619: Empowering Communities and Driving Economic Prosperity | Heather Thomson

Podcast Cover Image: Empowering Communities and Driving Economic Prosperity Featuring Heather Thomson
Podcast Cover Image: Empowering Communities and Driving Economic Prosperity Featuring Heather Thomson

Powered by RedCircle

Heather Thomson, Executive Director of the Alberta School of Business – Centre for Cities and Communities joins us on the latest episode. As the co-founder of this institution, Heather’s passion lies in mentoring the next generation of business innovators and collaborating with influential leaders in the business community. With a focus on education, consulting, academic & applied research, and industry outreach, Heather shares invaluable insights on how to create thriving cities and communities.

Beyond her role at the Alberta School of Business, Heather is also a consultant at 13 Ways Inc., a Community Development Firm. Through this work, she conducts comprehensive business and community assessments and crafts specialized community plans centred around economic development, local business prosperity, and beautification. With her extensive experience collaborating with numerous communities and delivering keynote presentations across North America, Heather brings a wealth of practical knowledge and expertise to our conversation.

Before her contributions to the academic and consulting spheres, Heather built an impressive career journey that included roles at Lululemon Athletica, ATB Financial, and even McDonald’s Restaurants. Her dedication to fostering business success and cultivating a talented workforce for the industry shines through in every endeavour. Join us as we delve into Heather’s captivating journey, gain insights from her business advocacy and strategist work, and uncover strategies for empowering communities and driving economic prosperity.

Conquer Local is presented by Vendasta. We have proudly served 5.5+ million local businesses through 60,000+ channel partners. Learn more about Vendasta and we can help your organization or learn more about Vendasta’s Affiliate Program and how our listeners (like yourself) are making up to $10,000 off referrals.

Are you an entrepreneur, salesperson, or marketer? Keep the learning going in the Conquer Local Academy.

Empowering Communities and Driving Economic Prosperity


Jeff: Welcome to the Conquer Local Podcast! Our show features successful sales leaders, marketers, thought leaders and entrepreneurs who will inspire you with their success stories. Each episode is packed with practical strategies, as our guests share their secrets to achieving their dreams. Listen in to learn the highlights of their remarkable accomplishments and get tips to revamp, rework, and reimagine your business. Whether you’re a small business owner, a marketer, or aspiring entrepreneur, the Conquer Local Podcast is your ultimate guide to dominating your local market. Tune in now to take your business to the next level! 

I’m your new host Jeff Tomlin, and we’re pleased to welcome Heather Thomson on this episode. 

Heather is a Retail and Consumer Behaviour Expert. As the Executive Director of the Centre for Cities and Communities and partner at 13 Ways Inc., Heather works firsthand with businesses, community organizations, and municipalities to ensure local economies are thriving. 

Prior to her work with the University of Alberta and 13 Ways, Heather worked at Lululemon Athletica, and ATB Financial and started her career with Mcdonald’s Restaurants. 

she helped dozens of communities and hundreds of businesses across North America and is a sought-after key-note speaker, a successful fundraiser and looks for opportunities in every situation. 

Get ready Conquerors for Heather Thomson coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local Podcast.

Heather’s Career Progression

Jeff: So Heather Thompson, welcome to the Conquer Local Podcast. It is such a privilege to have you on this week’s show. How are you doing?

Heather: I’m doing well. Thank you so much for having me.

Jeff: And hailing from Edmonton, Alberta, I have a question, a bit of a personal question for you.

Heather: Okay, yep.

Jeff: Are the people of Edmonton feeling a little more positive around the Edmonton Oilers these days?

Heather: I was hoping you were gonna ask that. I thought you were gonna say about like pandemic recovery or something. Yes, we are. Confidence is high right now.

Jeff: It’s been a long few years. I too am an Oiler fan and it’s,

Heather: Oh good.

Jeff: It’s been a tough, tough couple of decades, hasn’t it?

Heather: Yeah, yeah. And like I remember I was a waitress in 2006 when we were in the finals and gosh, it’s so good for the economy. Like, I can’t wrap my head around that. I mean, like, yeah, it’d be cool for them to win, but from like an economic standpoint, it just, the city turns into a completely different place.

Jeff: Oh, I totally imagine. Totally imagine.

Heather: Yeah.

Retail and Consumer Behavioural Expert

Jeff: Have to get out there for some playoff hockey. So, Heather, you are a consumer, a retail and consumer behavioural expert, and so we went through a little bit of that in the introduction. So, but for the audience, talk about that a little bit and what does that entail?

