Strategic & Regional Planning

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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Who’s the Real Expert...?


Ian Duff, Director of Economic Development Consulting
Twitter: @IanDuff583

Below, Ian explores how the combination of the Economic Developer's local insight and the experience of a consultant can lead to a more successful project.


As an Economic Development Consultant I have had the opportunity to see many different communities across Canada and interact with some really great people. That being said, there is one comment I often hear that is somewhat misleading – "Well you must know that, you are the expert…”

Yes, in many respects I am an expert in several areas related to Economic and Community Development and I always do my best to ensure the communities I work with get the best guidance and advice. Yet, often the "you are the expert” comment is related to a very specific community issue or local historical fact. The truth is that while we consultants are knowledgeable in this field: we are not the experts on your community, you are!
Though it may sound strange for a consultant to tell their clients that they are the experts, in reality nobody knows the community better. Often times, when beginning a new project there is a misconception that consultants have the silver bullet solution or that they have access to a magical black box of answers. In truth, the most successful projects heavily involve the client (often Economic Development Officer) and consultant working closely together with the community’s economic stakeholders. The consultant can provide a fresh set of eyes and a wealth of knowledge and experience, particularly in process, while the client can provide local knowledge, connections and facilitate strong two-way communication. Neither is effective on its own and both are required for a truly successful project. 

Taking this approach one step further, it is critical that the EDO (or the local resource) be the face of the majority of economic and community development projects – especially strategies. The community needs to see the EDO as the leader of the project, as the expert and the one who will be responsible for coordinating the implementation of any actions that arise. The consultant is active behind the scenes helping to facilitate the relationship between the community and Economic Development office. The more engaged the EDO is in the project and in the community, the more impressive the results, and hopefully, the more successful in implementation.

In my own experience, I have worked with various clients who have been engaged in the community and project at differing levels. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than working with a client who is engaged both in their community and in their projects. Consultants have a definite role to play through the process as a guide and as a resource but the client (EDO) should never underestimate the value of their contribution to the success of a project. 

So next time the question "Who is the Real Expert?” is asked, remember you are the true expert when it comes to matters affecting your local economy, local businesses and your local community – I am just here to facilitate success. 

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Regional economic cooperation - where to start?

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.

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When is it Time for a New Strategy?

How do you know when it is time for a new community or economic development strategy? Here are a few telltale signs - any one of these should trigger the development of a new strategy.

  1. Your last strategy was completed when faxing was the hot new technology. Or if the strategy is stored in archives, if nobody knows you have one, if you never have had one, or it is around here somewhere.
  2. When the majority of action plans have been implemented or addressed - this typically takes 3-4 years.
  3. When there are significant new opportunities and/or challenges presented in the broader economy, or in your community. For example, what new economic opportunities emerge as a result of newly installed broadband coverage for your entire rural community?
  4. There is a lack of focus or lack of consensus on what the economic or community development priorities are. Perhaps the current strategy has far too many strategic themes and strategies - perhaps it is not strategic at all.
  5. There is confusion, duplication, or worse, competition over who does what amongst your community and/or economic development partners.

My observation over the years is that the single greatest challenge to successful economic development is the lack of focus on a very limited number of opportunities. The process of developing a new strategy should solve all of the above issues and build community momentum and stakeholder support for action-oriented implementation over the next few years.

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Perspective, Hope and Determination - Ingredients for Positive Community Change

Last week I was lending a hand during the Sudbury portion of the Think North ll Summit and was fortunate to catch the opening remarks by New Zealand speaker Stuart Trundle, as well as Ireland's John Gallagher. I was literally captivated by their enthusiastic and straight forward approach to regional and community economic development. Their messages were more than just moving, but extremely powerful, to say the least.

Stuart Trundle, Venture Taranaki Trust's chief executive, is responsible for leading the New Zealand regional economic development agency. During Stuart's presentation, he positioned Venture Taranaki Trust as a very progressive and aggressive economic development agency that focuses on getting only the best individuals to be part of the team - there are no compromises in terms of the best talent.

