The Creative Economy – An Opportunity for Rural Revitalization[1]

(Source: EcDevJournal) — Recent research has documented the economic, demographic, educational and social decline of Canada’s rural communities.[2]  Many factors, including youth out-migration, an aging population, lower incomes, a smaller tax base to pay for services delivered over long distances, fewer educational and cultural opportunities, a less-educated workforce and an employment base whose traditional agricultural and manufacturing roots are undermined by globalization, are contributing to this dramatic shift in rural life. As traditional economic bases erode, rural communities are seeking new solutions to economic sustainability.

In 2008, The Monieson Centre at Queen’s School of Business launched a 3-year Knowledge Impact in Society (KIS) project to support economic revitalization in rural Eastern Ontario by mobilizing academic tools and resources.[3]  Through a KIS-related series of 24 community consultations in Eastern and SW Ontario, the creative economy was identified as a key knowledge gap related to rural economic sustainability and vitality.  Partnerships between The Monieson Centre, other academic institutes, and community organizations enabled a multi-faceted approach to addressing this key research need.  This article draws on this partner-based research to offer an introduction to the creative economy’s potential to support rural economic revitalization.

The Creative Economy – An Emerging Economic Development Issue

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the KIS project built a collaboration between The Monieson  Centre, two lead partners – the Prince Edward/Lennox & Addington Community Futures Development Corporation (PELA CFDC) and the Eastern Ontario CFDC Network, Inc. – and almost 40 supporting community partners.  This network facilitated 16 Discovery Workshops across Eastern Ontario to identify economic development priorities and research needs.  The Assessing Rural Research Priorities through Community Engagement project, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) through the University of Guelph School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, and conducted in partnership with The Ontario Rural Council (now the Rural Ontario Institute), allowed for an additional eight Discovery Workshops in SW Ontario.

Through these community consultations, The Monieson Centre identified the creative economy as a key emerging economic development research issue.  It was ranked as the 15th-most pressing rural research need (12th in SW Ontario and 18th in Eastern Ontario); however, delegates at the 2009 KIS Showcase identified it as the single most important issue in need of further research.  This was a reflection of how forward-thinking communities are pursuing the creative economy as an innovative approach to economic revitalization.[4]

Richard Florida of the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) has initiated a growing body of research around this economic development theory which, he argues, offers a new path to economic prosperity.[5]Ontario’s communities have been given a distinct impetus to better understand this issue following the publication of Ontario in the Creative Age, an MPI study commissioned by the Ontario Government to explore provincial policy implications of this emerging sector, namely, to “provide recommendations to the Province on how to ensure Ontario’s economy and people remain globally competitive and prosperous.”[6]

The MPI study traces the overall decline of traditional, physical labour-intensive jobs in Ontario, including both industrial jobs like manufacturing, and traditional rural jobs in the agricultural and forestry sectors.  The new Western economy, Florida argues is based on the emergence of the service sector and the creative sector – the latter including jobs in which people are paid to produce intellectual capital.[7]

Jobs in the creative economy, then, include:[8]

  • Professional occupations in natural and applied sciences
  • Technical occupations related to natural and applied sciences
  • Teachers and professors
  • Professional occupations in art and culture
  • Technical occupations in art, culture, recreation and sport
  • Finance and insurance administration occupations
  • Professional occupations in health
  • Nurse supervisors and registered nurses
  • Technical and related occupations in health
  • Judges, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, ministers of religion, and policy and program officers

Rural communities have wrestled with the implications of government policy regarding the creative economy for their local economies.  The Discovery Workshops uncovered difficulties in defining the creative economy, building a broader understanding of its nature, and developing an awareness of the issue beyond economic development circles.  Definitions of the creative economy do vary; however, a consensus does seem to be emerging.  Some definitions include:

  • “Those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.”[9]
  • “At the heart of the creative economy lie the creative industries. Loosely defined, the creative industries are at the crossroads of the arts, culture, business and technology. In other words, they comprise the cycle of creation, production and distribution of goods and services that use intellectual capital as their primary input.”[10]

In Eastern Ontario, a collaboration led by the Eastern Ontario CFDC Network, Inc. studied the local creative economy and defined it as, “A major shift in the structure of the global economy – from one based on the production of goods to a more knowledge based economy driven by ideas and innovation.”[11] As an economic development strategy, then, the creative economy does not focus only on those occupations traditionally branded “creative” – namely those related to arts and culture – but, rather, casts a broader net encompassing all knowledge-based occupations as well.