Heather: So in a nutshell, what I like to do, is I like to look at the data and trends as it relates to how people are spending their time and money. And I think I really stumbled into this role before the pandemic because of my retail background and was always fascinated by that psychology of where people spend their money, how they spend their money. And then because of the pandemic, it was kind of like a little bit of a, like a fast lane to going even deeper into this world. And I think some really fundamental shifts have happened in the last four to five years. And I think it’s fascinating and sometimes I can talk about it all day to the point where maybe even my colleagues are like, “Okay, enough, enough.” Like that’s, “We don’t need to hear everything about the Bay and why Sears left.” So I just, I think it’s absolutely fascinating and I know like it when things like the Zellers is happening or when Nordstrom is leaving, it’s always fascinating to me. And I think the cool thing is that people can get maybe a little bit, what’s the word? Like a little bit upset sometimes about some of those changes and what’s happening, but it’s the science and the data. Like, it doesn’t lie. You can look at money and you can track it and see where people are spending it.

Jeff: Well people get really attached to old brands and as the local market changes, it really impacts people like not, and I don’t mean just in the wallet, but like emotionally too. And they see a long-time brand like the Bay leave.

Heather: Yeah, people, I think none of us like change, right? We like what we’re used to. And the Bay’s been part, like anyone who’s alive today has had a Bay experience and I think the Bay is an interesting one because they’re trying. They’re trying really hard to be relevant. The question will be as like as, if we’re gonna pick on the Bay, what’s more valuable? Is it the Bay as a brand or is it the real estate that they own? And so they’re gonna have to have a really tricky time over the next few years figuring out what is their identity. Because as we know, distribution-based retailer sales at all is suffering. It doesn’t make sense anymore. Consumers can be their own distributors in a lot of ways. So the idea of like, let’s go to a storage and buy a product and like there’s nothing special about that experience. Those are the businesses that are going under. And it’s wild because everyone’s like, “Oh, brick and mortar’s dying.” It’s not, it’s actually expanding. There’s just so much space because these massive 180,000-square-foot stores are going away. So it just looks like there’s a lot of space and there is a lot of space. I wanna be really clear about that.

Jeff: There is.

Heather: But we have to, it’s not a matter of retail’s not doing well.

Jeff: And by the way for our listeners in the United States and internationally, we were talking about the Hudsons’ Bay Company up in Canada here. An awful lot of history around that franchise.

Heather: Yeah.

Jeff: And that brand.

Heather: Yep.

Consumer Behaviour Consultant at 13 Ways Inc.

Jeff: And so a lot of people up here, are particularly attached to it. So Heather, talk a little bit about your role at 13 WAYS, as well.

Heather: Sure, yeah. So I have kind of two different hats and my hat with 13 WAYS Incorporated is I am a consumer behaviour consultant. So I work with municipalities. Typically sizes are anywhere from like 5,000 people to about 150,000 people. We work with these municipalities to help identify, I hate to use the word, strategic plan. I will pay someone a million bucks to give me another term for it cause it just seems so generic. But I work with these communities to deliver a strategic plan. I will say though, that when we work with these communities, lots of engagement, lots of assessments, and the plan, if we do it properly is, is well under 10 pages. This isn’t the kind of, you know, strategic plan that has the tactical strategy and all that stuff where it makes it like 65 pages. This is like, it’s really meant to be like, best case scenario can be a plan on a page. And we do our best to make sure that it’s a council strategic plan because not every plan, but a lot of plans we work with in the municipal space, they’re so caught up on like, we need sewers, we need like to run the municipality. And yes, of course, you have a legal obligation to run a municipality, but that’s all these municipalities, not all, but a good portion of them, are dying. They are losing population. And so what we try to do is figure out, what is your pathway forward to ensure the best services for your current residents and so you can attract new residents. There’s so many new people coming to Canada every year and what those new Canadians are looking for, a lot of our municipalities, especially the smaller ones, aren’t offering what people are looking for. And it’s not that hard to change. A lot of, like, one of the top five things that people are looking for is beautification. They want a beautiful community to live to. And it’s not necessarily that you have to be on a lake or an ocean or a mountain. There’s a lot of things that we can do in our community. So our hope is that we work with these communities and they can start putting strategic investments to turning their community into a desirable place to live. Not a desirable place to necessarily just work.

