Community Economic Development Consulting: What is it and why do we do it? On May 9, the Empire-Advance newspaper in Manitoba published a story about me and 13 Ways Inc. under the headline, “Griffiths gives Town of Virden and citizens four years of homework.”
While I chuckled at calling our Strategic Plan for the Town of Virden “homework,” I had to admire the sense of purpose and pride that the community, and surrounding area, demonstrated during my presentation to them at the local community hall. More than 150 people turned out to discuss the 13 Ways blueprint to, as the newspaper article described it, “enhance and develop Virden as a destination, a place for business and a town with a high quality of living.”
I talked to residents about four key areas: Business Growth and Prosperity, Communication, Socialization and Quality Services. For Virden, that meant revitalizing the downtown core with brew pubs, coffee shops and year-round events. I even mentioned something as workaday sounding as landscaping, pointing out that the trees that do so much to beautify Virden’s residential streets are strangely missing downtown.
I have high hopes for Virden, not just because of its compelling history (the “Oil Capital of Manitoba”), its wonderful atmosphere, and its strategic location at the junction of Highways 83 and the Trans-Canada, but because of the enthusiasm of the citizens who took the time to participate in our strategic plan analysis. “I have never been to an event that had this big a turnout for a strategic plan,” I told them (as quoted in the Empire-Advance). “You have everything going that can make sure your community is prosperous. That’s what your council brought us in for, to put the plan in place that they can implement to make this happen.”
They truly are focused on becoming the “Centre of It All”.
This is what we at 13 Ways call, “Community Economic Development Consulting.” At one point, 13 Ways used to offer separate strategies for our clients: one economic development and the other community development. That was a holdover from the days when people would move to where the jobs were located. It made sense to create an economic strategy separate from a community building plan. Not anymore. Nowadays, the jobs move to where people want to live. Consequently, civic leaders need to build an inclusive and vibrant community where residents enjoy an unequalled quality of life. Only then will your economic development efforts make sense.
So, we have merged the economic and development strategies into one holistic package that we call Community Economic Development Consulting.
Having said that, too many communities still approach economic development in a generic manner. At 13 Ways, we ask our clients what they need to do to be successful. The usual response is something like, “We need 10 more families and three more businesses to come here, right away.” That sounds wonderful, except that after we ask them what kinds of businesses they want, or where those families should come from, they can never answer the question. That leads to the inevitable follow-up question: How can you ever attract new people or new businesses if you don’t know who or what you want?
If you don’t ask yourself that question, you’ll end up with economic development strategies that are generic and mundane. They amount to putting all of the information about your worthy community on a website and on a brochure – and then waiting passively for someone to find you. Your community will become just one more tree in a forest hoping to be noticed.
Even if a business does notice you, you have to ask yourself this question: is it the right business for my community? All communities are unique with distinctive strengths. You need to build upon that and make it a special place where people want to live and invest. That means you must build a brand special to your community, one for which you will be known and appreciated. You need to understand what that brand is and how you can leverage it to your advantage.
This means understanding your community better.
In partnership with Avista Utilities that delivers electricity and natural gas to 400,000 customers in the northwestern United States, 13 Ways developed a community needs assessment report based on an extensive survey of rural communities in Idaho and Washington states. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study that started in December of 2019 was not ready for discussion until May of this year, but as Paul Kimmell, regional business manager with Avista, told the Grangeville City Council meeting on May 2, the results of the public survey are still “very valuable and relevant.”
An article published in the Idaho County Free Press, quoted Kimmell as saying people “love the feel of Grangeville” where residents are safe and support each other during hardships.
The story went on to say citizens “like the nearby outdoor amenities, the public facilities (such as the ski course and active senior center), and its community events (such as Winter Magic park lighting and Border Days), that it is a clean town with a slower pace, and local leadership is doing what is best for the community overall.”
But there were issues requiring attention, too, specifically jobs and housing, the need for more retail outlets and restaurants, a daycare centre, and programs for children before and after school. To address these concerns, citizens expressed an interest in community meetings, prompting Kimmell to suggest a regular Saturday morning coffee klatch for residents.
Inspiring people to buy into the process and encouraging ongoing discussions within the community are crucial components of building a stronger community and economy. Echoing the 13 Ways credo to keep a positive outlook and pursue opportunities for growth, Kimmell told local councillors that “Grangeville is a great community” that is facing its challenges head on: “Look at them as opportunities, not as problems, and you’ll be able to fix them.”
