Lessons from Year Two: Economic development is a contact sport

People meeting with a laptop

Going into Year Two of the EDAC/University of Waterloo economic development training program I had three goals. I wanted to make genuine connections with classmates, learn new things to help my clients, and push myself to new limits.  With some time to reflect on the experience, I believe I was successful on all fronts.

While the in-class learning was useful, I found the one-on-one interactions with my classmates provided the most valuable learning opportunities. As a consultant, I need to know my audience (anyone who is interested in improving local/regional economic outcomes). I need to know why their latest initiative succeeded or failed.  I need to know what gets them excited. The longer I work in this field, the more I appreciate each community’s inherent subtleties. There really is no substitute for walking the streets, talking to community members, and listening.

The Year Two one day projects reinforced this idea. As part of the program, there is a project day where the class is divided into small groups and asked to do the impossible. Each group is given a real community problem and asked to solve it in less than a day. Our mission was to reimagine Minto’s Palmerston Railway Heritage Museum, which is struggling to attract more visitors and become financially sustainable. After a tour of the museum and the grounds, the group had ideas for change, but it wasn’t until we spoke to members of the community that we had our breakthrough. Kids love Trains! Simple, sure, but until now, the museum has catered to train enthusiasts rather than families. I could go on and on about Thomas the Train and the promise of our marketing plan, but the point is that community members already knew the answer. They just needed to be asked.

I’ve titled this post, “economic development is a contact sport” because economic development demands a personal touch.  We’ve all heard before that relationships are key, that we need to make networks and leverage them etc., but what we may forget is that the “soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff.” Roger Enrico, former chairman/CEO of Pepsico, said this and I’ve echoed it here because it is common practice to focus on the “hard stuff” and neglect the “soft stuff”.  One of my mentors, Paul Blais, is a master of the soft stuff. Without fail, he will call me on my birthday just to say hi. He makes a point to connect with people on a personal level before broaching business. He knows the value of the soft stuff. The Year Two program is an opportunity to make genuine connections with your peers. Whether it’s over a beer, on the rock climbing wall, or during an indoor campfire sing-along, Year Two is really about the soft stuff, and that makes us all better at doing the hard work of building better communities.