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Regional Marketing Trends

Something new in economic development arrived in 2010. It came from the State of California and bears watching as a model for regional economic development.

For two decades there has been a growing trend for communities to work together to attract businesses, investors and tourists to their regions. It makes all kinds of sense to pursue development on a regional basis. Neighboring communities are economically interdependent, since employees in one town will shop or attend events in another, so the benefits of a new business spread throughout a region. Pooling community resources for investment attraction takes advantage of economies of scale and increases the reach and collective attractiveness of the communities involved.

California’s iHubs

Now California has combine this idea with the concept of the creative economy. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order on April 8, 2010, establishing the Governor’s Office of Economic Development as the state’s lead economic development agency and that body is leading the California Innovation Hub Initiative.

The initiative is designed to promote collaboration, create employment opportunities, shorten the commercialization process and attract funding for technology. The “i” in iHub represents the words innovation, inspiration, invention, ingenuity, and investment. iHubs are operated by local collaboratives comprised of government entities, universities, businesses, venture capitalist networks and economic development organizations. Designated iHubs are anchored by at least one university or research institution and they concentrate on strengthening the collaboration and support networks of young entrepreneurial companies to reinforce innovation clusters.

There are 12 designated iHubs in California now. The latest was launched October 11th; the Central San Joaquin Valley Innovation Hub. Key stakeholders include the Merced County Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development and the University of California, Merced.

Regionomic Marketing

With its iHubs, California has given large-scale organization and a big political stamp of approval to a new way of marketing that has been developing here and there for a few years now. We call it “regionomic marketing”

This is a marketing method that brings together organizations that are linked not only geographically but by a common goal of strengthening their region by achieving specific goals or addressing specifically defined economic development issues.

Regionomic marketing is distinct from regional economic development generally. The general-purpose joining of forces by communities in a region is still a growing activity with plenty of merit, but tends to have a very broad series of goals.

An example is the Kootenay Rockies Regional Economic Alliance in British Columbia (www.krrea.org). It describes its role as follows:

“The regional economic alliance model, as a concept, provides a means for the multitude of communities, businesses, Aboriginal and other key economic stakeholders in the region to collaborate in a broad-based economic development partnership to improve the region’s overall capacity for growth and enable stakeholders to focus more on complementary activities rather than competing directly for economic growth.”

KRREA was recently created by the British Columbia government. The growth of such general-purpose partnerships has been spurred by state and provincial governments all over North America. The Canadian province of Alberta, for example, has carpeted its entire land mass with provincially supported regional economic alliances.

Many States and Provinces driving Regionomic Marketing

More recently, states and provinces have been prime movers behind the development of regionomic marketing organizations. These have more narrowly focused mandates such as attracting one or more targeted sectors of business or enhancing a region’s collective capabilities in a specified way such as workforce development.

The State of Michigan exemplifies the latter. Since 2004 it has developed a state-wide group of Michigan Skills Alliances, (www.michigan.gov/rsa), now numbering 37. These are partnerships of employers, educators, workforce developers, economic developers, and community leaders in a specific region or industry that work together to identify and solve complex workforce challenges.

Sometimes an organization focuses on this type of regionomic goal but retains a general purpose as well. An example is the Central Alberta Economic Partnership (www.centralalberta.ab.ca). It aims to attract investors and site selectors but focuses primarily on helping regional employers to attract a much-needed labor force.

Regionomic Web Marketing

To that end its website has a number of components designed for placemaking purposes, in keeping with creative economy principles and a regionomic approach to enhancing its partners’ economic strengths:

  • A video promoting the benefits of living, working, playing and learning in Central Alberta;
  • Community profiles that provide 24-hour access to information critical to relocation and/or expansion decisions;
  • Images and testimonials from Central Alberta business leaders that describe the benefits of living, working and playing in the region;
  • A language translation tool that addresses the needs of those seeking information both locally and internationally in French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Chinese.

Trends in Regional Economic Development Governance

While many such examples can be found of effective regionomic web marketing programs, California’s iHub initiative is adding a new element to the trend. It has to do with governance.

With traditional regional economic development organizations there are inherent challenges in managing multiple partners and stakeholders equitably. Communities offer different assets and have access to different pools of money. Financing of regional marketing can create dissent and an unreliable level of commitment for the regional organization.

Multiple organizational models exist to manage regional marketing and there’s no “best way” it really is more about creating the right model for each situation.

In California’s case, the model is defined from the top down. A collaborative organization must apply to achieve an iHub designation and must satisfy certain criteria, including the establishment and maintenance of goals and the demonstration of benchmarks to measure whether they are attained.

Each designated iHub must sign a memorandum of understanding signifying its commitment to a five-year relationship with the State of California. It has to submit an annual report to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development identifying progress made toward stated goals. These reports will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the first generation of iHubs as well as to identify areas for improvement.

In other words, the iHub initiative will help to develop measures for the effectiveness of such regionomic organizations, and by extension all regional economic development organizations. That’s why it can be seen as a model to help guide the evolution of this aspect of economic development, which is dealing with a variety of challenges. We will address some of those challenges, particularly concerning branding, messaging and website management, later in this series of Economic Development Tech Trends.

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