Ontario’s Four Counties Region – Collaboration & Economic Development

 

The following article is written by guest blogger Brittany Bruce

REAP Blog Head shotAbout the Author                                                                             

Brittany Bruce is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo-Wilfrid Laurier University Geography and Environmental Management Masters Graduate Program. Her research was part of a broad project, Evaluating Regional Economic Development Initiatives (EREDI), led by Dr. John Devlin (University of Guelph), and Dr. Tara Vinodrai (University of Waterloo) and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Brittany also received SSHRC funding through the J.A. Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program for this research. Brittany is currently a Research Assistant for Dr. Tara Vinodrai at the University of Waterloo. Brittany also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and International Development Studies from Trent University.

 

Regional Collaboration in Economic Development: My Research Findings

Rural municipal economic development offices are often characterized by few staff, a large geographic area, and stretched budgets. Under these conditions, they are often compelled to collaborate with other municipalities, counties, or regions.

What forms of collaboration do they pursue, and why?

In my recently completed Masters thesis research, I explored initiatives in collaboration and economic development in the Four Counties region of Ontario and the North Country region of New York. For this research, I interviewed 35 key stakeholders from business, community and government organizations involved in each region.

                          Four Counties region of Ontario                                    North Country region of New York

Brittany maps combined

These regions represent two drastically different experiences of regional collaboration. In the Four Counties region, collaboration has tended to be within each county, rather than across the region. In contrast, the North Country is a region pursuing multi-county collaboration that has been encouraged by the state of New York. The Four Counties represents a grassroots approach to economic development, while the North Country embodies a government-led approach.

Why doesn’t the Four Counties region have a more unified approach to economic development?

Primarily because it lacks a shared and deep-seeded regional identity. Economic development officers, government officials and community organizations there do not often identify as being part of the Four Counties; they identify with their individual counties (Grey, Bruce, Huron, and Perth). The North Country, however, has been the North Country for over 25 years; its county level organizations see themselves as being a part of a larger, unified region.

Economic Development using different Collaboration Strategies  

Given this, it is not surprising that the regions have pursued different strategies for collaborating, and that each strategy has worked with the unique contexts and strengths of each place.

No single regional organization has responsibility for the direction of the Four Counties. Therefore, there are multiple organizations working for economic development, including the Four County Labour Market Planning Board. Even the Four County Labour Market Planning Board, while representing the region, has tended to roll out programs on an individual county basis, because not all of the counties are on the same page in terms of readiness. This demonstrates flexibility on the part of the Planning Board and also their being understanding of and adapting to local realities.

The North Country has been nudged into formally collaborating at a regional level by the state of New York through the Regional Economic Development Council initiative in 2011. The REDC process has leveled the playing field between the North Country and the more urban and financially well-off regions by making state funding available that the North Country would never have had access to otherwise.  As one of my interviewees put it:

“…the region has never suffered from a lack of talent to do this. It is a lack of capacity and resources. And this new model instantly changed one aspect, which was the capacity, because we’re suddenly put in a room and told to work it out. And then the resources flowed because the State made all those resources available only through this competitive process.”

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council creates plans and policies to support the strategic growth of the region. The Council also reviews project proposals as part of the Consolidated Funding Application process intended to access government funding. All of the regional councils across the state of New York are supported economically by the state, through the awards given out each year. So far, three rounds of award funding have been completed, of which the NCREDC has won $279.3 million for 227 projects.

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council acts as an umbrella for the other regional economic development organizations in the North Country. The North Country Regional Economic Development Council has become the spearhead organization for the region.

In contrast to the North Country’s “one region-one voice” approach, the Four Counties has preferred to operate as individual counties or create bi-county partnerships. By focusing on their individual counties, the region has been able to drill down to important issues on the local level. County level stakeholders argued that collaborating at a local, rather than a regional level, has helped them to create stronger relationships with their clients and members and has helped to decrease organizational bureaucracy (i.e. red tape) to getting things done.

So what is the point of this comparison?

The point is to suggest that even though these regions are taking very different approaches to economic development, they both agree on the general importance of collaboration given the current economic climate and reduced operating budgets of many organizations.

The Four Counties and the North Country carried out their activities at different scales, but they did it for largely the same reasons: to maximize their resources, and by doing so, to maximize their ability to enact change in their communities. These two regions also demonstrate the dynamic nature of collaboration. What makes the most sense for one region, community, or organization will depend on its unique context. The government-led regional development initiative in New York has proved fruitful for the North Country, while the grassroots approach utilized in the Four Counties has been more in tune with their local reality. Collaboration in these regions had allowed organizations to fulfill their mandates, which they may not have been able to do otherwise.

Collaboration, therefore, is a useful tool for organizations and individual stakeholders alike. Collaboration works best when you are able to craft a strategy that takes into account the unique reality of your community, and not forcing your community to conform to a strategy that may be popular, but may not truly fit with what it needs.

Brittany hourglass

The above figure depicts the top down vs. bottom up approaches to economic development that have been occurring in the case regions. The middle of the diagram is where economic development activities are occurring. The end goal of both strategies is the same: economic development, but how this is achieved has been different in each region. 

For more information on the above project, click here

 

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