While the promise of high-paying creative occupations is attractive to rural communities seeking new models for sustainable economic development, the existing body of knowledge is largely urban-based. This challenge is compounded by the core recommendations of the MPI report for the Provincial government.  Their policy recommendations focus on four key strategies:[12]

1)      Harness the creative potential of Ontarians by raising the creative content of Ontario’s occupations.  This involves a significant labour force shift from physical skills to analytical and social intelligence skills.

2)      Broaden the talent base. Economic development in the creative economy is driven by “3T’s”: Tolerance, Talent & Technology.  To attract and develop creative class workers, Ontario needs to continue to develop a tolerant society, as diverse viewpoints and lifestyles tend to increase innovation.  Likewise, investment needs to be made in labour force training and development, as well as in continually improving technology, both of which foster creativity and new ways of doing business.

3)      Establish new social safety nets by connecting vulnerable groups through education.  Creative occupations tend to require higher education levels than physical task-based and service occupations.  Those without sufficient education become increasingly economically disadvantaged.  In this context, social programs will need to focus on improving access to education.

4)      Build a province-wide geographic advantage by focusing development initiatives on three “mega-regions”: the Greater Toronto Area, Kitchener-Waterloo, and the National Capital Region. Focusing economic development efforts in these mega-regions can help create geographical industry clustering which has been linked to the growth of the creative economy.  Rather than viewing multiple businesses in similar industries as competition, economic developers can help such organizations collaborate to allow for innovations which would not occur in isolated firms.

This policy shift creates many challenges for Ontario’s rural communities, particularly Eastern Ontario. Already, at $53,345 Eastern Ontario’s wages lag behind the Provincial average of $55,626.  Likewise, the region’s employment rate of 58.5% is lower than the Provincial rural average of 61%.[13]  In addition to these current disadvantages, “education and skills training” was identified as a top ten research gap and economic development issue in the Discovery Workshops, and was also noted as a challenge in the Senate Report on rural poverty, placing rural communities at great risk in this new economic landscape.[14] Often without access to first-rate education, rural communities fear they may simply fall victim to the new social safety nets discussed in these policy recommendations. Compounding this difficulty is rural Ontario’s geographical relation to the developing mega-regions.  If provincial economic development efforts are targeted at these three urban areas, rural Ontario could be at an even greater disadvantage.  Thus, while growing the creative economy creates possibilities for economic revitalization, these urban-based policy developments can be viewed as posing a significant threat to the province’s rural communities.

The Creative Economy in Prince Edward County – A Rural Case Study

Despite these challenges, several Eastern Ontario case studies demonstrate how creative economy theory can apply in rural contexts and assist rural communities.  Indeed, they reflect the growing body of research indicating interdependence between rural and urban Canada, particularly in metro-adjacent rural regions that deal with workforce mobility, urban sprawl, environmental protection, and transportation issues.[15] They offer lessons for economic revitalization in both traditional and emerging industries, and how rural businesses can succeed by capitalizing on urban connections.  Here, we focus on Fifth Town Artisan Cheese and WhistleStop Productions.

Fifth Town is an innovative cheese producer in Prince Edward County.  Founded in 2008, the business exemplifies the value intellectual capital and innovation can bring to a traditional industry. Fifth Town is an environmentally and socially responsible business, positioned as a niche producer of quality handmade cheeses that are made using locally produced goat and sheep milk.  The market for artisan cheese is growing at 20%/annum, far exceeding the industrial cheese growth rate of 1-3%, and the industry is underdeveloped in Ontario, with only 10 Ontario producers in 2008, compared with over 85 in Quebec.[16]

Capitalizing on this market opportunity, Fifth Town exhibits key characteristics of creative economy-based businesses, all of which have contributed to its growth and success.  First, its geographical context has nurtured the 3 T’s – tolerance, talent and technology.  While the County has a small minority population of 1.3% vs. the provincial average of 22.8%, they have developed social tolerance in other forms.  Programs like the Arts Trail have encouraged a thriving arts scene.  Likewise, the healthy tourism industry actively targets a diverse urban audience through grassroots organizations like “Out in the County.”  While ethnic diversity takes long-term efforts to develop, these short-term initiatives help attract a broad range of perspectives and ideas to the region.  This is also reflected in Fifth Town’s management philosophy.  For example, staff profiles on the company’s website highlight the unique personalities, interests and talents of each team member.

