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Community and Regional Development: Plan Alone, Die Alone

by | Jul 11, 2022 | Community Development, Economic Development

When English poet John Donne wrote No Man is an Island in the 17th Century, he probably wasn’t thinking about rural North America in the 21st. And it’s safe to say he didn’t have community collaboration and regional development in mind but his sentiments on life’s interconnectivity is as timeless as it is boundless.

If no person is an island, neither is a municipality.

We often like to think our success is entirely of our own making, but it never is. We belong to a society and we leverage our networks in order to find success. If it wasn’t for other people we would just be lonely individuals wandering in the woods trying to survive. We succeed and prosper because of others. The same is true for communities. And that has never been truer than it is today in a world dominated by computers, the Internet, and virtual relationships.

In the community setting, as we try to make our community better, there is a sense of “we.” As in, we have to all work together, but what do we mean by “we”?

Sometimes the terms “we” or “us” means only the people who think like we do, or live in our community, or share our common interest. Regardless, it is clear to me the reason we choose not to work with others is because we don’t include them in our sense of “us” or “we.”

A century ago, the term “we” referred to the people in our municipal boundaries. Those municipal boundaries were drawn up because that’s how far a politician could ride a horse to see all of their constituents in one day.

Honestly, criss-crossing a five-mile municipality on horseback, chatting with stakeholders, neighbours and constituents along the way, meant a very full and tiring day. Even in the 1980s, my grandpa on the farm didn’t know what was happening in our hometown which was only a mile away. 

But the world has changed dramatically. Thanks to technology I can see what is happening in Ukraine in real time. The evolution has been swift and profound.

A century ago, we were competing with our neighbours across municipal boundaries but now we’re competing with the rest of the world. Yet, most municipalities focus much of their budget and time on the regular operations of the municipality, not on community and regional development. That’s understandable. Most municipalities have little or no budget left over for significant efforts in economic development or marketing. In fact, challenges to our budgets are taking away our opportunity to do beautification and general infrastructure investments to keep our municipalities viable.

And yet, we refuse to work with our neighbours to find economic efficiencies and expand our reach. Even on the odd occasion when municipalities do work together, they do it under the guise of saving money and lowering taxes instead of strategically investing the savings to grow their economy and enlarge their economic pie. I have even met municipalities that proclaim they are focused on economic development and yet the amount of the budget they have that goes towards economic development is paltry at best. Economic development, if you have read some of our other columns, is not just about having the lowest taxes or the least number of regulations. It requires strategic and tactical investments to build the quality of life, which attracts a workforce, which you can then market to businesses and industries that want to invest in places where people want to live.

In 2018, the independent political forum, Boston Review, published a research paper entitled, A Modern Case for Regional Collaboration, that acknowledged the challenges of cooperation. “Thinking and acting regionally is important but notoriously difficult,” said the paper’s authors who listed some of the obstacles to community and regional development, including the need to modernize local transportation networks, connect employers to qualified workers and help create a variety of housing options. “No single mayor or leader can effectively move these levers,” concluded the paper.

Importantly, it also pointed to a scenario even worse than not working together: having neighbouring jurisdictions work against each other. “To start, jurisdictions that go it alone to expand their economies can make things worse, often at taxpayers’ expense. In metropolitan Kansas City, for example, Kansas and Missouri have used tax incentives to lure companies a mile or two over the state border. As a result, taxpayers in both states are estimated to have lost out on at least $217 million in tax revenue while very few new jobs have been created for the metro area as a whole.”

The paper may have focused on a major urban centre but the importance of cooperation is universal no matter the size of your community: “A similar thing happens when sales-dependent jurisdictions green-light a new shopping center to raise local revenue; often, they are simply shifting consumer spending from one jurisdiction to the other, leaving empty stores and distressed neighborhoods in their wake. This jobs-poaching undercuts trust between leaders and makes each jurisdiction both the perpetrator and victim of a zero-sum growth strategy. In contrast, a coordinated regional economic development effort can ‘grow the pie’ by helping existing firms in each jurisdiction innovate and expand, spurring entrepreneurship, and limiting competition over incentive-driven business-attraction deals.”

But we are creatures of habit and if our default position is to go it alone, working together often scares us as municipal leaders. And that fear is often translated to the public. People fear the loss of their community’s identity, even the loss of their community’s name. They worry their taxes will go up, or their services will go down, and their imagination conjures up a host of other fears that are frankly irrational. Communities that haven’t worked together and remain isolated, are the ones at greatest risk of losing their identity, dissolving, having taxes go up, and services go down.

Even businesses and industries have learned how important it is to work together. It gives them a competitive advantage and allows them to leverage each other’s strengths to make them stronger overall. Too many elected officials allow their egos to get in the way of collaborative efforts that can help each municipality become stronger.

But the best way to escape stagnation and to create strong community and regional development is to embrace cooperation.

In 2012, Michigan State University published an article under the headline, Many local governments in Michigan work together. There are solid reasons why this trend will continue, that outlined several of the reasons for cooperation: build economies of scale; pool resources to provide better services; avoid win-lose situations where one community wins at the expense of another.

“While many of us prefer to be self-sufficient in many ways, the reality is that nearby units of government are not islands,” said the article, echoing my own feelings and John Donne’s poem. “Economic activity, social connections, and governmental decisions occurring in nearby municipalities have an impact on our own municipality.”

The article also resurrected an historic piece of wisdom: “‘The most practical solution to the multiplicity of future problems facing municipalities lies in cooperative action among local governments.’ This wise piece of advice from ‘Public Management News’ sounds like it might be a recent quote. Turns out this isn’t such a new idea; it was published in April 1942.”

Indeed, no municipality is an island. You cannot prosper while your neighbours perish. But as I say in so many of my presentations, if you are afraid to work with your neighbours then go ahead and remain fiercely independent, and your community will die . . . Alone.