Helen Jowett has been a member of Waterloo Regional Council for one year. But despite being one of the rookies on council, this Cambridge representative, who admits that “it was a little intimidating at first,” has been named chair of a committee that may turn out to be the most important committee of council the Economic Development and Promotion Committee.
This is not a new committee there has been an economic development committee for decades. But it is a committee with a brand new, and very significant, mandate to be what regional chair Ken Seiling calls “the formal interface between the Waterloo Regional Economic Development Corporation and regional council.”
The WREDC is the newly formed corporation, backed by all seven area municipalities and the Region which will now be the point organization for economic development across the Region. It replaces Canada’s Technology Triangle, taking over CTT’s foreign investment mandate and expanding it significantly.
And Jowett is heading the committee that will liaise between the WREDC and the Region.
While she may be a newbie on Regional Council, she brings an impressive resumé to her new responsibilities. Seiling told Exchange, “Helen comes with a business background and an interest in business development and economic development… I think she’s a real natural.”
She’s not only had an interest in business development Jowett has taken leadership in a number of area organizations. A Certified Human Resources Professional and Mediator and holder of an M.B.A., she is founder and owner of McDonald-Green, an HR consulting firm. She has been Chair of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, Chair of Canada’s Technology Triangle, Chair of Cambridge Memorial Hospital Foundation, Chair of Junior Achievement, Vice Chair of Conestoga College, a member of the Boards of Wilfrid Laurier University, the Barnraisers Council, and Sunrise Rotary.
Jowett says, “Our community is very open and very much allows people to be engaged. You can get involved in almost anything you want to…. Whenever anybody asked me to sit on a board, if I had the time, I’d always say, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
She was usually recruited because of her perceived skill set related to human resources, but Jowett can’t be pigeon-holed. “They’d bring me on board because of my HR focus, but then I would almost always gravitate toward the leadership role. I don’t know how that happened, or why … probably just because I said yes!”
And in the period leading up to the most recent municipal elections, which were held in October 2014, she said “yes” again this time to people who were urging her to run for one of the Regional Council seats from Cambridge.
She says she has always been interested in politics, but did not expect to succeed in her initial run for office. “I was surprised I won the first time. I thought I would have to run again. I made the decision to run based on the fact that I had been sitting around all these tables from a business angle, for a very long time, and I thought, maybe some of what I have learned I can actually bring to the table from a different perspective.”
For any newcomer to municipal office, there is a sharp learning curve, and Jowett immersed herself in her new job while distancing herself from her business, now run on a day to day basis by Toni Veiledal, McDonald-Green’s Director, Corporate Development.
Jowett says that she understands why some of the practices at the Region seem arcane: “There are so many historical protocols that have to be maintained even for things to be legal. The motions have to be presented properly, you have to act at the pleasure of whoever is chairing the meeting… The systems and protocols are set up for respectful debate. There are a lot of rules, but I think it works really well.”
But while that kind of tradition is important, Jowett celebrates change, as well. “On this council, there are a lot of new people. I think we’re embracing where politics is going, I think we’re really good at open debate and still being respectful; not having that historical, ‘I don’t like you because you didn’t vote for what I wanted.’”
One significant change involves the role of the committee she chairs Economic Development and Promotion. Ken Seiling says that the committee’s mandate has changed almost entirely. “We’ve had an economic development committee for many years… It didn’t do a lot, it dealt mainly with grants to organizations… It wasn’t a big, active committee, it didn’t really have a strong mandate.”
But with the formation of the WREDC which has been approved by all municipalities “That committee will now be the formal interface between the regional corporation and regional council.” Seiling suggests that the normal process will see the WREDC interact with Jowett’s committee; the committee would then make recommendations to council, although WREDC is also committed to direct reports to all regional municipalities.
Seiling says the new Corporation is the right thing at the right time. “Council is quite keen on what’s happening. For years we have felt there needed to be a stronger central role for economic development. This most current round is more of a reflection on where regional council felt it should go but really wasn’t in a position to force the issue. I think more recently there is this willingness to work together to create a stronger body, and regional council certainly have been very strongly behind it.”
That “willingness to work together” is one of the things that Jowett finds encouraging and hopeful about the current Regional Council. She told Exchange, “I’m excited about this council because of the way we work together,” and as a representative from Cambridge, she underlines the new spirit of cooperation across the face of the region. “This anxiety between Cambridge and the Region, it’s not like it was. It’s actually quite amazing. I won’t tolerate anybody making me part of a conflict. I’m a mediator by trade, and so I try to bring people together all the time.”
Time for a change
Jowett was chair of Canada’s Technology Triangle until she stepped aside to run for Regional Council, so you might think she would be ambivalent about the development that has phased out the CTT and introduced WREDC. Not at all.
