Creating our future

Last night I attended our town’s Business Retention & Expansion briefing, which reported on findings from a study conducted last year. One of the findings was that the local business priority is to attract industry to the town. Key issues for local businesses were cost of leasing space; municipal taxes; availability of zoned land and land costs. The local economic development agency stated that it would help businesses in the area through training, mentorship and supporting tourism. The town’s strategy will be a “build it and they will come” approach, focusing on a few key sectors and attempting to attract businesses in those areas.

I contrast this with Richard Florida’s presentation in Sackville two weeks ago. First of all, I noted that 64% of total employment in the town is in what Florida calls the creative economy [I added up – Health & Education; Professional & Information; Finance & Insurance; Other services]. According to Florida, “People don’t move to the jobs – the jobs move to the people“. He also said that we are currently going through a fundamental economic transformation and that the key to economic success will be to stoke the creative furnace of each and every citizen. However, no one asked how Sackville could grow its three T’s (technology, talent and tolerance). For example, municipal wi-fi was not seen as a business need; supporting arts & culture is not a business priority and attracting immigrants did not even get discussed. As I walked home, I was thinking that there is a significant difference between asking people their needs and doing what’s needed.

Last night’s discussion was about supporting existing businesses and I likened it to a similar discussion that could have taken place 100 years ago, with concerned business leaders trying to determine how best to support the local carriage factory. Balancing current demands while looking to the future and preparing for a changing world will be a major challenge for all communities in North America. For instance, how will tourism change with a US economy in recession and fossil fuel prices continuing to increase? Would improved broadband access and capability be a better investment than an industrial park? I don’t have the answers, but I know that business as usual is not the solution.

5 Responses to “Creating our future”

  1. Matthias

    Interesting to read that you have the same discussions in Canada as we do in Germany!

    My observations from a prosperous but partly rural Southern Germany:
    1. Smaller towns fall behind as new technology-driven industries settle near to universities and other high-tech companies (= in the big cities).

    2. Once new businesses grow, they attract the “creative industries” (as suppliers) and competitors, too.

    So for example bio-technology in Germany is not widespread but concentrated in a few (very urban) places, among them Munich and Freiburg.

    I personally don’t have much hope for smaller places in the long run. Even if you get the “carriages” out of your mind – there simply is not much you can do about it.

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  2. Harold

    I’m not that pessimistic about the future of small towns because it’s now easier for people to move and doesn’t require the movement of a lot of physical capital. I would say that Bad Saulgau looks like a lovely place to operate a creative business. You just have to find other people who think so.

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  3. Matthias

    Bad Saulgau is a lovely place, no doubt. But it is in a slow decline (among many others).

    During industrialization companies settled where (cheap) labour was: So the Black Forest could build up an industry for clocks and watches. Textile businesses grew in my home region.

    Later on, these businesses left for Asia. The Black Forest region could overcompensate this with tourism, my place partly with machinery factories.

    So during the 19th and 20th century the pattern was that businesses were in search for cheap labour. Today this is very different: New industries are looking for highly skilled people, as “normal” work gets replaced by automatised production or is transferred to Eastern Europe or China.

    So isn’t there a fundamental change in the pattern of how new businesses grow? Globalization and technological progress change things a lot.

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  4. Michele Martin

    Harold, this is something that goes on in the US all the time, too. What’s particularly disgusting are the ways in which towns, cities, etc. end up doing things like offering tax breaks and other incentives to businesses to attract them, only to have the businesses leave. At least if you’ve invested in your talent and your infrastructure for keeping talent, if a business leaves you still have that. But when you give tax breaks, you have nothing to show for it but empty pockets.

    One of my personal dreams for a project would be to see an area focus first on its people–on helping them identify and develop their talents and then marketing that to businesses. In this idealized world, they’d also provide citizens with the infrastructure to be successful in a global economy, like wi-fi, etc. As you say, business as usual will not be an effective solution.

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