Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Economic Side of Community Engagement

In today’s “Wired World”, we throw buzzwords around like confetti at a country wedding. All too often, the buzzwords have the all the substance and staying power of the confetti-– and some of the marriages.
Politicians rattle on about “accountable government”. Advocates of nuclear energy talk about “green energy”. And folks active in the community development biz talk about “engaged communities”.
What are “engaged communities”? Would we know one if it jumped up and bit us on the backside? How does a community go from “casual dating” to “engaged?”
I believe that an “engaged community” is a community that is involved in its’ own destiny– taking responsibility for its’ own economic, environmental, and social evolution. Primarily proactive rather reactive, it sees itself as its own change agent.
Bright-eyed and alert readers not conditioned to suck up buzz-words like kids suck up candy might well ask: “And what does that verbiage really mean, Les?” That’s a fair question.
Let's start with economic matters. An engaged community accepts the premise that everything communities do is interconnected and interdependent. The members of the community Economic Development Committee would not make decisions pertaining to important economic matters in isolation. Engaged communities conduct independent studies of the short, medium and long-term implications of economic development proposals for their congruence with community values. They assess the impact of economic proposals on environmental and social elements of community life, and build corrective strategies into the final plans.
Recent Alberta history shows what can happen when a combination of provincial policy and complaisant municipal councils push development not congruent with community values. A decade ago, it took passionate and determined action by the citizens of the Counties of Forty–Mile and Flagstaff to stonewall the late and unlamented Taiwan Sugar hog mega-project.
There’s another key element to local economic engagement– supporting Main Street. Many studies have shown the positive impact of communities shopping and eating locally. Most local businesses in Alberta do an admirable job of supporting their communities. From their perspective, it’s just good business. Unfortunately, too many residents of rural Alberta (the communities outside the major metropolitan areas) don’t reward that community support. The Lure of The Mall proves too strong and they leave their dollars (and the paychecks and profits their spending generates) in the big cities. It’s the kind of shortsighted behaviour that continues to turn off the lights on small–town Main Streets across western Canada.
That’s two elements that I see as key to the economic side of community engagement. In my next post in two two weeks I’ll examine the social side of community engagement.

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