Going Global – IEDC 2017

A PERSPECTIVE ON ‘VALUE AND RELEVANCE’ FOR AUSTRALIAN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT PRACTITIONERS.

BY BILL MILLARD, DIRECTOR STRATEGIC DEVELOPMENT, HOBSONS BAY CITY COUNCIL

This article will argue that economic development professionals in Australia should consider investing some of their hard earned dollars on an IEDC Annual Conference. The International Economic Development Council is the world’s largest professional organisation for economic developers with more than 5,000 members across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations.

The author has been a member of IEDC for several years and has attended three annual conferences including Toronto, Canada in September 2017. Setting aside the opportunities to visit and look ‘back of house’ at vibrant cities and regions, you will meet, eat and socialise with some great people with aligned interests, but also come home with a bag full of ideas.

IEDC 2017 recently concluded in Toronto which was the first time the conference had been held outside of the United States. It was an overwhelming success attracting around 1400 participants including a few hardy souls from Australia and many from around the world.

The ‘Going Global’ theme allowed me to hear about and debate, high quality job creation, revitalising communities, using creative arts to add commercial value, competitive advantage, innovation, entrepreneurship and so on. The presenters were mostly practitioners and many examples were very practical programs aiming to address issues that are faced every day in Australia. Job loss, city centre activation, changing land use, investment capital attraction and business facilitation.

The keynote speaker was Dr Richard Florida who is perhaps the world’s leading ‘urbanist’. He has just released a book titled ‘The New Urban Crisis’ and also wrote ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’. He makes a strong argument for corporations to become better corporate citizens and focus on wealth sharing and a fairer economy.

One of the most discussed topics is the current search going on in North America by Amazon for a second headquarters (alongside Seattle Washington). Amazon have released a prospectus seeking cities/regions to pitch for this business which will involve some 50,000 jobs, 8 million square feet of space and an investment by Amazon of $USD 5 Billion. Not hard to understand that this move has created a bidding frenzy, particularly from cities and regions hard hit by the manufacturing exodus over the past few years in North America.

At one of the best social functions of the conference, some 200 economic development stars and guests from around the world loved the ‘International Dinner’. I was lucky enough to draw a seat beside the Head of Policy from the Falkland Islands. It was fascinating to hear about some of the aspirations and challenges facing the Falklands, but it also put a whole new perspective on ‘remote’.

Earlier in 2017, submission of an abstract to one of the conference themes resulted in an invitation to present at the conference. My topic was ‘Reconciling Objectives of Land Use Planners and Economic Developers’. As background to my presentation I undertook a short survey of town planners in my network to uncover the ‘Top 5 Gripes of Land Use Planners’ in dealing with development applications. Likewise I surveyed economic development professionals and members of the development industry to understand their top 5 gripes of the planning process. Having worked in regional and metropolitan areas, with responsibilities for land use planning and also economic development, I have developed a strong view that economic developers can play a critical role when they are alongside planners (both statutory and strategic) in a supportive sense, rather than as an advocate for a proponent or investor. My survey showed however, that these myths about the planning process by all parties, are heavily ingrained and new ways of engagement are needed. I suggest a practical approach for economic developers.

In brief, the gripes of all parties are numerous. Consolidation of the recurring themes into the Top 5 Gripes for Land Use Planners in dealing with development applications were;

  1. Not the right information to support development applications – inaccurate planning reports and / or technical information (a trust us approach)
  2. Lobbying CEO, Directors, state government anyone that will listen to exert pressure when you are not giving them the answer they want to hear
  3. Applicants who think their application is the only one that is being dealt with at that time
  4. Being contacted (pressured and harassed) by several different parties relating to the same application to only give the same message
  5. Higher consideration of the monetary contribution of a development as opposed to a net community benefit

While for the economic developers and proponents Top 5 Gripes were;

  1. Timeframes – taking too long to make a decision
  2. Planners not returning phone messages and or responding to emails
  3. Planners not being prepared to provide informal advice on whether an application is likely to be supported
  4. Lack of coordination within Council or between Council and external referral agencies
  5. Requiring reports and supporting documents which are not required and or referenced in the planning scheme – i.e. social impact assessment, ESD reports, etc.

In summary, my suggestions for economic developers are to firstly understand (planners are people and skilled professionals), support (take away some of their pain), engage (teach don’t tell) and recognise (find subtle ways of recognising good work). This approach can grow the confidence of all parties and lead to a highly engaged team approach to development facilitation.

There were 3 panel members and a moderator and our session was 90 minutes which included 20 minutes for each to present and 30 minutes for questions. In the lead up to the conference we were concerned about our time slot (being the final concurrent session of the conference) and our opposition which is always one of the best attended sessions, the Business Locations Consultants Forum, where site selectors talk about current opportunities they are representing.

Our panel had a telephone conference call prior to the conference in which we shared our presentations and settled on the key messages from each speaker. Despite our concerns we had a full room
and surprisingly by a show of hands, around 30 planners. The session went really well and we fielded many questions, with a line-up of people after the presentation seeking more detail and to discuss a particular issue they had. The follow-up feedback on the session by organisers (each session is rated by participants) suggested we hit the mark, ranking highly among all sessions for the conference.

On reflection I think the most satisfying part of putting yourself forward, is to have your ideas tested and argued in front of your peers. Peers are inquiring, challenging, a bit cynical but always looking at the relevance of any contention from their own perspective and as presenter you hope it resonates.

As an Economic Development Australia (EDA) member, taking the time to present is challenging and even a little stressful, but is balanced by the way it opens an opportunity to engage such a wide variety of people in our field, doing quite amazing work. My network has expanded as a result and the few days in Toronto was a welcome break. The whole experience was refreshing and engaging in my
professional development. Relevance 10/10 and Value 10/10. Give it a try and think Atlanta Georgia 2018.