It’s all about the local economy, silly

By Robert Washburn

There is only one issue in the upcoming municipal election: the local economy.

Sure, across Northumberland each municipality has its own set of issues to be addressed by incumbents and challengers seeking office.

But the new rural economy is facing a complex future. Globalization crushed the traditional manufacturing base. Agriculture is vastly different. Migration patterns have altered the demographics for the region. And, the prevalent urban-centric policies by government and institutions are not addressing key issues so municipalities are sustainable.

If Northumberland is going to have a viable long-term future, each municipality must address the new reality. Certainly, local issues must be addressed. But this election is pivotal, especially for Cobourg and Port Hope.

During the 19th century, local businesses were able to produce sufficient goods to fill the needs of the people living in the area. Some goods were shipped elsewhere, but mostly the economy was focused on serving local needs. Most of the goods shipped outside the area were raw materials, such as lumber, minerals and other resources.

According to Professor L. Peter Apedaile, of the University of Alberta, in his report on the New Rural Economy released in 2003, he says this changed in rural areas as it slowly turned over to a production-based economy where the local companies were supplying or providing finished goods outside the region.

For the most part, this has gone out the window in the 21st century. Terms like globalizing, knowledge-based, digitizing, jobless growth, high productivity and a fast-growing service sector are the buzzwords associated with the new rural economy. The days of setting aside chunks of land for industrial parks to wait for new plants to be built has evaporated.

One thing is very clear; the dependence on traditional jobs at factories gone, too. The new rural economy is focused on human knowledge and social capital, in other words, on attracting creative, innovative people to the region, not corporations or specific industries.

But, as the guru of the creative economy, University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida says talent concentrates in larger urban areas because it is easy to enter and the amenities abound. There is a greater acceptance of diversity, new ideas, progressive approaches and a greater tolerance for change.

Talent matters.

And, when we think about how much money is spent trying to attract industry or business it is aimed at production or manufacturing. The focus really needs to lie is in attracting people – very special, exceptional individuals.

Port Hope sets an excellent example. The creation of the new gaming/entrepreneurship lab represents the direction of the new rural economy. Using a $100,000 grant from the federal government, the lab is a partnership with Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology that launched earlier this year.

A game-testing centre was opened a few weeks ago, giving small gaming companies a place where they can test new software and hardware prior to launch.

It is far too easy to get bogged down in the latest issues upsetting voters. And, while these appear to be paramount to the election outcome in October, it ends up being a limited scope based on short-term. The highly emotional nature of these issues may make them more pressing now, but what about the future?

Frankly, the local economy will never survive on endless building of subdivision and tourism. Yes, these are important cogs in the economic engine. Yet these are fickle and not sustainable.

First and foremost, candidates need to come to the table with a vision for the future. We need more energy and time spent on attracting innovators and entrepreneurs who bring fresh ideas and new approaches to business. Port Hope started the ball rolling with its business incubator. But what are other municipalities doing?

We are at a tipping point. The next four years are absolutely crucial. If the ball does not get rolling in a substantive way, the towns will be losing more than a few retailers in the downtown. The region will end up a shadow, a mere bedroom community for Peterborough, Belleville and the GTA, barely sustaining itself. And, an entire way of life could be lost.