies do active ‘seek’ and ‘find’ activities (i.e selling a community as a place to invest in)? My research shows that the average successful IPA (investment promotion agency) will spend between $500,000 and $2,000,000 per successful new investment in a community. And I am not talking about ‘incentives’. I am talking about just the cost of the ‘investment’ group or IPA divided over the number of new investments in a community (like RIM in Halifax or Molson in Moncton). So, using those numbers, on average, a local or regional economic development agency that spends $200,000 per year on ‘seek’ and ‘find’ would take 3 to 10 years to land one project. However, without a strong and successful provincial level IPA, local agencies feel they must do ‘seek’ and ‘find’ and divert resources in that area. Is that a good strategy?
  • Should local economic development agencies (at the prompting of provincial and federal agencies) still spend upwards of 60%-70% of their time and resources promoting ‘small business’ development? Or was this policy promoted back when self-employment was preferred to being unemployed? Has it been successful? My research shows that Ontario has a much better rate of small business success (defined as survival and growth) than New Brunswick despite all the effort and resources put into New Brunswick in this area? Is this the best use of economic development resources?
  • What role should local economic development agencies play in the area of migration and immigration attraction? Aren’t there provincial and federal agencies involved in this?
  • What role should local economic development agencies play in labour market development? Aren’t there whole provincial and federal government agencies doing this?

My central point with these questions is born out of an emerging line of thinking (again maybe driven by tiredness). Namely, if local economic development agencies are spending all their time doing stuff that is more likely aligned with provincial and/or federal mandates, who is doing the stuff that is not the mandate of provincial and/or federal organizations? Stuff like research on the local community and economy or making the business case for the local community or making sure there is a good stock of available real estate or industrial/business parks?

Who is doing what I like to call “product development” at the community level?

I just fear that local economic development agencies are given very little resources and asked to do everything. And at least in some cases nothing gets done well.

What local economic development agencies need, I think, is a well formed and successful IPA at the provincial and/or regional level (or national). Then the local agency takes care of on the ground stuff in the community.

What local economic development agencies need, I think, is a well formed labour market/training/education function at the provincial level and the local agency makes sure there is alignment between local need and provincial strategy.

Essentially, I am starting to think the best local economic development agencies are what I would call catalysts. They bring resources together. They provide a mirror on the local economy and issues of interest. They put the spit and polish to the local brand. They know the local stakeholders in a way no provincial or federal agency ever could. They get things done by marshalling a wide variety of resources – because they are not funded with the millions of dollars to do it themselves.

We will discuss this more, I think, over the next few weeks.