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Developing the economic developers

A new certification program aims to improve and standardize skills for those working to build the rural economy

It’s back to school for community economic development officers.

The Economic Developers Association of Manitoba (EDAM) has launched its newly completed, eight-module certification program, dubbed Community Edge, and the first class has graduated, following the group’s spring forum in Roblin in mid-May.

“EDAM developed a strategic plan in 2013 and recognized that professional development was an important part of what we do, so this has been a long-term pro-cess, but we knew that we wanted an education product for our practitioners that was Manitoba driven, Manitoba focused, so that it was relevant to the communities and issues that we deal with in Manitoba,” Marilyn Crewe, economic development officer for Neepawa and EDAM chair, said.

While hardly isolated to rural areas, an economic development office has become a mainstay for communities and regions across Manitoba, either to manage growth, accelerate growth or to reverse a declining trend in an area bleeding industry and residents.

“I think that one of the things that we need to understand out of our communities is, what is there already? So what are the economic drivers that are currently present?” Crewe said.

For her hometown of Neepawa, agriculture has very much driven industry. Surrounded by farmland, the community is also home to HyLife Food’s pork-processing plant — a facility that unveiled two years and $176 million of upgrades, including a new cut floor, this April — as well as the Farmery Estate Brewery, which has made a name harvesting its own malt barley on site.

“Neepawa is a strong agricultural community, so then part of what I do is find ways to support that sector that is already strong, but to make sure that it has the things that it needs to continue to be prosperous,” Crewe said.

Lana Cowling-Mason, general manager of Community Futures West Interlake, echoed that message.

“Figuring out what the community’s assets are and what its competitive advantage is and building around that is so important and having a strategy that fully deals with that and making sure that everybody understands that any of this kind of development is a long-term investment in the community,” she said. “There’s no magic bullet that solves all the problems in the area.”

At the same time, Cowling-Mason said, municipal amalgamation has impacted how development offices are structured, and problems like budget constraints are evergreen.

“The other thing that we see is such a huge variety of the state the community is in when it decides (on) the investment in economic development,” she said. “So we have some small rural communities that are seeing some challenges about retaining population, retaining business. They kind of looked at it as, here is a way to invest in a kind of stop-gap measure to try and slow down concerns that they have. But we’ve also got communities that are booming and they need to have the economic development piece to help manage the growth that they’re in.”

Those different stages will come with a different ideal choice for development officer, Crewe said.

Community Edge does not isolate farm or rural issues, although Crewe says they are woven into the general topics of the program.

An overview of the program includes, in part, how to set up a community economic development office from the ground up, developing strategies according to community demographics and priorities, business retention and expansion, tourism, communication, strategic planning, marketing and project management.

“If it’s a rural community, if it’s an urban community, these core competencies will help them to do their job better and build stronger communities that have a base of their economy that is true to the community,” Crewe said.

EDAM is pushing elected officials, administrators and other public figures, including local members of the chamber of commerce, to also take the first modules of the program, something they say may help ease the bridge between community and economic development officer.

The May forum also recognized a second cohort who has passed EDAM’s equally new “training the trainers” program in the hopes they will help guide other economic development officers in the province moving forward.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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