Jeff: Right and what’s in the, what’s in the name 13 ways?

Heather: So Doug Griffiths was a former minister of Municipal Affairs.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: And he wrote a book called, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community. And it’s a fascinating book. And where it kind of came from was he, so he was a junior high teacher and he would get his students to like, map out how it would look if they ruined their life. So like, if you wanted to ruin your life, what would you do today? And they’d be like, I would skip class, I would do drugs. And he would kind of do that. And then when he became a politician, he wrote The World Development Strategy and what he realized is that a lot of communities were doing the, like, things like today to sabotage their success. And so he wrote about it. So he found 13 things like, don’t invest in good water, don’t collaborate, don’t take responsibility, don’t paint. All of these things that communities were consistently doing that he’s visited, that were at like completely sabotaging their success. So that’s where the name comes from.

Jeff: Very cool. Thank you. I was wondering what was in the 13 Ways. Could it be 14 ways?

Heather: Yeah. It could be 20 million ways.

Jeff: It probably could be.

Heather: But he wants to do, it’s funny cause you can do 13 ways with like a whole bunch of different things. I do 13 ways to Kill Your Commerce, which is kind of fun. And yeah, so you can do it with anything. 13 ways to kill your kids.

Jeff: It’s a satisfying number of ways. It’s not too many and it’s not too much.

Heather: No.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: That’s right.

Executive Director for the Centre of Cities and Communities

Jeff: So tell me, how did you get into your role as the executive director for the Centre of Cities and Communities?

Heather: So right out of high school, I started working at Lululemon Athletica and I loved it. I was there for 10 years, one of the very beginning employees in the province. And it was like bootcamp, I swear like from like a business perspective. I learned so much, went through a variety of roles in that company. And then it was time to move on and I was recruited to go work at a bank, which was a really terrible decision. It was, I cried all the time, I just didn’t, I hated it so much.

Jeff: I’m so sorry.

Heather: And I think it was a good lesson. Yeah, thank you. I think it was a good lesson to learn though because I’m one of those people where I’m like, “You’re just out of your comfort zone, suck it up, get through it.” But I think I learned a lesson, that there’s a difference between being outta your comfort zone and like learning something new versus a fundamental, like not, like not a good fit.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: It was not a good alignment. And I quit without another job lined up. And I thankfully was ending up working at the university. And so what I did was I managed a portfolio that was focused on municipal professional development. That’s actually where I met Doug. And so I would create content for municipal administrators and then at the university, at the school of business, a position came up that was the school of retailing executive director. And so I threw my name in that hat because of my experience with Lululemon and the bank and I was successful. And then we merged two years ago with the real estate school and program. And so now we are one larger entity, which is the Center for Cities and Communities. And people might mistake us for urban planning or social enterprise, but that’s really not our focus. Our focus within the centre is to look at research and curriculum as it relates to building strong business communities. And I think we do look at all the different healthy sort of components of what makes a community great to live in. But there’s a lot that we specialize when it comes to what is the right retail mix, what is, what is, what do we need in terms of like new development to create a nice structure for profitable businesses. And so that’s what the centre’s sort of mission is now. I also get to work with a lot of students cause we have a student consulting group where we’re working with, we kind of match students with different businesses in the local region to help them digitize or set something up. And it’s been, it’s really cool to see. So that’s kind of the whole centre. And I am really lucky that this has just evolved into what I am doing now.

Strategies for Empowering Communities

Jeff: This is a fascinating space for me because like, it really impacts people when a local community is growing and thriving versus when it’s a community in decline.

Heather: Yeah.

Jeff: And like it impacts people’s lives in the way they, you know, the way that they approach their lives and it breathes life into everything when there’s, you know, growing economic activity and there’s community involvement. So you work with a lot of different communities throughout North America. So talk about like, some of the practical strategies that are being employed in communities that are thriving and growing.

