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Okanagan economic development officers on firing line

Next time a hockey coach complains about a lack of job security, he should be thankful he’s not an economic development professional.

Five of those business boosters have been sacked by local governments throughout the South Okanagan in just the past four years. Osoyoos was the latest to jettison its economic point man when it parted ways late this summer with Jim Newman.

Mayor Stu Wells said via email that he wouldn’t discuss the matter because it’s a personnel issue.

Newman, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was the community development manager for Osoyoos, although his duties veered into the realm of economic development. He was also the town’s staff representative on council’s economic development advisory committee.

That committee’s chairman, Len McLean, said his group was not consulted on council’s decision to cut ties with Newman and was never provided a reason.

“I believe (council’s) stand on it was that they wanted to go in a different direction,” McLean said.

“I personally believe that it was a personality conflict.”

The town has indicated to the committee it will delegate economic development duties to existing staff members, McLean added.

Newman’s termination is the latest to befall the ranks of economic development professionals who worked for the region’s local governments.

The carnage began with Penticton cutting loose longtime business promoter Wayne Tebbutt in December 2008, followed by Oliver axing Les Lawther in March 2009, and Summerland dropping Scott Boswell in November 2010.

Penticton, the only community to rehire the position, in March 2012 terminated Tebbutt’s replacement, David Arsenault. The job was refilled in July by Colleen Pennington.

Arsenault said in an interview this week that the industry’s high turnover rate is due partly to a misunderstanding of what economic development really means and how long it really takes, plus the “failure” of his colleagues to properly manage expectations.

“This profession as a whole is based on results… and economic development doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

“A lot of times it’s thought a pied piper’s going to bring business into your community and that’s economic development and that’s economic growth, (but) that’s far from what economic development is.”

Arsenault, who now works in Kelowna for a private firm that provides public policy consultants, said economic development officers’ real work is helping existing businesses grow and prosper, because it’s existing businesses that create most new jobs.

“Most people see economic development as not being effective because there isn’t growth or new businesses coming to town, but they don’t see what’s working behind the scenes.”

Dale Wheeldon, CEO of the Economic Development Association of B.C., agreed with Arsenault and acknowledged his members “do have, in many cases, short lifespans in their communities, and it isn’t necessarily because of something the (economic development officer) has done.”

Sometimes politicians are looking for scapegoats, so they “blame the EDO and hire somebody else,” Wheeldon continued. Other times, people simply ”want change for change’s sake.”

 

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