Second, Fifth Town has placed a strong emphasis on developing talent. Founder Petra (Cooper) Kassun-Mutch relates, “We decided to do this because we wanted a bit of a change in lifestyle.  We looked at the County as a ‘place,’ and we were interested in authentic foods as a theme, and we were interested in the environment as a challenge to sort of say, ‘what could we do to build the greenest enterprise out there?’”[17] This approach to business is reflected in employee development programs.  Many of the initial core team members were recruited from urban communities, with backgrounds in publishing, hotel management, and cheese-making.  As the team grew, they recruited several new staff from within Prince Edward County.  Fifth Town places a strong focus on employee retention, understanding that a talented, engaged workforce will generate the new ideas to create long-term business sustainability.

Third, the business’ environmental commitment has led it to embrace technological development. Integrating environmental sustainability into every process has required creative solutions to many everyday business processes.  Energy is produced on-site by a windmill and solar panels, with added energy sourced through the Bullfrog network.  Despite paying higher energy rates, their energy use is 30% compared with the industry baseline.  This is due both to operational practices, as well as through the facility design, which has received LEEDS Platinum certification.  Many other small cheese manufacturers have struggled with increased regulation of waste disposal; however, Fifth Town’s innovative use of bio-digestion, which reflects their sustainability-based philosophy, has enabled them to overcome this hurdle.

Beyond exemplifying the 3T’s, Fifth Town has also benefited from industry clustering.  Resources and programs from the County, including co-marketing through the “Taste of the County” promotion, as well as access to the Royal Winter Fair and Ontario Food & Wine Show, have helped Fifth Town access markets beyond their immediate community.  Petra has commented, “Sometimes there’s an over-emphasis on rural partnerships. We’re close to three major markets and to ignore them is to your peril.”[18]  While it can be difficult for one business to access these markets in isolation, support from the County has made this possible.  Likewise, the County’s Taste Trail initiative has helped Fifth Town successfully brand with other food producers, wineries and restaurants to promote themselves to urban tourists.  A strategic partnership with Black River Cheese has further enabled Fifth Town to achieve economies of scale in accessing rural markets.

While Fifth Town has successfully integrated creative economy principles into a traditional agricultural-based business, WhistleStop Productions is an example of digital businesses operating in a rural context.  In the 1980s, David Hatch was working in television production in Toronto, starting out as an audio engineer, later supporting the launch of The Sports Network (TSN), and then moving into daily news reporting for Global Television.  In 1989, he branched out and founded his own video production company, WhistleStop Productions.  Following its tenth anniversary, WhistleStop began a series of dramatic changes. First, David’s partner Stacey, a producer, director and writer, joined the team in 2000. They then relocated the business to Prince Edward County, 200 km east of Toronto.

Over the past decade, WhistleStop has grown into a leading high-definition video (HD) production house, and is now one of the first-movers in 3D video production.  From a home office, they have produced sports television content, documentaries and custom commercial programming.  Much like Fifth Town, their success has depended on links with urban markets.  Following the move to Prince Edward County, their initial growth was built on David and Stacey’s industry contacts in Toronto.  Their new location allowed them to access other urban markets as well, as they were located within two to four hours of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

As video production has become an increasingly digital technology, web connectivity has become of greater importance than geographical proximity to markets.  One of WhistleStop’s primary business partners is based in Europe, and their relationship has been developed and maintained virtually.  The introduction of HD and 3D video technologies has dramatically increased their data transfer capacity needs, making high-speed broadband technology crucial for the ongoing viability of their business. Support for technological development thus has been and continues to be a key to WhistleStop’s success.

