The Economic Development Commission of a new small city and its surrounding rural area wanted long-term regional planning that was fair and provided lots of opportunity for input from various stakeholders. The planning had to be highly participatory, with neutral facilitators engaging a large part of the general public to create a well-supported economic development plan. The Economic Development Commission wanted active teams of citizens by the end of the planning cycle. They did not want the plan to sit on a shelf, as plans so often do.
The situation and factors at play
Three small towns were mandated to amalgamate into the new city with a large rural catchment area to reduce administrative costs and rationalize the patchwork of local regulations that shaped business and day-to-day life across the region. The entire area depended heavily on a resource economy, but most people knew that this could not be sustained over the long term. City councilors and business leaders had formed an advisory group to create an economic development plan to provide a solid foundation for everyone in the region. This advisory group had had very little luck in creating a plan that everyone would back. After almost a year without getting very far in their planning, they decided on the ToP participatory approach.
This planning process involved demonstration sessions with the original advisory committee of politicians and business leaders. Three dozen open-focus groups and input sessions for the general public were held across the catchment area with good promotion by the local media. Since the sessions were open and public, no one knew how many people would show up for any particular session; therefore, the process had to be robust enough to work for however many people came, a handful or a hundred. Sessions were held in local community halls, golf clubs, and hotels. Two months after all the public sessions were complete, the advisory group met twice to consider the emerging vision, obstacles, and strategies. They invited all the participants from the three dozen public sessions to join them at a large plenary meeting in a local college gymnasium to review the emerging consensus plans, make recommendations, and launch implementation teams. The government leader opened the session, remarking that it was a “good example of democracy in action.” Other people were invited to participate through email, fax, and surveys. In all about
540 people attended the various sessions.
Impact and results
By the end of the planning, eight new strategy teams were in place. The team to promote regional attractions was the largest. They revamped the schedule of celebrations among all the towns and villages to eliminate conflicting schedules. A new downtown business network replaced the three previous competing business associations, with a full-time marketing and events coordinator. The business district became the region’s first historic district under the Historic Sites Protection Act. The team coordinated several new websites to offer a wider variety of tourism information. Within five years, tourist income had increased to $35 million per year. A one-source business team has since been created to encourage local investment. They help coordinate business associations, create local investment pools, seek out entrepreneurial efforts, and help micro-business start-ups.

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