Heather: Hmm. Oh, that’s a good question. So I think when we look at communities that are doing well, I think they’re nailing housing. I think housing is probably one of the very first things I would look at. People think it’s the job market, it’s really not anymore. I mean, it probably was 20 years ago. People are like, well I’m gonna move where the jobs are. People can really work from wherever they like. So if they have a good assortment of housing, I think that’s an, I don’t want to use the term aggressive, but just like progressive, I’ll use that word, around what kind of housing the future’s looking for. I think that’s thing one. I think the other thing is that they’re very careful and strategic with their investments to do something different. And they’re good at utilizing different grants, especially in the United States. They’re quite good at looking at different ways of funding different initiatives. And I actually don’t know the number, but I’d be very curious to know how many municipalities use tax dollars as operating dollars or if they use like, maybe 30% of that as actually grant revenue. So I think it’s quite interesting. And then I’m very biased in this because of the research, I’m kind of elbow deep in right now, is around beautification. And beautification and the return on investment as it relates to beautification initiatives. And we’re talking 12-season initiatives. And so a lot of communities, unfortunately, will look at beautification as a nice to have, they’ll say, “Oh, well, we’ll get to that later. Oh, well, we have to do this, we have to do that.” I, 100% until the day I die, will argue that beautification is just as important as your sewer system for the longevity of your community. And so I’m not, maybe it’s flowers. I actually have a whole podcast on the power of twinkle lights and the psychology around lighting. And these are things that when we look at the successful communities that are growing and have a really amazing culture, a great community atmosphere, these are the ones that are thinking into the future, can house different sorts of people. And ultimately it’s a really beautiful place to live. And those are the fundamental things that I think communities need to be paying attention to.

Jeff: Is it the first thing that gets cut from budgets?

Heather: For some reason.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: Yeah, it is.

Jeff: It makes such a big difference. Like everyone wants to walk around a community that makes them smile, right? And it feels to me like the small, it’s small things that add to it, right?

Heather: Yes. It’s those little things that people, you’re right, for some reason it does get cut from budgets quite often. It takes a lot of coordination. It also takes a lot of education because what you might find beautiful and what I find beautiful could look very differently. So that level of engagement with the communities, it’s a tricky balance because you want people to feel heard and you want their taste to be incorporated. But a lot of the times everyday residents don’t care enough to really be in the know of like, what’s an option? When I was in Detroit, right before the pandemic, we were doing a little bit of a tour just to see, when you talk about a city that had to turn it around from nothing, like Detroit’s a really good case study, good example and it was absolutely horrifying when you look because that is a burb city, right? So when you look at, like, especially in Canada, we have a really tricky time with building our downtowns in the ’50s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s before office work and this was, Detroit did it very well. I remember they were once called the Paris of North America. So they had this really rich downtown. And then of course, as we saw, you know, gosh, 20 years ago now probably, that Detroit just went under. It was absolutely devastating. But what they’ve done from a beautification standpoint in their downtown, it’s not the whole downtown, it’s, I wanna be really clear, it’s a very targeted, intentional space, but what they’ve done, you would never know that they were such a depressed community in this area. They have, instead of benches, they have swings like, you know, like granny swings, right? And people were sitting around, they had lots of access to different sorts of transportation and they had interactive like music, like, you know, like the piano from Big, they had that everywhere. Like they just did a lot to liven up the space. And I think that was a very cool example of something that just breathes confidence back into the community. And when something looks good and we feel confident about it, we’re gonna spend our money.

Jeff: Right.

Heather: And that’s what it comes down to. We like it, we’ll spend our time, we’ll spend our money because I feel good in this space.

Revitalize downtowns for thriving communities.

Jeff: Let’s dig into that a little bit. So I’ve been part of a couple of different communities where there’s been a lot of debate going on right now about how we’re making investments, particularly in a downtown core. And I read something in our local paper, it was, oh gosh, it was probably a couple years ago, but I think about it a lot now. And this gentleman’s opinion was that cities die from the inside, out if you don’t take care of your core. Like what about that, Do you agree with that?

