Rural Manitoba needs a more co-ordinated approach to economic development delivery.
That’s according to a draft strategy proposing some ideas for grappling with a system of too many groups working with neither a shared vision nor goals.
What’s developed over time is now a “confusing landscape of programs and services” that many potential entrepreneurs see as not only difficult to understand but to even gain access to, the report says.
The Rural Economic Development Strategy, discussed in Brandon by municipal officials last week, identifies a “very crowded landscape” of multiple departments and organizations now funding or conducting activities in economic development.
It’s reached a point where many see it not merely as cumbersome and bureaucratic, but actually impeding the goal of advancing rural development, said the report’s co-chair.
“The No. 1 thing we heard is there’s certainly a lot of duplication of programs, and a lot of confusion,” said Joe Masi, who is also executive director of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM).
“A really big theme in all of this was certainly about trying to co-ordinate rural economic development better.”
‘We’ is the group of nearly a dozen stakeholders that sat down in late fall, under the direction of the provincial minister of agriculture, to scrutinize the delivery of economic development services and propose ideas for improving it.
The AMM was part of a group that also included Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, the Rural Development Institute, Aboriginal organizations, the Economic Developers Association of Manitoba (EDAM) and others.
But the key thrust of the draft report, now circulating for further comment, isn’t new to AMM itself.
In 2009 it released its own review of service delivery, citing municipal governments’ growing concern about a plethora of federally and provincially funded development corporations, plus dozens of locally funded community development corporations, all trying to promote business development at the same time, and often overlapping duplicating the other’s efforts.
“There’s a lot of similar themes in this,” said Masi. “The difference is that one was ours, and this time the province brought together a group of stakeholders to work through some of the challenges.”
The draft document, completed just before the provincial blackout ahead of the election, is posted on MAFRD’s website.
One of the key directions is for a “single window” or “one-stop shop” service for economic development be created, Masi said.
This isn’t about wiping the slate clean on existing agencies and groups, but rather creating a co-ordinating “backbone agency” to bring more coherence, co-ordination and focus to what everyone is doing, Masi said.
The strategy also calls for improved training and professionalization of economic development officers, and for expanding information to help communities better identify priority industries and opportunities in their areas.
There is also a need for local government leaders to get up to speed on the issues related to economic development. Ironically, even as a plethora of programs exists there is also “limited awareness, capacity and capability in many rural communities about economic development,” the report also says.
Rivers community leader Donna Morken, who co-chaired the report, said many local government leaders themselves are confounded by it all and there are some who don’t even really understand what economic development is. It’s more than just business development and job creation, she said.
“I think in some cases councils believe if you hire an EDO (economic development officer) you’re going to have six new businesses tomorrow. It doesn’t happen that way,” she said.
Many communities “… do not have the resources and/or population to grow and expand at the rate that is necessary for long-term sustainability,” the report says, which points to this need for more collaboration between communities and regions.
Or, as Morken says, “… some communities have economic development officers, some don’t.”
Masi said AMM has a role to play in getting its members to make economic development a higher priority.
The report was put together in a matter of weeks, and doesn’t include detail on how to implement a co-ordinating agency, or what it would look like, Masi said.
“At some point it will be a final document and will be discussed with the province,” he said.
“Our committee is hoping after the provincial election to meet with the new minister, wherever this is housed under, and make them aware of what the report says. Hopefully it was written in such a way that whoever forms the next government takes it seriously, and doesn’t just scrap it and start over.”
The strategy also describes the current state of rural Manitoba’s economy and lays out some goals for rural development. Thirty-five per cent of Manitoba’s total GDP is generated from outside of the Winnipeg region, contributing over $16 billion to the provincial economy. There are approximately 12,000 businesses in rural Manitoba.
“While it is important that rural Manitoba offers excellent health care and that social services are provided to those who need them, it is understood that growth in private sector businesses and the resulting jobs is indicative of a strong economy,” the document says.
The strategy has set a goal of increasing the rural population by 150,000 and establishing 3,000 new businesses by 2025.