12 learning moments at #EDAC14

The annual conference of the Economic Development Association of Canada (EDAC) was held in Calgary in September 2014. Here are some of the highlights of information that I learned.

1. Lower dollar, business lacks enthusiasm: Quarter after quarter, Canadian banks predict that the economy will pick up and it hasn’t in any solid way, said Todd Hirsch of ATB Financial, the largest Alberta-based financial institution. Exports and business investment lack enthusiasm in Canada, but 2015 will be a better year for the Canadian economy, with 2.5 to 3% GDP growth. The International Monetary Fund predicts that Canada will be Number 2 in growth in 2015, after the United Kingdom. The U.S. economy is growing at a faster rate than Canada’s, which means the U.S. will raise its interest rates before Canada does. Hirsch predicts the Canadian dollar will drop to the 87 to 89 cent range in 2015. The fundamentals of the Canadian economy aren’t bad, Hirsch explained, and the Canadian dollar will not go into a free fall, as some have predicted.

Drumheller street

Drumheller embraces its dinosaurs (see #10)

2. Talented workers will move to loved communities: Place matters more than ever to the success of community economic development, according to Dr. Katherine Loflin, who spoke about “place-making” and the drivers behind it. Her research demonstrates that it’s not good enough any more that residents are satisfied living in a community. In order to attract younger, highly skilled talent, communities need to nurture a “commitment to place”, a multidisciplinary attachment. Your community must become the place no one ever wants to leave. Key drivers to place-making include social offerings (so people feel emotionally invested in a community), openness (welcoming to all vs. tolerant to specific groups), and aesthetics (how well a community can show off itself). Dr Loflin explained that the civility of a community’s citizens is critical to attracting new people. She also said that municipal budget cuts tend to affect place-making efforts first, which can leave a negative impression to newcomers.

3. Trade across the border is getting easier: Canada and the U.S. are making good progress on the joint Border Infrastructure Investment Plan (BIIP), according to William Sproull, Chair of the Governance Committee of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). Given that Canada exports more goods to Michigan than to the European Union, it is about time. Trusted Traveler and Trusted Trader Programs are moving forward, as well as other Beyond the Border deliverables.

Calgary Fly-Drive promo

A fly-drive vacation promoted to U.K. visitors (Source: Frontier Canada)

4. Connect your community to the nearest airport: The Vice President of the Calgary Airport Authority, Stephan Pourier, inspired me to consider how to best to connect our community to airports. He explained that YYC is the third largest airport in Canada, thanks to an 80-year lease with government and $2.5 billion in private investment. Development of cargo and freight forwarding services has also encouraged the construction of 3 million square feet of industrial space on the airport lands.

5. Performance measures are more important than ever: Justin Riemer, Assistant Deputy Minister of Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education reminded us that when it comes to economic development, “outcome attribution is assumed, not proven.” He promoted the concept that policy can have a bigger impact than marketing, that sunset clauses should be placed on government programs to avoid creating dependencies. He reminded us that communities should limit the number of metrics used to measure economic development, and performance measures should reflect the goals and vision of the organization.

Nenshi Billboard

Calgary Mayor Nenshi wants senior governments to give back some of what they take from municipalities (Photo: design.ca)

6. Fiscal imbalance among governments needs to be fixed: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi reminded the audience that Calgary sends $4 billion more in tax revenue to the Province of Alberta than it receives in services. He berated senior levels of government for not fixing the fiscal imbalance that exists for all cities and towns. The flood in Calgary proved to Mayor Nenshi that local government is the most important and relevant level of government to everyday citizens. He applauded the 20,000 workers at the City for their hard work, professionalism and dedication, adding “our job is made easier by the quality of the people we serve.”

7. Be likeable and trustworthy: Wealthy Barber Dave Chilton, who also appears on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, told stories about small business people and entrepreneurs who have become successful. “People like to deal with people they like and trust,” he explained, adding he believes in “the importance in life of being nice” to others. Chilton complained that increasingly people opt to be voluntarily in a bad mood. He said people have lost the ability to discriminate between a minor inconvenience and a major problem. Canadians have never been healthier and wealthier, and our nation is the best place to live. He reminded us that although we complain about our health care system, we are living longer than ever before, even if don’t exercise or eat properly. “If you are healthy and you are Canadian, it doesn’t get any better.”

8. Connect your college to your community: A panel, including the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, discussed the return on investment in post-secondary communities. One panelist encouraged us to talk about “citizens” not “taxpayers”. “If we don’t see the importance of growing citizens, no one else will.” Citizens look at themselves as sharing with others and giving back to their community. Taxpayers are simply consumers of public services and expect the lowest possible cost. The positive example was also raised, about a business group in St. Catharines that invites international students to breakfast to introduce them to local business leaders.

9. Be careful with P3s: A panel about private-public partnerships reminded us that P3s are not the magic bullet for community infrastructure. Martin Gordon, Senior Vice President of Opus International, urged communities to ensure that they clearly define the level of service of a facility which will be privately built and operated. “Incentivize the project so that the private sector is a long-term good asset steward,” he explained. Threshold participation in P3s is about $25 million for a building and $100 million for a large portfolio project. Smaller communities were warned to be prepared to put forward the time, resources and expertise into a project upfront, to avoid catastrophe later. Even if a community project does not develop into a P3, at least the exercise of scoping out a P3 can help a municipality understand the sustainable service level for a project, and to help reduce the infrastructure gap.

10. Dinosaurs don’t get old: Drumheller relies on dinosaur fossils for its tourism industry, which represents 27% of employment in the town, according to its tourism master plan. Natural gas is also a key employer. The Royal Tyrrell Museum (Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of palaeontology) contributed $36.2 million to Alberta’s GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), sustained 719 person-years of employment and generated nearly $14 million in tax revenues. Downtown, kids climb over fiberglas statues of dinosaurs and restaurants serve Dinosaur Pizza (hint: heavy in protein). At the tourist info centre, you can even climb up a huge dinosaur and look around the town. Kudos to a community that has embraced an authentic theme, turning it into an economic success.

Bike locker

Bike locker in Canmore, Alberta

11. We can always do more to welcome cyclists: Just when we thought installing a few bicycle racks in our towns was a major step forward to welcoming cyclists, other communities are already way out in front. Canmore, a small community between Calgary and Banff, is a leading light in cycling infrastructure. Expensive pedal bikes can be secured in low-profile lockers in the public parking lot, beside the washrooms. Nearby, a free, public bike maintenance stand offers wrenches and compressed air for cyclists. Local trail infrastructure is also world-class, and the scenery is gorgeous.

12. When you network with your peers, everyone learns: Whether you represent a mountain town reliant on ski tourism or a rural agricultural county, there is something to be learned from getting together.

The EDAC Conference was an educational, productive exercise that will help many communities do better in the future.