Heather: I fundamentally agree with that and know that to be true. Especially from a data standpoint. I think when we’re looking at investment and we’re looking, like there’s, like the bulk of our wealth doesn’t necessarily come from internal spending, internal investment. The big wealth is to be found internationally. And so when we’re looking at recruitment and investment attraction, our downtowns, whether they’re for a city of 5,000 people or 2 million, they speak to the confidence and the kind of that level of sophistication that a company will need to operate. You know, downtown isn’t just a place for people to work, it’s a place where money is exchanged and it’s really that heart. And I hate to use that term, it’s like, it’s the heart of the community. It’s like, okay, well what does that mean? And it’s like, well the heart of the community is where people will decide, do I wanna live here or not? Even if you choose not to live on the main street downtown kind of districts, it is still a huge part of the culture of the community. And so that term of, it will die from the inside out is very true. And this is one of the bigger studies that we’re working on currently is cause this is a huge red flag when we look at the health and wellbeing of our communities, especially in like the northern cities of North America because they were built during that post World War II time. Where it was like, at the time, it made complete sense, right? Like I will leave the home and I will go to work and then I will work downtown and then I will come back to my home and I love that suburb lifestyle. But now we’re stuck with this thing where we don’t have enough internal residential population to make it work. And so as an example here in Edmonton, before the pandemic, we had about 60,000 people downtown Monday to Friday, nine to five. So that was a good population for people to have a bustling business, do something for lunch, have breakfast, have coffee. You had lots of occupancy on the main streets, safety was not a concern, crime was down. You just had physically more humans. But now we’re up to, and now everything’s back to normal and using air quotes, we’re up to maybe 11,000. So we’re not even coming close to that 60,000 that we were before the pandemic. And this is having lots of different, I wanna say, consequences because of that. And safety obviously is a huge one. And I think this is something that we’re seeing across North America in the downtown course because there’s just not enough physical humans. We’re talking about safety, and this is again, my bias coming through, but if we really focus on our businesses and we made our local businesses super successful and thriving, the safety would take care of itself and it really would. And more people will come back downtown. I mean obviously, the silver bullet is like, let’s get a ton of residential in there, let’s get a 24/7 population base, but that’s gonna take time. So when we, so my two kind of inter like, I guess I’ll say soon silver bullets is, lots of beautification investment, but more importantly business tools. So people feel like they can open a great business and be profitable and be safe. And I think that’s the big ticket that we have to be looking at for the next five years.

Community Planning

Jeff: You know, I think this is a topic that like everybody’s interested in because everybody lives in some sort of community and they’ll all go through different periods of growth and sort of slow decline and then growth again. So you put together community plans and do community planning. Talk a little bit about the planning process.

Heather: It’s so hard.

Jeff: It seems like a piece of cake. Okay, you just get everyone on the same page and slap it down and say, there you go, there’s your plan.

Heather: You know what’s so funny though? Oh my gosh, you’re hitting on something that’s so interesting. Like there are some communities where I wanna go in and I could write the plan for them in like an hour. Okay, I’m exaggerating, I’m oversimplifying it but-

Jeff: Fast.

Heather: It’s kind of that like, yeah, like more cooks in the kitchen actually makes for like a really tricky process. And if you’re doing a plan for a company, you have a few stakeholders, I’m not like, depending on the company, it’s a little bit more simple. But when you’re working with the community, the planning process is tricky because the engagement process is so tricky and delicate. And what we wanna make sure we’re doing is we need to give opportunity to whomever it is in the community that they have a conversation with us in some way, shape or form or that they get their, that we hear what they’re saying. So that’s the general resident population. We also wanna make sure we’re taking care of like what we call like the negative nellies, some of those toxic people that if you look on Facebook about something about a resident, like they’re just blowing it up like, oh, we have new stop lights, well how much did that cost? Blah, blah, blah. Like they’re just-

Jeff: Right.

Heather: They’re just in the weeds. So we do what we can to really take care of those people. But then the gap sometimes between administration for running municipality and council and chamber of commerce and economic development, there’s so many, really important stakeholder groups that need to move a community forward in a collaborative way. Getting them on board is, like that sort of, if you kind of have, you know, four or five different stakeholders, getting them to a cohesive vision is the hardest part. And so when we say we get our plans down to under 10 pages, best case scenario, we get them down to two, what would that take? That would take five minutes to write up. That’s not the hard part. It’s the agreement, it’s the concessions because communities don’t have endless amounts of time, resources, or money. And we really want them to think through what that large kind of marlin is versus the trout. And that’s what takes six months sometimes and everybody wants to make sure they’re heard. And I’ve seen it go the other way where, you know, like a consultant will go in, do an afternoon strategic session or whatever and then put together a strategic plan and people are really unhappy with it cause they don’t feel like they were part of it.

Jeff: I couldn’t imagine managing the process. It feels like would be like herding cats and I’m not good with one cat, let alone a herd, but I couldn’t imagine-

Heather: Yeah.

Jeff: What you have to overcome sometimes cause some of the cooks in that kitchen have really, really strong opinions about how something should be cooked.

Heather: And they’re not professionals.

Jeff: Right.