This is what we at 13 Ways do. We help our clients develop their strengths and overcome their weaknesses through Community Economic Development Consulting. Sometimes it’s the 13 Ways team on its own, other times it’s in collaboration with organizations like Avista. But the most important partnership is always the one we have with our clients.
And there is nothing more satisfying to me and my team than seeing a community flourish.
Two examples of communities having great success include one that has focused on a beautiful main street, walkability, and ice cream shops, while the other has focused on its heritage and colourful murals that attract people from the cities for a unique day of history and shopping. Each community has found ways to identify itself as a stand-out attractive destination.
Not every business that might come to these communities would compliment their motif and their brand. If their strategy was simply to welcome any business that’s willing to put down roots, what appears at first to be economic growth might backfire by interrupting their unique momentum. By being choosy, they can more readily attract businesses that will compliment their brand. They know exactly what kind of business they are going after. They are fishing using a spear gun, not a net. Success will build upon success.
Your first response to that might be, “But we’re desperate. We just need something to come here. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.” That reaction, that mindset, is understandable but erroneous. You can in fact be choosy. It sounds counterintuitive, but the more desperate your economic circumstance, the more choosy you should be. You need to figure out what one or two particular businesses are best suited for your community. Then, work out a plan to attract them – and go get them. As I pointed out earlier, simply distributing a glossy brochure, or setting up a complicated website, is not going to attract anyone. Don’t wait for the game to come to you, go on the hunt.
It’s the same with housing. So many communities have an economic development strategy focused on building a subdivision. But as I’ve said a hundred times, subdivisions are dead. Everyone from Generation Z to semi-retirees are looking for different kinds of housing in real, authentic neighbourhoods where there is plenty to do. Fewer and fewer people are choosing a four bedroom, three bathroom, two-car garage on the outskirts of town where they have to drive to get anywhere or do anything. The classic dream of a house with a white picket fence is no longer affordable for younger generations and it’s no longer sustainable because of environmental and agricultural issues. When civic leaders say they want to attract 10 families to their community by building a subdivision, they are invoking a lazy and misguided approach to economic development that may have worked when your parents or grandparents were raising a family. It won’t work anymore.
For communities wanting to grow in the 21st Century, it’s a self-defeating fallacy to think there are numerous families driving around looking for a patch of land on which to build a house. Even if you were to imagine that kind of family exists, where do you think these people would be coming from to build a house in a subdivision? Well, they’d probably be coming from a town where they already live, where their kids are already in school, and where they already have a job. Why would they pick up and move to your town just because you have a vacant lot or recently built house in a subdivision? Fact is, they won’t.
A better strategy for economic development is building diversity and affordability into your housing strategy. If you want young families in your community, why not attract young couples or single people first? They are looking for one-, two- and three-bedroom condominiums or apartments that they can rent. In fact, an entire younger generation has little desire to buy a house anymore. They are looking for flexibility and mobility in their choices, so they’re looking to rent first – and maybe for a long time.
In 2019, the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington D.C. released a report entitled Foot Traffic Ahead that argued against building more subdivisions in favour of more walkable neighbourhoods.
“For the last 70 years, governments at all levels have been heavily subsidizing sprawling, drive-only development, pushing housing, office, and retail further afield into the fringes of metro areas,” said the report. “But new research throws the utility of such investments into question by showing that walkable urban places – the kinds of places that people built for hundreds of years before the advent of the automobile – are not only the economic powerhouses of the United States, but they’re also more socially equitable (compared to the driveable sub-urban areas in most metro areas).”
The same can be said for Canada.
Thankfully, the economic development strategies of yesterday are evolving to match the reality of today. But too many communities are moving too slowly. They continue to build another subdivision thinking it will attract people. They lower taxes and reduce regulations hoping that will attract businesses. Yet, as we’ve seen in community upon community around North America, it’s not working. The paradigm has shifted. The world has changed. People have different expectations and different needs. Economic development strategies of the future need to focus on building great communities that people want to live in, with robust and vibrant centres, with lots of activities and opportunities to socialize, with diversified housing that has affordability for all types of people.
Begin that evolution and you can then start to sell what you’re building, to attract targeted businesses that complement the type of community you’re working to create. It’s a cliché but one worth repeating: Build it and they will come. They will come because they know their business will be a great fit for your community and will prosper. Then comes the knock-on effect. You will see bigger businesses and industries begin to show up because you have a diversified workforce of people who want to live in that community, not just make a buck and leave.
That is what Community Economic Development Consulting in this day and age looks like. That is what we at 13 Ways do with our community clients, our partners in growth. Development strategies have changed, and to be successful you will need to change, too.