Many municipalities struggle with the same economic development challenges, especially if they are located in a similar geographic area. Although it offers many benefits, regional economic cooperation is not always easy to start or sell to stakeholders. So what is the best way to get the ball rolling? First let's take a brief look at some of the benefits and challenges.
First of all, regional economic cooperation offers the following major economic benefits:
- As a whole, there is more to sell - When municipalities work cooperatively, each one brings its own assets and strengths to the table. As such, the whole package offered to outsiders is larger, more varied, and increasingly attractive than would be the package offered by a single municipality working alone. It is also believed that businesses and consumers consider the region first before an actual municipality when making location or investment decisions - another reason to sell the region as a whole.
- Sharing resources - By pooling resources (financial, human, etc.), cooperating municipalities can expand their economic development initiatives. The previously limited resources of the municipality when acting alone are now increased, allowing them to pursue larger and higher impact initiatives, and in markets not previously accessible.
- Economies of scale - In many situations, it is not efficient for each municipality in a given region to deliver all of its own economic development services (leading to unnecessary duplication of efforts). By cooperating regionally, more can be done with the existing inputs.
- Networking potential - By working through an expanded network, you will become much more aware of opportunities, learn from other people's experiences, better understand the varying interests in your region, and allow you to better align your efforts with those of other municipalities.
However, regional economic cooperation does also have some challenges. These include:
- Politics - Political (and sometimes organizational) leadership structures often impede cooperation. By defining an undeniable mutual benefit from cooperation, politics can be overcome.
- A culture of independence and self-sufficiency - Many organizations feel that they can do things best on their own of that help from others is not required; however, by working together greater results can be achieved by all parties.
- Resistance to change/fear of failure - In order to combat the resistance to working with former competing regional partners, it is important to define a clear and compelling benefits-based call to action in order to win them over.
- Focusing on the wrong things - The focus of the cooperation should be on bettering the region as a whole, not on narrow or limiting goals such as developing real estate or supporting businesses. It is also important that it be recognized that prosperity for the region is less likely to be achieved through traditional economic development approaches and that innovative, outside-the-box thinking is required.
So, where does one start when considering regional economic cooperation? Here are some tips to get you on your way:
- Start small - Often the trust does not exist within a region to start with a large project such as a regional strategic plan. Start with a project that has broad support, and use that project to open the lines of communication and to build trust.
- Define your region - This is the tough part, and there is no singular right answer. In order for regional cooperation to be effective however, it is essential that the involved municipalities are faced with similar challenges and opportunities. In addition, the defined region must be geographically reasonable, and the local leaders must be willing.
- Set-up the framework - Identify a high-profile champion to lead. Make the decision-making process and expectations clear to all from the start.
- Ensure effective leadership - The leadership should have vision and influence. In addition, they should be able to facilitate meetings, promote and lead discussions, mediate and mitigate conflicts, create a neutral playing field, organize ideas, keep participants informed and engaged, keep the discussion relevant, and push the collective effort towards resolution.
- Communicate the process widely - From the beginning, ensure the process is transparent and communicated to both stakeholders and the public. Involve everyone early and often, ensure updates are communicated regularly.
Ultimately, the key to regional economic cooperation is to start talking - with colleagues, counterparts in other municipalities, and key stakeholders. Build the excitement and the support for cooperation. And once momentum is created, ensure it is maintained. Make regional economic cooperation a priority long-term initiative - and stick to it.
Remember what the economy looked like on May 13, 2006? That was the date of the last Canadian census for which we have published results... before a very significant decline in North American and Canadian manufacturing... before the auto manufacturing crisis, bailout, restructuring and subsequent recovery... before the collapse of the forestry sector... when gold hitting $700/ounce had pundits predicting a collapse in gold prices - ha!
So what relevance does 2006 data have as a descriptor of your current local economy? Not much, but yet the majority of economic development websites and profiles provide 2006 data!
Small wonder site selectors listed stale data as their top frustration when you think about the magnitude of changes in every economy since 2006!
But wait, the 2011 census data is coming - yes, it will slowly dribble out in 2012, and already a year old and in the "stale" category in terms of site selector needs for current year data.
So what is the solution? Reliable data estimates from reputable data mining companies. And how do you pick a reputable data mining company? Look for:
- Data specialists: their only business is data, and their reputation and repeat business depends on it;
- Depth of data mining: how many sources of data are utilized in the preparation of data values - How they mine the "gold" trends, correlations, nonlinearities in data to improve accuracy?
- Scope of data variables: Are you getting all the data you need for economic development and site selection purposes, or a small sub-set?
- Qualifications of the "data master": What are the educational and experience qualifications of the person(s) behind the data modelling? What is the sophistication and cross-reliability of data modelling? Whether their methodologies are related to your business objectives?
Fortunately, in our quest to offer only the highest quality services and recommendations to you, we have completed this research and are pleased to share our conclusions with you. Yes, current year data estimates requires an investment - but it pales in comparison to the cost of one site selector taking a pass because of frustrating stale data, circa 2006.
This is the first of a series of blogs on Economic Development Marketing. Our experience working with Eric and the McSweeney team has introduced us to numerous communities - many of whom seem to face a similar challenge: How do we attract new investment, while retaining our existing businesses? At least a part of the answer: a good marketing plan.
An economic development marketing plan involves three components:
- An assessment of your community's marketing preparedness
- The development of marketing tools, tactics and timing
- Evaluation and refinement
Marketing preparedness is when you compare your current marketing efforts with where you want to be, and confirm the target audiences identified in your economic development strategy. It's also a chance to assess whether your community's brand reflects your new future direction - or whether it needs to be enhanced or refined.
With your marketing preparedness assessment complete, strategies can be developed, tailored to each specific audience. The strategies will outline the 'tools, tactics and timing' necessary to reach your marketing goals. They'll include identifying the right tools and knowing how and when to use them. Of course, tools will include tangible materials and well as media strategies, events and face-to-face selling. Ongoing evaluation and refinement on a regular basis keeps the plan dynamic and fresh.
The finished plan ought to be a fairly dynamic 'road map', identifying what makes your community a unique place to live, work, play and invest in. It serves to guide the actions of staff and allows for measured results. An effective marketing plan is key to directing the effort that will help attract the right investment to your community.
Ontario is generally considered to be the most advanced jurisdiction in Canada - and perhaps including the United States - in Municipal Cultural Planning. Part of the reason for this goes to the Municipal Cultural Planning Inc. (a unique conglomerate of private and public interests that supports and promotes cultural planning and research) and the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
The Ministry has been very supportive of cultural planning, and understands the economic benefits it can bring to local communities. In a unique program, the Ontario Ministry has been providing grants to towns, cities and counties, as well as First Nations and support groups, to undertake cultural planning projects, ranging from mapping to comprehensive community cultural plans. The program is called the Creative Communities Prosperity Fund (CCPF) and is a tremendous success. It is always over-subscribed. The program generally provides up to 80% of the cost for smaller municipalities, and up to 50% of the cost for larger communities.
This program offers brilliant leadership by a government ministry, and to the best of my knowledge is absolutely unique in North America. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ontario is such a leader in municipal cultural planning. This is a program and a concept that other provinces should be considering to assist their own towns and cities to undertake a municipal cultural plan.
GORD HUME. Author of "The Local Food Revolution" and other books. www.gordhume.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org