03/04/2013 02:45 EST | Updated 05/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Sustainable Economic Development in New Brunswick

Last Wednesday I gave a talk in Taymouth, the first in a speakers series on charting a sustainable course for economic development in New Brunswick.

Taymouth is a community about a half-hour drive north of Fredericton, during the Question and Answer session of my talk, I saw people - from Taymouth and nearby communities - who were very engaged in their community, concerned about the future of their communities and of the province. Many were entrepreneurs, promoting local foods and crafts.

The location of the talk - the Taymouth Community Centre - was an old school house converted into a community centre, becoming a focal point, a place for community events and activities, including a farmer's market.

The next event in the speakers series is a political panel - including People's Alliance leader Kris Austin, NDP leader Dominic Cardy, Green Party leader David Coon, Progressive Conservative MLA Kirk MacDonald, and Liberal MLA Roger Melanson - to be held at the Taymouth Community Centre (864 Route 8) at 7PM on March 18th.

Below are excerpts from the talk I gave last week:

There is a recurring theme, among policymakers and seen in the popular press in our province, that the focus of economic development must only be on New Brunswick's largest cities - Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John - with larger towns sometimes included as well. Rural New Brunswick, according to this perspective, is obsolete, destined to die.

I do not buy this argument, and you should not buy it either. It is not about focusing on one at the expense of the other, it is not about urban versus rural, it is about all of New Brunswick.

Cities are economic engines, and we need an urban strategy that focuses - for example - on the importance of walkable city and town centres which are increasingly popular among younger people as places to live and set up businesses (loft-style downtown facilities are increasingly popular sites for start-up enterprises). However, we need a rural strategy as well and ultimately we need an economic development strategy that recognizes and strengthens the connections between urban and rural New Brunswick, we need a one province strategy...

...We need to build connections between rural food producers and urban consumers through steps such as the promotion of eating locally. Real Food Connections in Fredericton, which buys all its food locally, is a great example of a business that is doing this. We also need to build on niche agricultural sectors - such as the growing demand for healthy food and food produced in an environmentally sustainable manner - as part of building a unique New Brunswick brand to promote both within the province and abroad.

Overall, building a unique New Brunswick brand is key, another example being Covered Bridge Chips in Hartland, marketing a unique, kettle cooked brand.

Research from the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute, on rural Ontario and the creative economy, offers some valuable insights. The findings of this research point to the importance of building a competitive advantage in rural food products, in "branding" to cater to growing demands for healthy and sustainably produced foods. The research highlights the importance of connecting rural food producers to urban markets.

An interesting finding of this research is the role of universities - research and development - in spurring a creative rural economy. An example cited is the partnership between the University of Guelph with peach and wine producers in the rural Niagara region, in promoting innovations in agriculture.

An important question is how these partnerships can be established here in New Brunswick, between rural food producers and nearby universities, such as the University of New Brunswick. Could there be a demand for new academic programs? The key in all this, rural New Brunswick can be an important player in the 21st century creative economy.

On the theme of the creative economy, arts and culture is important as well, including local crafts and festivals - the success of the Harvest Jazz and Blues festival in Fredericton - which brings people to downtown and spurs business there - is a testament to the success of such festivals. Having similar arts and cultural festivals in cities and towns throughout New Brunswick can be important in attracting tourists and building the province's reputation as a place of creativity, as a place more young professionals and entrepreneurs would want to move to. In all this, First Nations arts and culture plays an important role as well.

It is ultimately about making New Brunswick's cities, towns, and rural areas destinations...

...I hope here to have started a conversation, offered ideas. Rural New Brunswick cannot be dictated to from on high, ultimately economic development is a two-way conversation with local residents. There is a role for government - in supporting new businesses and entrepreneurs through mentoring and loans (for example through a reformed Business New Brunswick) and in supporting arts and culture. There is a role for the people - here in Taymouth, in Boisetown and Doaktown, and throughout New Brunswick - a role for activists [people engaged in political and social issues] in pushing for change, and a role for innovative entrepreneurs promoting new ideas.

Hopefully, I have succeeded, in bringing some new ideas to you, in spurring a discussion.