March 2017

Observations from a First Year Economic Developer

As an Economic Development practitioner in the private sector, I have been privileged to see economic development in its many forms at the local municipal level. From big oil, to agricultural, or small-tourism based economies, the art of economic development differs immensely depending on your starting point. Identifying the ideal future community should be a precursor to setting economic development goals.

One clear cut lesson from my time spent analysing economic trends is that the current economies have resulted at least partially from past economic development efforts.  Planning economic growth requires that a community recognize what its current competitive position is, and takes the opportunity to collectively envision its medium to long term desired future. The strategies should aim to leverage current assets and expertise in the communities to create a diversified and sustainable economy.

So, in brief, my three observations from my first year in economic development are:

1) There is no one best practice economic development strategy (or strategies) - the nature of actions required depends upon where a community stands in its course of development, amongst other things.

2) Because economic development is an integral component of community development, it is crucial for a community to map out its ideal future, and then use economic development to support the achievement of that vision.

3) As every community has many assets and opportunities, there is no reason to tie its future to a single employer or industry: Diversification is the key to sustainability.

Juliana Serje, MSc Econ has completed her first year as McSweeney & Associates’ Data, Information and Communications Specialist.  Juliana’s work for the firm includes the analysis and presentation of data, trends, industry sector information, economic programs and socio-economic material. Juliana holds a Baccalaureate of Arts in Economics and a MSc. in Economics.

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Economic Development is a Contact Sport!

You’re not likely to break a leg or wind up on the disabled list but high numbers of high quality contacts are critical to your success. I have a great memory, but it’s short so I’ve learned a few tricks. 

I was told that economic developers tend to know two or three times as many people as the average person. By itself that’s not a big advantage – just more names and faces to remember. The key thing is to associate a person with the right assets and attributes. 

As an economic developer, your success and reputation are dependent on your ability to connect people with others who can solve their need or opportunity. Other than a photographic memory, what can you do to improve your contact game? 

You can start with networking skills to identify leaders in various fields but again, that gets confusing unless you can save and store that information in a contact database until you need it. Although cumbersome, use as many fields as possible so that you can search on more than just a name (for the good but short memory).

Consider a client relationship management system (CRM) for you and your community. My colleagues and I use Executive Pulse for our BR&E projects but it has much more utility than just to support a BR&E project. In addition to surveys, you can save details about issues, needs, products and services that can make you look like a genius when you find and connect local businesses that can help one another. You will also have done your community a service in documenting local knowledge, insights and services provided by local businesses. Your client businesses will be happy because you’ve remembered important things about them.  

Contact sports don’t need to result in injuries if you play the game right and have the right equipment and technology to play like a star.


Art Lawson B.Sc, M.Sc, Ec.D is a McSweeney Economic Development Associate Consultant and pioneer in community economic development, having made Ontario one of the leading jurisdictions in the world for bottom-up economic strategic planning and development.  He established the regional team system for economic development programs and services to small urban and rural communities for the Province of Ontario and led their award-winning BR&E program in over 100 communities, enabling local retention and development of 1000’s of jobs.


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How Resilient is Your Community?

A lot of municipalities are talking about resiliency and diversification right now, but what defines resilience and how does a community achieve it? 

Essentially, resilience is measured by a community’s ability to recover from a downturn or shock. That shock could be economic such as: a general downturn in the economy; closure of a major employer; or macro-economic transition to a non-traditional economic base (e.g. assembly plants to knowledge-based advanced manufacturing). 

Shock could equally be a shock delivered by Mother Nature such as Southern Alberta’s 2013 floods; The Beast that hit Fort Mac last year; or Goderich, Ontario’s 2011 tornado.  All can be devastating for local businesses, residents and the local Council. 

The bottom-line is: How quickly can you recover?   The ability to react quickly is closely related to

  1. The historic flexibility of a community
  2. Preparedness: how well Council and staff have anticipated and planned their social, economic and physical infrastructure for risk events.

In today’s economy, the communities that survive and thrive have:

  • An attractive, desirable environment with quality infrastructure, services and amenities for families, newcomers and visitors;
  • A diversified economy that doesn’t rely on one sector and is resistant to economic shocks;
  • A business-friendly Council and administration that is proactive in helping existing and new businesses thrive;
  • A workforce with the skills required by employers, and a willingness to learn and be trained;
  • An engaged Chamber of Commerce and other business groups; 
  • A up to date asset database that recognizes physical, economic, and social strengths;
  • Attraction(s) and a unique selling proposition (USP) for each specific target audience: residents, visitors and investors;
  • Current, practiced, and understood emergency planning, and most importantly:
  • A strategic plan of how to make that happen!


Follow future blogs on: Planning for Resiliency; Community Case Study in Resiliency

Shawna Lawson (Stonehouse) BComm (UofA), MSc (Planning), EcD is a McSweeney Economic Development Associate Consultant, responding to the particular needs smaller municipalities that require economic and community development services.  Shawna has worked with communities in Ontario, Alberta, the U.K. and Asia towards economic sustainability.  


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The Lost Craft: Municipal Industrial Land Development

Across Canada, we are observing an alarming and disturbing trend relating to the lack of shovel-ready employment/industrial lands. How have we arrived at this situation?

In “earlier times”, economic developers across Canada were actively and competitively engaged in ensuring the provision of sufficient lands to accommodate business growth and investment. Somehow, this craft seems to have faded in prominence. The lack of attention to this economic development foundation has resulted in too many communities being unable to compete for investment (while the price of land skyrockets).

Those that have dedicated time and resources have had sweet benefits. One client’s total land and infrastructure investment in one industrial park was $1 M, with sales to date of $3 M (20 acres remaining) generating annual taxes of $1.6 M, and creating 686 jobs to date.  The experience of another recent client:

  • Over 11 years, an annual average of 351,000 square feet of industrial building space was constructed, consuming an average of 54 acres annually;
  • Developments on municipally developed lands over a period of 16 years now annually generate in excess of $12 M in taxes, retaining 1,836 jobs, and creating 3,659 new jobs.

Follow my blog series - which I hope will help rekindle some of the lost craft of developing municipal industrial land as we address topics such as:

  • Where do I start? How do I even begin the discussion of the need with Council? Why do I as an economic developer have to do it anyways? Why isn’t the private sector doing it?
  • Do I have the skills? Can I do this? Trepidations of an economic developer getting engaged in land development.
  • What is my market demand? 
  • What’s my supply? How much supply is enough? Break it down, what do we really have? What if we build it and nobody comes?
  • Some options for public-private cooperation
  • Industrial subdivision planning - what are you trying to achieve?
  • Do all industrial parks need to be fully serviced?

In addition to his international and Canadian economic development certifications, Eric McSweeney is an Accredited Land Consultant (ALC) and a Commercial Investment Member (CCIM). He has completed land development related projects for more than two dozen communities, and has developed and sold more than $20M of business park lands. One of his innovative public-private land development projects has been published in the International Economic Development Council Journal.   

"McSweeney & Associates demonstrated a considerable flexibility and adaptability to ever-changing circumstances while undertaking a complex industrial land business case analysis, and was able to make strong recommendations tailored to our environment."

Jean-Marc Lacasse, Manager of Economic Development, City of Chestermere

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