Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City's economic development arm has tricky task

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Most of us who live and work in Winnipeg can articulate all sorts of good things about the experience.

Economic Development Winnipeg is charged with marshalling the hard data that make up those experiences to be used for professional marketing purposes to promote Winnipeg's economic development and tourism development efforts.

EDW is the front-line entry point for any business or investor investigating potential development in the city.

Among other things, its role is to provide the kind of information that would allow an enterprise to map out a course of action of investment in the city and proceed to the next step.

It's also responsible for tourism promotion, a tricky challenge for a city not blessed with the kind of natural endowments that would become obvious tourist attractions. And it does so with a budget much smaller than more famous tourist destination cities.

Information about a city's economy is always a moving target. Not so long ago, Winnipeg was legitimately touted as a broadcast media centre, but that changed with the bankruptcy and departure of Canwest Global Communications Corp. So EDW has to update its data regularly.

It does a good job at it. It's made easier by successes that can be pointed to, irrespective of any role EDW may actually play in those good-news business stories.

But the role it plays in the economic development dynamic can be a thankless one. The agency is regularly subjected to pressure from some quarters to justify its existence.

There is always debate about how taxpayers' money is spent. Last year, EDW received $2,021,758 from the city and $1,412,000 from the province.

The creation of Yes! Winnipeg a year and a half ago as a unit of EDW changed the dynamic a little. Partially funded by the private sector, it is able to crow about successes it has a hand in far easier than its publicly funded parent organization ever could. (Yes! Winnipeg needs to be able to show its investors it is producing some sort of return on investment. It also has a budget for events such as one earlier this week announcing the development of a new, mid-priced airport-region hotel development.)

Coinciding with its annual meeting this week, EDW has posted comprehensive reports on its website on the city's 10 most active sectors -- advanced manufacturing, aerospace, agri-business, cultural industries, energy and environment, financial services, ICT (information and communications technology), life sciences, tourism and transportation and distribution.

It's also producing a video series eventually profiling each of the sectors on its own YouTube channel and featuring local media personality Peter Jordan.

One of the first segments, on advanced manufacturing, features New Flyer Industries' CEO Paul Soubry, one of the city's most respected and admired CEOs, talking about the expertise and innovation at the Winnipeg bus manufacturer.

It is unfortunate timing, as this is not one of New Flyer's most prosperous periods. Its customers -- mostly U.S. municipal transit authorities -- have had their budgets slashed and are facing an uncertain funding future.

When the aerospace segment is produced, it likely will not make reference to Aveos Fleet Performance, Air Canada's former heavy maintenance operation that has shut down and is in the process of a court-sanctioned liquidation.

As well, on the life sciences front, the message might have to be tweaked now the National Research Council is planning to lay off the bulk of its Winnipeg scientists and close the Institute for Biodiagnostics.

All three of the situations are a result of global economic conditions or were out of the control of their Winnipeg business management. It might well be argued that the local business climate had nothing to do with those setbacks.

It's not likely that EDW will produce background information on the travails of those operations, although there's something to be said about the economic development agency getting ahead of a story, just as it does on the good-news ones.

Regardless of how sweetly the local economy may be running, it's never a safe bet to think things won't change. A co-ordinated, targeted effort featuring high-end research and ongoing monitoring and professional networking is a service the city really can't do without.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2012 B4

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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