Being the mayor of a boom city has taken much of my time and energy since the election.
Growth has driven the agenda with more people needing more housing — affordable, subsidized, rental, north, south, east and west, increased density infill and new suburban developments, homes for young families, homes for students, homes for seniors. And driving much of the demand, homes for the people who are filling all the new jobs we read about in the classified section of the paper.
But growth isn’t just about more people and building a city isn’t just building homes. It’s also about building an economy that provides the jobs for the people who live in those homes: the kinds of jobs you want for yourself and your family, jobs that your kids can build careers around. And we need those jobs to attract even more new people to live in our city.
To expand the economy to keep pace with our growth, Brandon needs an economic development strategy: a prosperity plan. It will provide a road map to guide our economic development efforts over the next decade, focusing on those areas that offer the greatest potential for our city.
It’s easy to see the benefits of a robust strategy. It will be a crucial tool in the development of a prosperous local economy and in the expansion of a diverse tax base for the city.
However, it’s also important to remember that economic development is not an end in itself but a means to an end; the well-being of Brandon, now and into the future. The development of Brandon’s economy should reflect the values of our community. That is, it should increase the overall prosperity, but not at the cost of destroying those aspects of the community that are held most dear. It will be a balancing act. You know when you’re in a community that is not in balance (think Fort McMurray, Alta.).
Much like we see the investment that we have been making in infrastructure repair and renewal as an investment and not simply a cost, economic development must also be seen as an investment in our community and in our children's future.
Brandon was founded because of river and rail transportation. It was a stopping off point for those headed west. Rich soil and favourable weather meant that our next boom grew from the ground up because of wheat and agriculture. As the region grew, so did Brandon; taking on the mantel of a service centre, as well as a centre for education and health care.
Brandon is now adapting yet again to new opportunities. The rapidly changing nature of the economy means that it is vital to adopt strategies and processes that can adjust quickly, as new opportunities and challenges arise. Global, national and local economic changes are occurring at a rapid pace and Brandon must act now to be in the best possible position for the future. This means taking advantage of the opportunities of the future, as well as weathering the challenges of the present.
Some see natural resources or serviced land as magnets for economic investment, but a significant attraction for out-of-town investment in Brandon has been our well educated and hard-working labour force. Assiniboine Community College and Brandon University are key to workforce development and future economic growth.
While the public sector in Brandon is a major employer, an economy must be built on employment in the private sector. The city needs to be able to move forward and participate in some risk; and to manage that risk, we will develop a plan that has community support and participation.
Like many of the initiatives the city has already launched since 2010, the development of an economic development strategy will begin with putting a few bright minds in the community around the table. Local partners and organizations that have economic development as part of their mandate will work together with the city to achieve a strong and united approach.
A steering committee will form the central core, weaving together the individual strands of sector expertise that will be brought in to provide insight and ideas on specific issues. Multiple strategic initiatives must be identified and acted upon simultaneously, each adjusted and emphasized according to the challenges and opportunities that evolve.
The resulting economic development strategy, Brandon’s Prosperity Plan, is intended to inform residents, businesses and elected officials on the challenges and opportunities that will confront Brandon in the years to come. It will identify the actions required to ensure sustainable economic growth and strengthen the city’s competitive position. It will be a road map for the strategic investment of both public and private sector resources in ways that fully exploit our region’s assets.
The development of the prosperity plan will mean exciting times for Brandon. As the weeks and months progress, it will be my pleasure to share updates with you, as collectively we work toward a thriving community that will aggressively advance our economy in new directions and leverage today’s opportunities into a prosperous future.
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly.