Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Norfolk County economic strategy on hold: ideas and execution

In the startup world, you hear every day that ideas are typically a dime-a-dozen and the real challenge is execution.

It's not just true for startups.

Over the last year, I've seen over and over again with economic development in small urban and rural areas that there's no shortage of good ideas (or of mediocre and poor ones, for that matter), but there are formidable barriers to execution. Sometimes it's having the experience and expertise to filter out those good ideas or in overcoming inertia and complacency, but often it's the challenge of putting together the necessary resources—money and people, in particular—to implement them.

I was reminded of that again last week when Norfolk County Council voted to postpone its decision on funding much of its economic development strategy ("Norfolk told to move on economic development," Simcoe Reformer, July 3). The strategy was developed last year and further refined earlier this year in a process that involved hundreds of people in the area, along with an Ottawa-based consulting firm and Norfolk County staff.

The vision of the strategy was for Norfolk County to be a "community where innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and collaboration drive the local economy." The initial draft from last October was a bit of a grab-bag with dozens of ideas. No one was under any illusions that they could all be implemented, especially when some of the ideas were ways to generate even more suggestions (a business symposium, an entrepreneurship forum and an "agriculture summit" were all suggested in a single two-page section ... a small-business forum was suggested a few pages later), but the ideas covered some vital areas, such as entrepreneurship, youth entrepreneurship, and innovation.

But, as with startups, ideas are the easy part.

Someone has to execute these ideas and there's only so much you can add to the workload of a small team. In Norfolk County's case. there were a few ideas that were relatively straightforward, but the heart of the strategy was going to require people and dollars to implement. Not huge amounts, but some. And that's where much of the economic development strategy has fallen into limbo. The resources to execute the plan aren't in place and council isn't ready to provide funding for them.

Norfolk County certainly isn't unique in that regard. Budgets are tight and aren't likely to get looser any time soon. Coming from the innovation/commercialization side, it's been an eye-opener. "Innovation" has been the colour that provincial and federal governments have been buying for the last six years or so. If you needed $100,000 to fund an initiative, you could probably find the money somewhere. It would take some work, and you wouldn't always succeed, but there's plenty of money in the system.

It's a very different story with small urban and rural economic development. There's not a lot of money in that stream and it's much harder to raise funds to implement even the best ideas. Small urban and rural economic development may not have the cachet of  innovation/ commercialization, but our future prosperity depends on it. Having gone across most of Southwestern Ontario, I've seen the potential in places like Norfolk County ... and Sarnia and Chatham-Kent, and others. We can come up with all kinds of strategies and plans, but it won't get you very far if you can't execute.

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Can Windsor use a non-snub to energize a focus on innovation?

OMG, did you hear? There's a new $100 million "Innovation SuperCorridor" initiative from the province introduced in the budget...