Economic Development: where’s the state of the art research?

NanaimoCityHall blog commenter sunnydan points out in response to my cranky letter to the Daily News that in the interest of clarity we should define our terms. Quite right:

My definition of economic development goes along these lines: City Hall can and should provide an extremely important service to the city’s and the region’s economic health by acquiring the very best research and expertise that helps identify where our best competitive advantages lie. This is the biggest of the big picture analyses and requires the highest quality input. An analysis would include the research being done by people like Richard Florida who are identifying trends on a regional and global scale upon which sound planning could be based. (Interestingly, he’s called for a moratorium on conference centre and multiplex building. Interesting because his work is based on the emergence of creative, knowledge based industries that you might think would include these kinds of facilities. He’s helped small “bedroom communities” in proximity to cities like Boston turn what they saw as their greatest flaw — the commuting resident base — into an asset.) The smart money bases important decisions on this kind of state of the art research.

In economic development as in so many other areas City Hall and we citizens ourselves, settle for the parochial “we know what’s best for our city” approach and this leads to small influential groups getting themselves very excited about very expensive publicly funded projects.

Is there a sound basis for the development of conference centres, hotels, cruise ship terminals, destination golf courses? I honestly don’t know. There could be — but if City Hall knows they haven’t made the research the strategy is based on public. I’ve been reluctant to accept (but do now) that these developments have gone ahead without any of this expert analysis.

There are competitive advantages to being tucked into an exquisite harbour on the east coast of Vancouver Island an hour or two away from Vancouver and Victoria that are the envy of most small cities in the country. And so many other elements unique to this place. A better understanding of them and how they do or don’t point the way forward should be the basis of our planning. Can it be that the emerging economic giants of southeast Asia offer no opportunity for this little Pacific Coast city? Are we way over-invested in tourism and retiring boomers from Saskatoon?

City Hall’s EDO or Economic Development Commission should be studying best practices elsewhere. Some of the greatest economic successes for cities and their regions happen when the local universities integrate their resources into the civic and business worlds. Stanford and MIT in the US and Waterloo in Canada for instance. How integrated is our university into our economic future? It has an important payroll for sure and excels at bringing federal and provincial money into the region but I don’t think anyone would accuse it of being truly integrated into it’s city.

This is why I was so impatient with the Daily News editorial. If those folks are privy to the research on which this rush to build a hotel and a cruise ship terminal are based, great. If not they should be applying constant and considerable pressure on City Hall to get it done.

Frank Murphy

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