Heather: I hate to say it, but it’s funny because they’re like, “Oh well, I am mayor.” And it’s like, so, you won a popularity contest. You are not a professional like you are, you didn’t, you’re not an engineer and some of them are like, some elected officials are like, “I can’t wait to be an elected official so I can finally decide what roads are gonna be paved when.” And it’s like, you shouldn’t ever think about what roads are gonna be paved when that is not your job. Like literally get that out of your head. But so many of them, like I we like to call it like stay in your lane.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: Because as, if you wanna be like an engineer and like manage the roads, then go apply for that job, don’t be a counsellor because what you hit, like what you’re saying is so true. It’s so tricky just to get everybody engaged but also like, slow your roll, know what you’re supposed to do here.

Jeff: And dropping a big truth bomb on them probably doesn’t go over all that well too. So, probably takes a little massaging.

Heather: Yeah, sometimes it’s kind of fun. It does and that’s the thing, so, you know what, it’s actually so funny you should say that because in a lot of our communities we’ll go in and we’re like, “Let’s go for dinner.” And they’re like, “Okay, great, when are we starting?” I’m like, “We’re starting like we play games, like this is it. Like, cause I need to get on a better relationship with you before I can tell you that what you’re doing doesn’t make sense.”

Clear Resources that are Crucial for Successful Community Plans

Jeff: I couldn’t imagine it. Thinking about it now and hearing you describe it, it sounds like it’s, so as we started talking, this is one of the most fascinating fields and I feel like it must be one of the most difficult things to get the outcome that you want. But so, but you guys are quite successful at creating community plans and seeing communities grow and prosper. Is there a secret ingredient in the process over and above just, you know, getting people on the, you know, working toward the same sort of vision?

Heather: That was a good question. I think for me, the big thing when we’re delivering the strategic plan is giving them resources available to make it happen. Cause it’s one thing for us to say, “Here’s the plan.” But if we’re not clear on who’s doing what, how much it’ll cost, because like for example, some of our strategic plans are like, yeah, we wanna do these events and we want this to happen and yeah, we wanna have a business incubator and all those things. And it’s like, okay, well your economic development officer is completely tapped out. You don’t have, like, we have to think about how that’s going to happen. And that’s not necessarily our role to like plan that out for them. But at least the administrator can hear the council say, “Yes, we will allocate $80,000 for resources for that to happen.” I think that’s something that I like to see because otherwise a lot of these initiatives, they sound great. Every time we’re together, it’s inspiring. We all leave, we’re like, yeah, it’s gonna happen. But then, you know, Monday morning rolls around and we’re all kinda sluggish and it’s like, why did I say yes to this? No one’s here to do it. So we wanna make sure that the big things that we’re talking about have a resource to go with it, whether it’s a human or financial. Otherwise it’s, well what was the point of even talking about it?

Adapting to Consumer Trends for Community Success

Jeff: So let me shift gears just a tiny bit. So clearly a local community, all the economic activity that’s happening around it has a huge impact on the direction of growth that the community is gonna take, consumer behavior has been changing dramatically over the last little, especially since the pandemic. So question, what have you observed since the pandemic? Where do you see that going over the next say five to even 10 years? And how do you think that that’s gonna impact your communities or make the community development process and planning more challenging?

Heather: Oh my gosh. Like if I could wave a magic wand for our local communities, I would want them to be competitive with like, like just saying, well I’ve been in business for this long or I’ve existed for this long, if I never have to hear that again, I will be so happy. Because I think what we’re doing is we have a mentality for building resources that we needed five years ago, not what we’re gonna need in 50 years. And that, you know, to use that really cheesy hockey like, skate where the puck’s going to be, I think is the best way to look at it. Cause if we are paying attention to those trends, and let’s talk about technology for a minute, we’re talking about those consumer trends. The way we are consuming knowledge as purchases is really interesting. So let’s talk about the metaverse, right? People can kind of laugh at the metaverse, you can laugh all you want, but it’s here and people are gonna be shopping on the metaverse. It’s really cool. And I would think that communities that are successful are going to be the ones that are paying attention to these trends. And I even hate to use the word trends cause it doesn’t sound as serious as it is. But let’s look at AI. AI is changing everything. I just heard or I was just reading an article the other day that said ChatGPT and open AI is as fundamental for human history as it was the discovery of fire. And so for us to not, isn’t that wild? Like, I mean, who knows? Maybe it’s not, but.

Jeff: But that’s wild to think about and I could imagine it being that fundamental a change.