Speaking to a diverse crowd of Northern Ontario economic development stakeholders, the one aspect of Stuart's commentary that really hit home were his observations on Isolation being a Matter of Perspective. Often, one thinks of Northern Ontario communities as being isolated or distant from their markets, but compared to Taranaki, New Zealand (where cows outnumber residents 7 to 1 and whose closest neighbor is Antarctica), Northern Ontario is relatively strategic and only a short hop to most major North American markets.

Stuart is a tough act to follow, but WYG International's John Gallagher simply picked up on Stuart's energy and the audience's attentiveness. Although based in Ireland, John works around the globe to assist communities in understanding how they can develop to their fullest potential. John relayed stories of three separate communities in Africa and Bosnia, with a few people that had enough hope and determination to completely change their community circumstances. Using storytelling to get his message across, John told Three Stories, which took place over a period of Three Years that focused on the efforts, insights and sheer determination of Three People in each community. Three People made a tremendous difference in each of their communities. In the end, the actions and success of Three People was based on the hope that they could make their communities significantly better. I am not sure if it was the message that was delivered by John or his graceful storytelling abilities, or just his Irish accent, but his message of hope and daring to dream big definitely hit the mark - as long as there is hope and determined people willing take action, any community can achieve greatness.
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Boosting Your Community's 'Globility' Factor

No matter the year or the decade, success boils down to LEADERSHIP - the ability to partner effectively for positive change. As communities across the globe are experiencing phenomenal game-changing circumstances affecting the economic, social, and environmental conditions we live in, the call for such leadership has never been greater.

Perhaps one of the more prolific game-changers has been the growing dispersion and adoption of information and communications technologies. This great global connector is enabling people and companies to locate just about anywhere in the world. And while communities once competed on cost for becoming a community of choice, today they compete on "quality of place" considerations. However, such considerations are not community-based but regional in nature. Therefore, a community's "globility" - that is, the ability to survive and thrive in the global marketplace - depends upon the ability to think, act, and compete regionally.

In recognition of this, the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario 2011 aims to foster exciting and groundbreaking partnerships among northern community and business leaders as they engage in regional strategic planning for economic development. In support of these endeavors, McSweeney & Associates reviewed 24 examples of regional programs from Canada as well as Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. A review of these examples and others reveals a myriad of value propositions for undertaking a regional approach to economic development, including but not limited to:

  • Fosters a unified regional voice, identity, and brand.
  • Enables communities to play in a world economy where regions (not individual communities) compete effectively.
  • Strengthens existing industry competitiveness through access to other industry members and regional resources.
  • Facilitates high-performance regions based on leveraging the collective regional strengths and assets where local communities share in the regional wealth and prosperity.
  • Creates a sustainable partnership framework for working together and acting strategically.
  • Enables communities to build their relationship capital with people beyond their borders - critical for surviving in a world where such relationships are only growing in importance.
  • Develops a "neutral ground" for sharing knowledge and making joint decisions to address regional and local matters.
  • Infuses local decision making with timely, relevant, and intelligence-based information affecting the region.
  • Provides additive (as opposed to subtractive) value as it does not require local communities to give up their individuality, identity, or plans.
  • Empowers communities to "do more with less" and to undertake previously impossible efforts, or those they could not do on their own.
  • Fosters more efficient allocation of efforts, programs, deployment of resources, etc. and less duplication and associated unnecessary costs.
  • Creates a stronger "sense of community" among people throughout the region - which fosters "staying power" among residents and businesses and is attractive to future investors.

Every community - no matter the size - has the potential to grow new firms, support existing industries, and attract new investment dollars. However, the fundamental truth is that their ability to be competitive for economic activities depends upon the partnerships and relationships they build regionally.


Joy Wilkins is a frequent advisor, speaker, instructor, and author on economic development, strategic planning, and quality management topics. Currently, she is serving as a Senior Fellow with The University of Georgia's Fanning Institute when she contributes to the organization's efforts in leadership development and community capacity building. Previously, she served as Group Manager for Community Innovation Services at Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute. A Certified Economic Developer, Joy serves as a member of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Board of Directors and has served in the economic development profession since 1994.

Joy is collaborator and contributor to various McSweeney & Associates projects, and recently provided a significant contribution to a report prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry on best practices in regional economic strategic planning.

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