One weekend back in 1985, 80 local people from the town of Esperance in Western Australia shut themselves in a room on a property outside town in order to conduct a three-day brainstorming session. It was the first step in a one-year economic development planning exercise for the region. The same weekend one man, Ernesto Sirolli, just new to the town, walked the streets asking people if they knew anybody who wanted to do anything in the way of setting up or growing a business.
One year and many thousands of dollars later, the strategic plan for the economic development of Esperance finally saw the light of day. It didn’t contain any of the industries that Sirolli had helped his 29 clients create businesses in during that same year. Why? Because innovation begins in the minds of people and is not something that can be planned for. The planners could not foresee what the local people would come up with given Sirolli’s direct and simple (and low-cost) approach to providing assistance.
One of the recommendations put forward by the planners was to write to British fishing fleet operators to invite them to fish out of Esperance during the off-season. There was a problem with this however; the British vessels could not fit in the harbour. A recommendation was put forward asking for government funds to deepen the harbour so that the boats would fit. In the meantime the local fishermen had banded together and made an approach to the planners requesting funds to allow them to conduct research into new tuna markets. They were refused. On the grounds that they were not to be trusted and “would never make it”.
The fishermen scraped together the money by other means and within three years two businesses had been set up by this group providing 58 jobs and with a combined annual turnover of $4 million. (Remember this is the late 80’s by the way.) Oh and also, the British vessels never came.
Recently in Dannevirke, Big Barrel has applied again to open a liquor outlet after withdrawing a previous application. Now, right from the outset let’s get one thing clear to ensure that the points I’m making here are not misconstrued by interested parties (again). Sirolli, recognised as an international expert in the economic development of rural communities, is the first to admit he didn’t make a whole lot of friends when he told local authorities they should concentrate on making sure the town has adequate infrastructure rather than spending “thousands of dollars of public money publishing their personal thoughts as if such thoughts embodied some form of superior wisdom, and should take priority over ‘real’ enterprise.” (Sure doesn’t mince his words huh?)
I am not weighing in on whether Big Barrel should or shouldn’t be allowed to open a liquor outlet in town. I’m also not weighing in on what grounds the objections were made. What I am doing is questioning the reasoning of the objections that have been raised. In the Community Board Minutes 28 May 2013, a point has been made that Big Barrel is “a business that would add nothing to the town”. Based on what? It is definitely recognised that alcohol causes harm. As do cars when used in a reckless manner. As do guns. As does a fast-food diet. What exactly are we saying here? Are we saying the people of Dannevirke cannot be trusted to purchase, consume and enjoy alcohol in moderation? (I’m not putting words in people’s mouths here by the way, I’m simply asking a question.)
Whether we are aware of it or not, underlying biases, prejudices and beliefs are killing rural towns, including Dannevirke. Suspicious of outsiders and change, we limit the scope of business opportunities that we deem as being acceptable. Even amongst our friends. Local authorities across the world have historically believed the key to economic growth is in attracting big business to town. Turns out it’s not. We spend our resources in an attempt to attract a hero that will ride in on a white horse (or British boat), provide jobs and save the town. What exactly are we saying here? That the people who already live here aren’t capable of creating and building businesses that will create jobs? That we need to look outside the area because there’s no-one here that could do it? Are we the fishermen of Esperance? White knights, like large British boats, rarely come. Unless you’re Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. And given the brothel’s gone we’re going to be a long time sitting outside the Public Trust building wait for Richard Gere. We could always knit to pass the time of course.
Local entrepreneurship and innovation is the key to economic growth. There is a never-ending supply of case studies on communities who have reversed a downwards trend in growth due to being provided with the right environment: grassroots assistance from people who have been there and done that in terms of starting and growing businesses and a strong support network of enterprising and entrepreneurial leaders supporting diversity, risk-taking and innovation. Similarly found in ample quantities are examples of five, ten or 15 year economic development plans gathering dust on shelves because they could never have predicted the industries that grew.
The key to growing rural communities lies within the people who reside there. Any amount of investment in marketing the area will not bring the numbers of tourists required to reverse a trending decline in economic growth. Rural communities must invest in their fishermen. We must question the assumptions we make in regards to whether people are to be trusted or businesses are to add value. (Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence so it’s quite okay.) We must stop searching for a hero to come and save our rural towns. Invest in the people who are here. Take the money being spent on publicising the town, spend it on the people and let the town speak for itself. They are worth spending it on aren’t they?
Annette Kendall lives on a sheep and beef farm in the Tararua District and is currently undertaking research into the development of innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration within rural communities.