Heather: Yep. And so for us to be like, well let’s play small and let’s not, let’s do what we’ve always done. Your community will, your business or your community, you will go under. We as consumers have nothing but options. We are almost, we’re spoiled as humans, in a lot of ways. And as businesses and community leaders, we can’t be grumpy about that. We can’t say, well, you have a loyalty, you have a responsibility. Like, no. No one has a loyalty or responsibility to do anything except what they want to do. And so, but the cool part is, is that as communities and as businesses, we have nothing but opportunity to rise to that level. We can do it, it just takes a lot of collaboration. And I think this is probably one of the stickier points around economic development is that there isn’t enough resources to go around to really do what we need to do when we are so siloed. We need to pool resources, we need to pool talent and make those really bold choices. And from a business perspective, I completely understand and appreciate how financially this is really hard to make those shifts. And I’m not saying everything needs to be done now, but there’s so many things that businesses can do to help create new channels for customers to experience them. And I think that, you know, even you guys are a great resource in terms of like, how can I capitalize on this? How can I find more customers? Because that’s what the magic’s gonna happen. These tools here are not meant to bowl us over. They’re here to make us better. They’re here to make businesses more profitable. And if we just stand by the sidelines and say, “Oh my gosh, this is too overwhelming, I’m scared.” Like that’s where we’re gonna lose. So let’s kind of dive into it, learn about it, and then let’s use the heck outta it.

Local Businesses Adapt and Thrive to Foster a Community Connection

Jeff: You know, one of the things that makes me feel so positive about the future and our ability to adapt is watching how quickly some businesses, local businesses fundamentally changed during the pandemic and how they reacted and they evolved and they were able to change their business practices and a lot of them not only survive, but actually learn how to thrive in a completely different environment and things like curbside pickup. And they really changed the way that they were interacting with their consumers. It makes me think that, you know, thinking down the road of adapting to people buying on place like the metaverse, you can do that and get there. It’s one of the things that really motivates us is that local businesses are the sort of the foundation of our communities. You know, they’re the ones that sponsored, our first little league ball team and you know, support our charities, provide our first jobs and we’re all invested in seeing that they survive and thrive and that we’ve got a community with a growing economic environment.

Heather: That’s the thing. When we actually look at the data of what consumers are wanting, and this crosses all demographics, they want an amazing customer service and they want an authentic experience. So whether you are a brand new baby, okay, maybe not a brand new baby or a million years old, you like that. And this is where our local retailers and businesses are going to do very well. And so your point is like adapting and constantly changing. Like it has never been harder to be in business than it is today. It is. You’re never catching your breath. Like I think about most businesses, but even in particular restaurants, right? You had shut down, you had hiring, you don’t have any staff, there’s labour pool issues. Oh great, now we’re in crazy inflation and food is a million dollars, way more than it was, you know, a few months ago. So, I completely appreciate how hard it is. I think the big thing here and what I would recommend is that we need to breed in some sort of motivation into our day-to-day as business owners. Otherwise, the fatigue will just wear you down. So it’s like, how is this exciting? How can I be inspired about making this shift? How can I learn here? The other cool thing about the pandemic is that so much scalability happened and so many businesses were able to, well were created to respond to this, to this need of businesses being adaptable and changing. And I think that we are actually, Heather’s hot take here, so like, no science in this, I actually think the worst is behind us. I think we are finally at a point where we have been so reactive and so quick to just get ourselves through the last four years, I actually think that the worst is behind us. And I think we kind of can use that momentum to actually really build something that’s gonna last. And I think we’re gonna start to see more businesses pop up, more successful local businesses because they have been paying attention and they have had the education to really do something with their business.

Jeff: Heather, I share your optimism and I like that. And we have to. We’ve got, I think we’ve got no choice because I get, although every once in a blue moon I like ordering something on Amazon and having it just shipped to my door I get a much bigger smile on my face and a lift in my day when I drop into someplace locally and I have an interaction because we need that. And that’s one thing that I, you know, I took away from the pandemic. People need, we need face-to-face interaction.

Heather: And if anybody’s ever doubting that Christmas, right?

Jeff: Right.

Heather: Like we look at foot traffic at Christmas time, it’s always growing far faster than online shopping. The other thing to pay attention to and they’re still quite young, but Gen Z’s. Gen Z’s prefer to shop in person versus online. So this is something, again, paying attention to what those younger demographics how they’re gonna be spending their time and money is a really strategic step because what you are saying about that community connection is really resounding in Gen Z more so than any other generation at this time.

