Value of EDC in need of a reassessment

Since 2001 the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) has operated an in-house economic development body to help the regional economy prosper and grow.

With an annual budget exceeding $800,000, Economic Development Cowichan (EDC) now employs several staff and oversees a range of activities to expand the agricultural sector, market tourism and attract the film industry.

While some would argue EDC is succeeding on a number of fronts — including building a strong regional brand, producing a number of impressive economic development studies, and hosting events such as the Cowichan agricultural fair — others have long questioned its value.

Critics point to EDC’s difficulties in reporting results, including the number of new businesses attracted to the region.

With the CVRD set to hire a new economic development manager, and municipal and regional elections just around the corner, this is a prime opportunity to re-assess EDC’s role and explore bold approaches to economic development that are already succeeding in other communities.

For starters, EDC could broaden its focus from simply attracting outside investment to also mobilizing capital from within the community.

In Victoria, the Social Planning Council is developing B.C.’s first community investment fund, which will raise capital from local investors to help support affordable housing projects and create new jobs through investments in social enterprises.

Victoria’s initiative builds on the highly successful community investment funds in Nova Scotia and Alberta, which have allowed community members to direct their retirement savings away from the major financial centres and re-invest them in their local economies.

Why not a community investment fund for the Cowichan Valley, overseen by Economic Development Cowichan?

What better way to empower the region and give regular people greater control of the economy?

EDC could also retool its programs to provide community members with training to start their own businesses - including worker co-operatives and employee-owned companies, as many other municipalities are now doing.

Employee-ownership models have a proven track record of creating living wage jobs, lifting people out of poverty, encouraging entrepreneurship, and democratizing the economy – particularly relevant to the Cowichan region where average family incomes are below the provincial norm.

We could do well to take a page from New York City’s book, where council recently announced a new fund for training programs to incubate a minimum of 28 new worker co-operatives, help another 20 worker co-operatives grow, and create 234 new jobs.

Why not direct a portion of EDC’s resources to training local residents to set up their own firms, structured as worker co-operatives or some other business model with wide societal benefits?

And shifting EDC’s focus to such activities need not involve a spending increase.  It could simply involve reallocating existing resources and leveraging funding from other sources.

With many in the community eager to see local government explore new approaches to economic development, the time for change is now.  Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Rob Douglas writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial and can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com.

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