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The whole idea for this series of workshops in Valley County was to find out what direction economic development should take in the region to be most successful. Successful at what? Let’s see what the workshops produced so far..

August 5 – What are the right people around the table?

This meeting was about the process: understand our unique strengths of the region; agree on a doable vision for the region based on those strengths; choose appropriate strategies to achieve that vision; and then finally define supportive actions to execute those strategies. We had a sizable group at the August 5 meeting, but very little representation from the business community and NGOs (non-government organizations). In order to generate creative (and inclusive) ideas the meeting therefore committed to solicit a broader representation of communities in Valley County at the next meeting.

September 27 – What are our unique regional strengths?

Too often do we generate a wishlist that reflects what we like to see, but is not rooted in reality. For a region to be economically successful it needs to use its unique assets/strengths rather than wishful thinking. Those assets can be be part of the natural capital like landscape, clean water and air, minerals, etc, or can be part of our community capitals like skills, talents and education (human capital), our ability to translate conversation into action (social, political and financial capital), the attractiveness and utility of our towns and infrastructure (built and cultural capital). September 27 was about finding out what is unique about the region.

Recurring themes from the teams at the workshop included: the extensive natural capital, both as amenity (landscape, clean air and water) and as resource (forest, minerals); the region’s  recreational amenities (ski hills, golf courses, rafting, hunting, back-country flying, etc); the unique (relaxed) lifestyle; the educational infrastructure (K1-12, MOSS); the geothermal resources; an educated residence base (see VCteams participant roster for more).

October 17 – What vision of the region unites residents and businesses

After much deliberation, participants settled on two key concepts that in their view captured the reasons for the majority residents and businesses in the region: (1) being part of a “Healthy, Connected Mountain Lake Community”, where healthy denotes physical and lifestyle; and (2) with activities and opportunities rooted in the broader concept of recreation (focused on the resident and lifestyles) as opposed to the narrower base of tourism (focused on the visitor and hospitality).

The driving idea that convinced meeting participants to choose the theme Recreation as opposed to Tourism was its broader economic playing field. Tourism tends to narrow the economic focus to serving the visitor through hospitality and entertainment with all its complications of seasonality and low-wage basis. Recreation, so went the reasoning, takes lifestyle as starting point and opens the economic playing field for supporting industries, lifestyle entrepreneurs. (Read more about this idea in the October 17 meeting summary).

November 15 – What strategies support that vision

That brought us to the last meeting. If these are our assets and aspirations, what strategies should we pursue to help them come true? The teams dealt with a number of related questions: wow does a successful economy look like for our region; what strengths should we build on; what are promising industries and sectors that help us get there; what are examples of recent success stories; what are obstacles to get there and how do we mitigate them?

The broad strategy preferences per team can be viewed in the table below. The teams don’t seem to agree too much, but considering the variety of answers it may be worthwhile looking at the underlying ideas and answers captured in the linked document (November15 Meeting Charts).

Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 4
Community Development 17.5 (20)25 50 25
Business attraction 37.5 (20)25 30 5
Business Retention and Expansion 11.25 (40)45 10 65
Industry (sector) Development 37.5 (20)25 10 5

December 13 – How do we structure for success?

As we discussed before: economic development is creating an environment where we think that the chances for economic activity to flourish in our region are most favorable. Like with any investment, placing all your eggs in one basket may be a gamble not worth taking. We therefore ended the November meeting with four economic development strategies (community development, business attraction, etc). On December 13 we split in teams to discuss our primary strategies in more depth and to define potential projects going forward.

Strategy 1 – Community development
Community development is about investing in infrastructure and community – two parallel tracks. It is not just about building an industry park, a regional airport or putting in high-speed internet; it is foremost about creating and maintaining a community that will retain its businesses and talents; about the careful balance that promotes a built and cultural environment that cares about quality of life but also promotes innovation; about making decisions that consider not just the acquisition cost but the full life-span of an investment, its cost-of-operation and potential for waste. Our educational opportunities play a significant role in this; but even the very act of having a regional conversation on economic development is a sign of increased political and social capital – in many communities such a conversation just ends in a shouting party.

Strategy 2 – Business attraction
Business attraction has been the principal tool in the war chest of economic developers for more than five decades. It has not done so well. If the reasons for relocation for a company were tax incentives and cheap labor, they happily moved on when other pastures became greener. And if cheap labor was one of the reasons to locate for a company, it often held a region back from developing the skills to initiate durable growth through innovation. Recently, some communities have used different recruitment tactics and had more success. They focused on match-matching: what could the region offer in terms of lifestyle, work-force or market linkages that would provide a comparative advantage to a business. Better still: how could the business and region mutually benefit? Are  there business owners that grew up in the region and would welcome a move back? A locally owned business will likely re-invest in the region and pose little threat of moving to greener pastures for a percentage-point in taxes…

Strategy 3 – Business retention and expansion
Helping your exiting businesses thrive makes so much sense! What can we do to make them more successful? The chambers in Valley County have been very active in doing just that, especially for the hospitality and retail business. But how about the fledgling manufacturing and service companies that we have, the architects and construction companies, the remaining ranches and farms? We discussed the importance of a deep economy at the last meeting; the huge effects of forward and backward linkages for existing business (the example of barley, malting and bottling for the brewery), and the large imports many of our current businesses do to function (the example of construction); maybe these examples can help our thinking.

Strategy 4 – Industry (sector) development
A way of thinking that incorporates a little of all three methods is sector or industry development. If Geothermal energy is a strong asset of the region, what investments can develop a sector around that asset? If mining is here to stay (and it sure seems like it), should we perhaps anticipate its needs and impact so that we can balance the positives and negatives for the region? Maybe there are other sectors that are particularly compatible with the region and would allow us to develop and strengthen our communities and economy.

As you can see: many initiatives would perhaps start in one of these four categories, but have consequences for all four.

 December 11, 2011