Although initially operated as a home-based business, WhistleStop is now an active partner in the development of The Headland, a rural multimedia technology incubator. By locating in the incubator, WhistleStop is supporting new multimedia start-ups, serving as a mentor, supplier and customer.  The Headland has also partnered with Loyalist College to offer an industry-leading 3D video production program.  This program enables skill development and improves rural youth retention.

While Fifth Town and WhistleStop operate in divergent industries, they both illustrate the role the creative economy can play in creating viable, sustainable rural economies.  The creative economy should not be treated as an urban phenomenon.  Instead, rural communities can create a competitive advantage by using their unique quality of place to attract the creative class.  This combination of amenities, culture and quality of life is emerging as a key to attracting the creative class.[19]  Rural communities offer the creative class attractive living environments; to retain their businesses, however, also requires supporting innovation through tolerance, talent and technology.  Rural-based creative businesses also require support in accessing urban markets through marketing support and industry clustering.  By supporting these principles, rural communities can make the creative economy a core component of economic revitalization.

Further Reading:[20]

Canada’s Creative Corridor: Connecting Creative Urban and Rural Economies within Eastern Ontario and the Mega Region. Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009.

DesRoches, R. , Habkirk, J., Reid, A., Robinson, L., & Zhou, M. Fifth Town Artisan Cheese.Community Success Stories. Kingston: The Monieson Centre, 2009.

Hall, H. Harvesting the Creative Economy. Knowledge Synthesis.  Kingston: The Monieson Centre, 2011.

Ontario in the Creative Age. Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009.

Russo, A., Bakhshai, A., Timmerman, E., Finkelstein, J., West, T., Beharry, T.  Whistlestop Productions.Community Success Stories. Kingston: The Monieson Centre, 2010.

[1] Adapted from the forthcoming chapter, “The Creative Economy: An Opportunity for Rural Community Sustainability,” in Taking the Next Steps: Sustainability Planning, Participating and Public Policy in Rural Canada, Unviersity of Alberta Press.

[2] Canada, Parliament, Senate, Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Understanding Freefall: The Challenge of the Rural Poor.(Ottawa: Queen’s Printer for Canada, 2006).

[3] These tools and resources are available free of charge at

[4] Details of rural Ontario’s economic development priorities and research needs, including research questions related to the creative economy are available in the Rural Research Priorities report at

[5] Gertler, M. S., Florida, R., Gates, G., & Vinodrai, T., Competing on Creativity, Placing Ontario’s Cities in North American Context (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation, 2002).

[6] Ontario in the Creative Age (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[7] Ontario in the Creative Age (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[8] Canada’s Creative Corridor: Connecting Creative Urban and Rural Economies within Eastern Ontario and the Mega Region (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[9] United Kingdom Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Creative Industries Mapping Document (London: UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2001).

[10] United Nations, Conference on Trade and Development, Creative Economy Report 2008: The Challenge of Assessing the Creative Economy: Towards Informed Policy-making (Geneva: United Nations, 2008).

[11] Canada’s Creative Corridor: Connecting Creative Urban and Rural Economies within Eastern Ontario and the Mega Region (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[12] Ontario in the Creative Age (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[13] Canada’s Creative Corridor: Connecting Creative Urban and Rural Economies within Eastern Ontario and the Mega Region (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[14] Canada, Parliament, Senate, Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Understanding Freefall: The Challenge of the Rural Poor.(Ottawa: Queen’s Printer for Canada, 2006).

[15] Olfert, R. & Partridge, M., Urban Sprawl Shows Rural-Urban Interdependence.

New Governance Needed to Bridge Rural-Urban Divide, Policy Brief (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 2005).

[16] DesRoches, R. , Habkirk, J., Reid, A., Robinson, L., & Zhou, M., Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, Community Success Stories (Kingston: The Monieson Centre, 2009).


[17] P. Kassun-Mutch, “Fifth Town Artisan Cheese,” 2009 KIS Showcase (lecture, Queen’s School of Business, Kingston, April 12, 2009).

[18] P. Kassun-Mutch, “Fifth Town Artisan Cheese,” 2009 KIS Showcase (lecture, Queen’s School of Business, Kingston, April 12, 2009).

[19] Hall, H., & