Go for the youth

If a community wants to enhance its entrepreneurial appeal, a good first step is to become more attractive to 25- to 34-year-olds.

If a community wants to enhance its entrepreneurial appeal, a good first step is to become more attractive to 25- to 34-year-olds.

That’s one of the conclusions Mike Stolte has reached as executive director of the Centre for Innovative and Entrepreneurial Leadership, or CIEL. The Nelson, B.C.-based consulting firm has analyzed the business-readiness of dozens of communities across Canada, using an assessment tool called the “business vitality initiative.”

The BVI, explained Stolte, measures the business-friendliness of a community and helps it develop strategies for improvement.

“Essentially, it’s trying to create an entrepreneurial environment within communities.”

The process begins with business representatives, community leaders and other residents completing a survey that measures their perceptions of the community in a variety of areas: opportunities and attitudes, quality of life, education and training, innovation, and leadership, teamwork and networking, among others. The participants also take part in a focus group discussion.

CIEL then prepares a report and recommendations, with these presented at a subsequent community meeting. Those in attendance vote on priority actions, with the goal to have a few short-term actions selected for immediate implementation.

“Often you need some short-term actions to get some momentum going,” said Stolte.

“A lot of communities will take the longer-term recommendations and they’ll integrate those into an economic development plan or an official community plan or even a sustainability plan.”

The BVI process, he said, can identify areas for improvement that might not otherwise be evident. For instance, it might show that the community doesn’t appeal to 25- to 34-year-olds — a key demographic.

“Communities that are attractive to that group are more likely to thrive in the future, because the 25- to 34-year-olds are more likely to plant roots, buy real estate, start businesses, take over existing businesses and replenish the leadership,” said Stolte.

Many communities want to improve their business friendliness, but lack a process with which to do so, he said.

“A lot of them don’t know where to start. Or, they just have unrealistic expectations.

“What we’re trying to do is get communities to take stock and be much more strategic in terms of their economic development focus.”

In addition to completing BVIs in nine provinces and the United States, CIEL has led five Australian communities through the process.

It recently partnered with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to arrange for BVIs in six Alberta communities, including Rocky Mountain House and Olds. Funding is coming from the Rural Community Adaptation Program, with some seed money also available to help implement the actions the communities select.

Dean Schweder, Rocky’s tourism and economic development co-ordinator, said his town will hold its BVI assessment meeting early next month. He believes the results will provide a “reality check” as to what Rocky is and isn’t doing well to promote business.

“We just wanted to do a report card on our community as to how business-friendly we actually are, and how easy it is to start up a business in our community and what kind of resources there are in our community.”

Gail Scott, economic development officer with the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development, expects the BVI there to take place between April and May.

“We’ll be looking at utilizing the business vitality program to examine the health of our business community, the gaps, the opportunities, the challenges, the barriers and to look at what kinds of programs we could put in place and how to implement those programs to help our businesses strengthen, grow and expand.”

Because Olds is growing so quickly, she added, such an assessment is important.

Stolte said past BVIs have resulted in a 90 per cent success rate of communities moving forward on at least one action item. And that impetus is important.

“We need to be investing in some way in our future and making sure we’re maximizing our economy,”