Series to probe Cowichan’s economic future

Economic development is an area of growing interest to local governments across Canada – especially in this age of environmental degradation, increasing income inequality, and scarcity of good jobs.

With limited tools at our disposal, how do we create a healthy and prosperous economy where regular working people and the most vulnerable members of our society – not just a select few – are able to reap the benefits?

Like many other local governments, the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) runs an economic development body that is involved in a range of activities from supporting the agricultural and tourism sectors, to developing a strong regional brand, and attracting and retaining investment.

Established in 2001, Economic Development Cowichan (EDC) has produced a number of impressive studies and strategies, and has raised the profile of certain key industries, with culinary tourism being a prime example.

Yet it has faced intense criticism in recent years, due to its struggles in reporting results, the perception that too many of its studies sit on the shelf collecting dust, and its dysfunctional relationship with the Economic Development Commission – an advisory body set up to provide the CVRD Board with guidance

on economic development policies.

An economic development study prepared for the CVRD earlier this year found "a high level of frustration amongst function participants at all levels stemming from a number of systemic problems, but fundamentally failures to follow Board strategic direction, failures to clarify roles and responsibilities, failures to pursue previously recommended corrective actions, and failure to communicate between the Board, the staff and the Economic Development Commission." Others have argued that Economic Development Cowichan has put too much emphasis on attracting and retaining investment – what many characterize as a boiler plate approach to economic development that essentially puts the outside investor on a white horse – rather than mobilizing resources from within the community through local investment funds, training entrepreneurs to establish

their own businesses, or encouraging local ownership and small firms.

The evidence suggests that small may indeed be beautiful, as the late economist E.F. Schumacher wrote.

To quote the Harvard Business Review, "More small firms means more jobs. Cities relying on a few large nonlocal businesses have slower subsequent job growth than cities with an abundance of small firms."

Now may be the perfect time to shift gears. The CVRD’s economic development function is currently under review, and the newly elected Board is keen on exploring new ideas, having shown a willingness to re-think conventional approaches and consider alternatives.

Earlier this year, the City of Nanaimo’s former Chief Administrative Officer, Jerry Berry, reviewed the governance of our regional economic development function.

They concluded that the CVRD board "has to first consider [its] collective vision for Economic Development…. [and] whether or not the economy and the environment can or should be administratively separated, or should be seen as integrally linked. Sustainability typically means economically, environmentally, socially, and culturally".

Eager to follow through on Berry’s recommendations, board members and their municipal counterparts recently participated in a day-long workshop with leaders of a provincial economic development association to learn about many of the conventional approaches local government has taken towards stimulating their regional economies over the years. Informative? Yes. Inspiring? Not so much judging by the declining attendance as the day wore on.

The CVRD is now in discussions with former B.C. cabinet minister and current Vancity Director Bob Williams to hold an additional workshop that would present a fresh and radically different perspective on community economic development. Williams was one of the key architects in Vancity’s emergence as a powerhouse in community economic development in recent decades, is a well-known advocate for co-operatives and other alternative business models, and has developed a sophisticated vision on reviving B.C.’s forest industry by de-centralizing control of our forests and lands (and perhaps water) to the regional level.

So where do we go from here? We would argue that the old approach to economic development has been costly,

frustrating to staff and commission members alike and has produced few metrics that demonstrate any success. A new model is needed – one that is guided by a vision endorsed by municipal leaders; one that empowers citizens and our local businesses; one that respects the environment and leaves enough for future generations; one that allows the most vulnerable of our community to participate in the economy; and one that creates good jobs close to home.

We feel the CVRD should follow Five Big Ideas to guide its future community economic development: Small Business Support, Community Investment Funds, Local Ownership, Anchor Institutions, and Co-operatives.

All have proven effective in other parts of the world, and they could allow us to chart a new course.

Over the coming weeks, we will release a five-part series exploring each of these ideas and suggesting how the CVRD can move forward in creating a more prosperous community where no one is left behind.

Rob Douglas is Director for the CVRD and Councillor for the Municipality of North Cowichan. Roger Hart is a member of the CVRD’s Economic Development and Environment Commissions. The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the CVRD, its Commissions, or the Municipality of North Cowichan.