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Future of regional economic development discussed during Memorial public forum
Ryan Gibson, a lecturer and PhD candidate in MUN’s Department of Geography; Irene Hurley, chair of both the Heritage Run Tourism Association and Burin Peninsula Arts Council and Robert Keenan, MNL’s community cooperation and development officer were panelists for a public forum during Wednesday’s regional workshop in Marystown on the future of economic development without zone boards. Paul Herridge Photo
The decision to cut funding for regional economic development boards (REDBs) in Newfoundland and Labrador earlier this year was met with alarm and came as a surprise to many.
Now that the dust is settling and it has become evident there will be no reprieve, the conversation has turned to what might come next.
The topic was the subject of discussion at a public forum during Wednesday’s regional workshop in Marystown hosted by Memorial University’s Leslie Harris Centre, in conjunction with the Schooner Regional Development Corporation – the REDB representing the Burin Peninsula.
Ryan Gibson, a lecturer and PhD candidate in Memorial’s Department of Geography, one of three presenters during the session, said there is no simple answer.
Created in the early 1990s, the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the provincial Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development funded the province’s 20 zone REDBs.
With the exception of Quebec, which employs a regional municipal council model, Mr. Gibson acknowledged the rest of the country is also either limiting, tightening or eliminating funds for regional economic development.
Mr. Gibson acknowledged there is uncertainty but said the change doesn’t have to be negative.
“This is an opportunity at the doorstep of regions to really create and craft their own strategy in the absence of not ever being burdened by current government strategies and programs.
“Essentially, there’s a plain piece of white paper in front of communities that communities can start to devise their own strategies.”
Mr. Gibson offered up two alternative funding possibilities for economic development. The first was an example used in the Peace River area of British Columbia whereby a ‘fair share agreement’ reallocates royalties from natural resources to the area from which they were extracted.
The other suggestion proposed capitalizing on wealth already in a region through philanthropy, the idea being for a foundation to collect and invest money, spending only the interest generated.
“There was life before the zone boards were created in the mid-90s. There will be life after the zone boards in our regions across the province.”
Robert Keenan, community cooperation and development officer with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL), joined Mr. Gibson on the panel, along with Irene Hurley, chair of both the Heritage Run Tourism Association and Burin Peninsula Arts Council.
Mr. Keenan, starting with the caveat he was expressing his own opinions, said although MNL has had good relationships with provincial REDBs agreed they were an important partner but also indicated he was not a supporter. He felt municipal presence on many of the zone boards was lacking.
He said often REDB’s efforts to attract an area’s larger municipalities marginalized smaller communities, and in trying to be an umbrella organization that took in everything, they had failed.
“You have all these ideas coming together and you’re applying for funding, but at the end of the day you had to find somebody else to implement the plan.”
He said that was a challenge and frustrating for municipal governments.
With a defined structure, accountability to the electorate, a connection with residents, tax collection, a relative independence and a somewhat self-sufficiency, Mr. Keenan said MNL believes municipal governments, through a regional structure – perhaps joint councils, should be the lead for economic development.
Though he admitted it can’t be done without a significant amount of funding – more than was provided for REDBs.
“We do think economic development can be the glue that brings municipal governments together.”
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From a tourism perspective, Mrs. Hurley acknowledged Schooner played a limited role in the local industry, through no fault of its own, as it was never a part of its mandate dictated by the federal and provincial governments.
As such, she said the Burin Peninsula tourism industry was never as dependent on the regional economic development board model as other areas have been.
Although it has limited core funding, she suggested the Heritage Run’s own activities were not too different from those provided by other REDBs in the province.
“As long as we have that resiliency in us as a population, we’re going to see some type of continuity continue.”
One development that has her buoyed is the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation’s new model of destination management organizations, which she believes will benefit the industry.
The Eastern Destination Management Organization takes in the Bonavista Peninsula, the Burin Peninsula and rural areas of the Avalon Peninsula.
Mrs. Hurley said she sees it as a decentralization of the Department of Tourism.
“It’s time that we did have a little bit more delivery of how the network of development needs to take place on an even basis around all our sub-regions.”
Meanwhile, Paul Pike, chair of Schooner’s Board of Directors, defended the work of the REDBs.
He admitted early participation from some of the smaller communities in the newly reformed Burin Peninsula Joint Council has been minimal.
He said he was skeptical whether it was the type of body to lead regional economic development, as Mr. Keenan had earlier alluded, and was also critical of the province for a lack of support.
“The provincial government did not come in and help in anyway, or did they for once, or ever, or here today, recognize the volunteers over these 18 or 20 years of operations. A lot of great work was done.
“You can talk to some of the mayors here today or some of the business people here today and they will tell you REDBs were very engaged in their communities.”
Marystown Mayor Sam Synard acknowledged the town had been supportive of Schooner and partnered with the organization on a number of initiatives.
However, with the writing on the wall, he agreed it’s important to be a part of the process for how regional economic development will be handled moving forward.
“We need to find out where this process is going so we can lead it. If that could be a standalone entity it would be ideal, something unique to the Burin Peninsula with revenue sources and so on, but I fear, because of the process we live in, that now we’ll be a template for everybody, not just us on the Burin Peninsula.
“We need to sort of figure out what that template will be, and massage it in our favour, and really be the ones in the province who lead that process, not ones who sort of fight against it.”