Bridging the gap – regional economic development

Regional councils and economic development organisations are active in promoting their regions in order to attract investment and to  support their local businesses, through providing information on trends in the economy, technology, personal development and finance.  Regional economic and business conferences are critical in bridging the gap between metropolitan preoccupations and regional realities.

Over the past month I’ve been to, or participated in, three regional and business development conferences.  The first, in Biloela as I wrote about earlier, I was privileged to chair.  The second and largest, was the biennial Investing in our Future conference in Emerald.  Last week, I travelled to Cooktown in Far North Queensland to be a speaker – talking about collaboration – at Council’s Business Conference.

There were some components common to the two more business-oriented (Biloela and Cooktown) conferences.  Certainly raising business owners’ familiarity with how to maximise returns from social media is high on the agenda.  One difficulty with having presenters so well versed in both the marketing and technical aspects is that it’s difficult to pitch the presentation so that a majority of attendees “get it.”  Workshops are probably the best medium for this, larger conferences should be about prompting inquiry, exploration and then signing up for help.

That said, the ubiquity of social media and its rapid evolution – new products, new channels, new algorithms and changing user preferences – makes it hard to remain abreast.

Investing in Our Future stood out for its hands-on approach to investment attraction, to be expected in a more economically developed area with a number of major projects on the list.  There were two speakers with experience in sourcing “non-traditional” (ie non-bank) avenues for project finance, as well as site visits that helped participants to better understand the scope and potential of the projects being showcased.  While the hard work and negotiations go on behind the scenes, the public activity ensures a high degree of transparency of what is being proposed, who is interested and, of course, any unforeseen potential.

The smaller business conferences are also necessary to showcase their councils’ commitment to economic growth and industry diversification in their regions.  A perennial problem is getting small business owners to attend, as sole traders and family owned businesses often cannot spare the time away from their shops or workplaces.

It always amuses me, though, to hear speakers visiting from the city to – as they inevitably do – express joy at visiting and their wonderment at all the activity going on in that region.  I have no doubt it is meant sincerely, although it can sometimes sound a bit condescending.  On face value, it simply reinforces the need for more metropolitan “movers and shakers” to get out of the CBD more often.

Some years ago, while I was in my previous government role, the then Director-General sent a bunch of Brisbane-based staff to my region to see on the  ground what a regional office did.  I introduced them to our local contacts and we visited key investment, industrial and tourism sites. It was to be the first of a series, then it was decided that it looked like a boondoggle and too much of a political risk, so the results weren’t even distributed internally.

Wasted opportunities give me the irrits – we should be creating more, so that the potential of regional Queensland, and Australia, is better understood.

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