Viability of local economy hangs in balance

First published:
March 14, 2001

Economic development. Yawn. There is possibly no more boring a topic in general conversation, yet, if Northumberland County does not get its act together, our entire way of life will disappear. That’s right – disappear.

This is not the hyperbole of yellow journalism. Nobody is looking to sell more newspapers. This is a dire warning that is based on an important study now being done at the School of Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph. Professors David Douglas and Sandra Chadwick released the first phase of a comprehensive study of rural economic development undertaken called Toward more effective rural economic development in Ontario.

The message is undeniable: “The interrelatedness of economy, community survival and quality of rural life is a pivotal issue before rural Ontario.”

Initial surveys show two-thirds to three-quarters of surveyed rural municipalities in all regions exhibited either stagnation or some degree of decline over the last three years. Northumberland knows this. Look at all the closed industry and lost opportunity for our large urban centres, not to mention the abysmal lack of activity in villages and hamlets across the county. Taken as a whole, the picture is not pretty.

There is nothing to argue here. The health and future viability of our communities is directly related to the state of our local economy and the surrounding economy, say Douglas and Chadwick. That is no surprise since provincial downloading has transferred most of the services on to the local tax base. If we do not have a vibrant economy, then the costs for these services are placed on property taxes. That means we each pay more taxes if we want to have a decent community. Anyone who pays for ice time knows how the formula works. Higher fees to enjoy yourself. In a larger picture it means all our cultural, social and public health services are in jeopardy.

The report argues the importance of “an informed and strategic approach to policy development is particularly relevant”. The research has found a deficiency of knowledge about economic development, poor financial and human resources and a lack of formal plans.

“While it may occasionally be espoused as a priority, rural municipality, planning for and implementing local economic development is a minor undertaking in the rural municipality, far removed from the priority and resources accorded to other functions (public works, parks and recreation),” the authors tell us.

The provincial landscape is bleak. Few, if any are undertaking community or community-based economic development. Small municipalities designate economic development to larger regional bodies. The Northumberland Economic Partnership is trying to correct this by undertaking plans to create a community futures development corporation.

But like so many other areas identified in the study, residents are not part of the process in developing plans. This is left to politicians and the business community. That is a serious gap that must be addressed locally. Residents need to take economic development more seriously – if for no other reasons than to get control of the municipal taxes we all pay. Those involved in economic development must get grassroots involvement or else risk repeating the mistakes of the past, such as the political gamesmanship.

Labour, community groups, educational institutions, provincial and federal bodies, people from all political stripes must all be brought to the table, but not in the usual manner. It is time for a more creative, innovative approach.

Northumberland needs to break out of the traditional economic development model, encouraging external investment by trying to attract industry to our area. Instead we need to seek a more diversified approach by looking at ways of encouraging local investment, expanding local businesses and becoming stronger from within.

Bringing Wal-Mart to the county is not part of a comprehensive economic development strategy. Having a few businesspeople fix up some stores along the mainstreet is great, but it is only a beginning. Rebuilding the roads in the centre of a village or town is only cosmetic and does not address real infrastructure needs.

Economic renewal is only going to happen when municipal leaders drop parochial interests. The narrow-minded approaches of the past will not work. Northumberland is ahead of the game in many ways. There are a huge number of community-based services from the Northumberland Business Assistance program to the business self-help centre to the various economic development plans some municipalities have in place.

But where we fall down is on a comprehensive, unified vision for the region – an important point made in the report. A good example of where a balance between local and regional interests is taking place is in the Quinte region. The Quinte Business Centre has successfully created a single, focussed approach that is gathering momentum Northumberland only talk about it. But it has only being doing this for the past 18 months. There has been some exchange between local efforts and Quinte, but nothing substantial has come of it.

The landscape become bleaker when one realizes Cobourg, the largest urban centre in the county, does not have an economic development officer. It is more frightening when one realizes the economic development committee just had some of its more vocal and aggressive members thrown off it. And there are only three municipalities in the entire county with a promoting themselves beyond our own borders.

Everyone involved in local economic development will say they are acting with the best intentions. But we have functioned with good intentions for too long. And none of this is new. But real solutions are needed. An economic development plan for Northumberland must be in place before the end of 2001 or else the slowdown currently underway is going to crush us. The way of life we enjoy will be lost and anything we will do will be too little and far too late.

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