“It’s about what else we do. And co-operatives are that ‘what else’ we can do.” – Dale Wheeldon

British Columbia Economic Development Association (BCEDA) President and CEO Dale Wheeldon is passionate about helping rural communities thrive and grow — and he thinks co-operatives have a role to play in increasing rural economic development.

Wheeldon has led the BCEDA for almost 10 years, and he’s noticed increased interest in the business model. People are curious how co-operatives can promote economic development in their towns, he said. He also suggests there are misconceptions about the model and its relevance to today’s economy.

Some people think co-operatives have “gone the way of the dodo,” said Wheeldon. Others think the model only applies to gas bars and grocery stores. To counter this, he suggests increasing awareness of the co-op model in rural areas.

“If it’s community-owned, it’s likely to be sustainable,” he said. “People will support it because they’re shareholders.” That money generated stays in the community is “the nice thing about a co-op in my mind.”

Wheeldon points to Fraser Lake as a BC community looking to the co-op model to seize a local opportunity. After the town’s only grocery store closed, a group formed with the goal of increasing the town’s access to food. The group hopes to develop a market with local produce and low-cost meals. Wheeldon said it is encouraging to see this type of community initiative.

During Wheeldon’s time at BCEDA, the association’s membership has shown impressive growth – increasing from 117 to 560 members. He has also traveled to around half of the 180 municipalities in the province. Encouraging communities to innovate has been key to his success.

Wheeldon said the BCEDA often tells communities to change how they see community assets. They suggests towns need to work together and promote themselves as part of a region.

“You can’t do economic development within boundaries,” Wheeldon said. “Sometimes it’s hard for communities to accept, but they’ll get a lot further if they think beyond the municipal boundaries.”

Wheeldon and the BCEDA also encourages communities to consider a co-op for their economic development. Traditional economic development often involves communities spending money to attract outside investors, he said. If this approach doesn’t work, people feel their entire ec dev program has failed.

“I think really what’s more important is: ‘Was our economic development program focused right? Maybe we need to focus it a different way.’ And I think that’s what you’re seeing in rural communities. [They say] ‘Okay, maybe we can’t attract, but can we grow from within?’, and it’s not just about growing the entrepreneurs or it’s not about just growing the businesses that are already there. It’s about what else we do. And co-operatives are that ‘what else’ we can do.”