Service-based Jobs Cultivate Teamwork and People Skills for Career Success

Jeff: Heather, this is fascinating stuff. If someone was to get into a career in community development, what do they do? Yeah, how’d you get to where you’re at? Like what’s the path?

Heather: Oh my gosh, that’s a really good question. I think everyone, like if you’re really young in your career, I think everyone should have a service-based job at one point or another.

Jeff: Oh, I totally agree.

Heather: I worked retail, right?

Jeff: I totally agree with you.

Heather: It’s actually also fun. I actually, so I worked at McDonald’s in high school and I worked like three hours a month. Like it was something completely sad, but I learned a lot and I actually loved my time there. I’ve done bartending, I’ve been a waitress, I’ve worked, yeah, lots of retail. And the reason why that service-based mentality is, it’s like, it’s the quickest way to learn how to work as a team.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: And I think that that ability to collaborate and see different points of view and ultimately customers, people are kinda weird. Like general people can be kind of weird and learning how to deal with that.

Jeff: You have to know how to deal with people of all different types and it’s a skill and I think when people learn that earlier on, it serves them so well no matter what type of field that they go into, you learn how to deal with people.

Heather: Totally.

Jeff: Yeah.

Heather: Yeah. And that’s the thing, like you and like, because you grow up and you see a lot of people who are like yourself. So learning and it like it comes with the good and the bad. Absolutely. And then I think the big thing, and depending on what kind of level of community building you wanna be involved in, if you wanna be an elected official, depending on whether it’s municipal, provincial, or sorry, or I would say state in, for our American friends or federally, I think volunteering would be your fastest way there. So you volunteer for events, you volunteer to door knock, you volunteer your time as much as you possibly can. And if you wanted to go more into the running of things, I would say definitely have a specialty. If you wanna be in economic development, a business degree is always a great way to go. And some education around that is really important. But I also think that having those experiences, whether it’s, like I said that service-based job, traveling, volunteering, those are the things that are really gonna speak to what you can do for a community. And I think there’s, the cool thing about working in a community building capacity, everyone in their own way is a community builder. Even if you don’t want to be, you are. You do contribute to that, to that setting. And I think depending on what you want to do, there’s going to be a role for you. Especially as we head into the next decade, so I would say volunteer, make friends and always be willing to roll up your sleeves and just, yeah, lend a hand.

Getting in Touch with Heather Thomson

Jeff: Heather, it has been an absolute honour and privilege to be able to chat with you. Thank you for taking so much time out of your very busy schedule. I imagine what you have and chatting here today with us on the Conquer Local podcast.

Heather: Thank you for having me.

Jeff: People want follow up with you and they have so many questions. How do they get a hold of you?

Heather: Email. Email is probably the best way. I’ll give the email address. That’s easy. So my email is heather@13, so the number 13, ways.ca or you can find me on LinkedIn.

Jeff: Heather, it was a pleasure chatting with you and I wish you all the best.

Heather: Thank you so much.

Jeff: And hope that you come back on the show again soon, sometime.

Heather: Anytime. Thank you so much for having me.


Jeff: Always a pleasure speaking with Heather Thomson. A few takeaways to note is that her community development work emphasizes the importance of a strategic plan to attract and retain residents in municipalities. Key components of this plan include beautification, access to affordable housing, and a thriving business community. To achieve these goals, it’s important to work with stakeholders and develop a cohesive vision that addresses negative factors, such as declining population. This process may include creating economic incentives, offering resources to businesses, and hosting community events to engage residents.

For our listeners interested in pursuing a career in community development requires a combination of volunteer work, education, and networking. To succeed in this field, having a specialty in a particular area, such as economic development or event planning, goes a long way.  It’s also critical to be able to build strong relationships with stakeholders and community members. By volunteering time and energy, aspiring community developers can gain valuable experience and demonstrate their commitment to improving the communities they serve.

If you’ve enjoyed Heather’s episode discussing Community Development and Economic Prosperity Keep the conversation going and revisit some of our older episodes from the archives: Check out episode 338: SMB Best Practices for going Back to Business with Todd Rowe. Or episode 334: Customer Journey, with Ahsen Mohammad. Or episode 337: Building a Cooperative in Retail, with Lindsay Gaskins

Until next time, I’m Jeff Tomlin. Get out there and be awesome.

Subscribe to podcast


Introducing Conquer Local podcast for marketers, sales experts