MDB Insight Blog


Go Big, or Go Home?

#WednesdayswithMDBInsight – Our Wednesdays with MDB Insight blog posts feature the thinkers and doers on our team sharing ideas and talking about what’s important to us as professionals.

We have very diverse backgrounds and a range of interests to share with you. We hope you’re enjoying these posts and that you will join the conversation with us and let us know what’s on your mind mid-week.

Paul Blais, EVP

toronto-2428518_1920-2How many young dreamers have imagined themselves pursuing a career in New York, London, Toronto, or Los Angeles? For some, landing a gig in Silicon Valley or Vancouver or Washington, DC might have been the ideal. But an intriguing opinion published recently by the World Economic Forum supports what I have long believed – big global cities aren’t necessarily the best (and certainly not the only) places to boost a career1.

The WEF isn’t advocating for the career-minded to pick up and move to Tinyville, but they wisely point out that today’s workforce has mobility advantages not available to previous generations.

Now that we’re in the era of virtual work, you don’t necessarily have to live anywhere urban to make a good living.

What they call “under the radar” cities, with smaller populations and clusters or hubs of sector-specific opportunity, have great appeal according to the WEF. They offer a lower cost of living than larger urban centres and a quality of life that can be a tremendous calling card. The WEF lens is global, but there’s ample evidence to support this trend in Canadian communities as well. I have often talked about the renaissance happening in smaller towns and rural regions across this country and continue to see encouraging indications that targeted workforce and economic development strategies are reaping benefits for those communities bringing innovative approaches to the attraction and retention of both workers and jobs.

I still remember the first time I used the term “Lone Eagles” in a 2008 strategy to recognize those entrepreneurs who had a choice of where to run their businesses. Those communities that were within a decent drive of an airport, near a large city, and have great telecommunications services are well-positioned for this type of growth. It’s a great economic development strategy for rural communities, but it’s also a great social capital strategy because people who work in their community are more likely to participate in the civic side of life. “Lone Eagle” has faded from our lexicon but the strategy still has tremendous application.

When Maclean’s published its lists of Best Communities in early August, they offered further proof of what’s possible when smaller communities get it right. Referring to them as “supercharged small towns”, Maclean’s writer Claire Brownell reiterated their appeal:

Contrary to the popular image of the struggling small town, these communities rose to the top of the ranking because of their high  incomes, strong population growth and access to thriving regional  economies. These places are all either within driving distance of a larger population centre or are hubs of local economic activity in their   own right. They’re supercharged small towns, and residents don’t have  to compromise—they’ve got access to the same amenities a suburb might offer, the natural splendour of a rural area and the opportunities of an urban centre.

Maclean’s also created a fun website – you can personalize your ranking criteria and see what communities are most suited to you. I was delighted to see so many of our smaller client communities recognized, including Conception Bay South and Paradise (NL), Cape Breton (NS), Russell, Tillsonburg, and Bradford West Gwillimbury (ON), Brandon (MB), Estevan (SK), Brooks, Stony Plain, and Hinton (AB), and Salmon Arm and Courtenay/Comox (BC). My home, South Frontenac, makes it to the middle of the pack in the default list. When I personalize my rankings, it jumps about 80 spots. Maybe my wife and I chose right. I’m very optimistic that our Township’s new CAO and the strategic planning process he is overseeing and then implementing will make my community even better.

okanagan-1275173_1920-2Corie Griffiths, Director of Economic Development for the Regional District of Central Okanagan, is one of our current clients and was quoted in Maclean’s coverage of the community rankings – “smaller towns are growing due to the housing crunch in urban centres. Where the interior of B.C. has that advantage is the comparative affordability paired with the job opportunities that exist in the region”. It’s great to see this acknowledged, and consistent with our work in the region. Trudy Parsons is currently leading the completion of a Central Okanagan Agriculture Asset Inventory for the Regional District, and Lauren Millier is heading our team working on the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission Strategy to 2025 for Invest Kelowna.

There’s no question about the lure of a big city. Research has recently confirmed, for example, the positive correlation between birthplace size and wages. If you’re born in a big city, you’re likely to stay there (mobility rates being what they are in North America). And that may give you a higher salary than someone in a smaller community. On balance, however, the lower cost of living and potential for enhanced quality of life in that smaller community are increasingly drawing attention as today’s younger workers look for a place to set down roots, raise a family, or launch a start-up. Some are taking a closer look at the hometown they (or their parents) left behind in favour of big city life. What does that smaller community offer today?

Paul 2018Paul Blais is an Executive Vice-President at MDB Insight. To learn more about Paul and the rest of our team, go to





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