“I do believe this is huge for our community,” she says. “We are doing the next iteration of what has to happen. It is evolving into a broader mandate.”
Jowett has a lot of positive things to say about the CTT although she was also an agent of change with that organization. She says, “I have been on the CTT board for 10 or 12 years. They asked me to chair it a couple of times and I said I wouldn’t chair it unless I could overhaul it because I didn’t think we were running it as effectively or as efficiently as I thought we could.
“We were doing some seriously important work and that’s when they said ‘Okay, do what you want’. So I changed the staff over to business development people.”
She says that the changes brought positive results and ironically, the best of those results may come under the new organization. “The sales cycle for CTT is long, and unfortunately, all of that hard work that was put in then is going to be realized now. I hope that everybody realizes that there’s going to be this new organization that is going to hit the ground really running hard because of the work that’s just going to come to fruition because of all of that hard, focused activity.”
The new WREDC board of directors is a skills-based board, and, unlike the CTT, there is no direct representation by governmental representatives, either elected or administrative.
Jowett sees that as a good thing although it is also the reason her newly mandated committee is essential. “We will be there to steward the tax dollars. To make sure we are getting a return on investment. To look at the metrics and say, are the activities netting the community the result they deserve from it. That’s going to be our role.”
She argues that government should have a supportive but not necessarily a leading role in economic development. She told Exchange that in the CTT years, “There was a continual tension between the administrators, the CAOs, and business, because we see things differently. The CAOs were always looking for metrics, and we were always looking for less interference. Because business owners, when they come here, don’t want to talk to politicians, until they need policy or a zoning change.” She repeats her statement for emphasis: “They don’t want to talk to politicians.”
She finds it a bit transformational to now be part of the government side. “I know now, here, that my own role will be much different. What I do want to care take is making sure that we do a good job of this. That means many different things. Like taking the best of what we learned at CTT and keeping it. Like knowing that our mandate must be bigger and stronger and competitive.”
Jowett has brought a motion to council that asks staff to investigate granting “delegated planning authority” to each municipality within the region. This would give each city and township the right to grant approvals to business investments without a second step of going through the region. At present, Kitchener has that authority while the other six municipalities do not. In her motion, Jowett said, “Success of our newly formed Waterloo Region Economic Development Corporation will realize greater potential, if we are able to streamline planning processes even further… I believe that delegated authority can speed the process if it is implemented properly and the municipalities respect the requirements of it.”
Part-time full-time job
Jowett is excited about her new role, and about the potential that has been created by the new WREDC. But she stresses that chairing the committee is just one part of her job a position that is technically part-time. She laughs: “They call them part-time councillor gigs. I make $41,637 a year, I think. But the reality is, if I was going to get into it, I was going to give it my all.
“I came at this with a learning mind. I’m pro-development because of CTT, but I also know we have a lot of sensitive lands in the region, so I put myself on GRCA because I wanted to balance that side of me.
“I want to be able to steward that vote with the most integrity I can. So I come in here, when it’s council week, and I read for a day by myself. I don’t want to be ill-prepared. Sometimes there are 300-400 pages.”
Jowett embraces the challenges. “My fiduciary duty here is to look into as much as I possible can. I look for argumentation. I intentionally talk to people who have an opposite perspective to me, because I think that’s where the learning happens.”
Jowett is a woman in love with her community. She recalls a session on economic development she attended at an Association of Municipal Officials conference: “Basically, they kept touting what Waterloo Region has done, and what we are about to do. We’re ahead. That’s what I am most proud of. We’re finding out that Waterloo Region is ahead of the curve on so many things. We’re doing pretty good here.”
And, she believes, we can do even better.
“As a region, we have so much more to capitalize on, together, when you take our capital assets, and really look at them, if we can really position them… This community is so collaborative.
“And we had to learn how to be collaborative because of how fractured our communities are. We had to find the ways to be honest about when it’s good to collaborate, and when it’s good to mind our own agenda. And I talk openly about that all the time. You have to know the difference and be open to that. I think this community has over time learned that.”
Jowett asks, “ What are we going to do better with this new organization? I think we will be more strategic. I think going to market as a region is going to do us much more than going to market individually. I think it is time for that.”
She adds, “There’s so much investment from the region and from the municipalities. We’re investing so heavily that everyone’s going to have to realize that this is serious. Either they’re part of the problem or they’re part of the solution…
“There’s a search underway for a CEO somebody who can manage multiple stakeholders, somebody who understands economic development, and obviously somebody who understands foreign direct investment, so this leader is going to have a broader mandate that CTT has had…
“This is a much bigger budget, a much bigger mandate, and there are more people engaged and you have some real good international leadership around the new board table.”
“I do believe we are at a transformational time.”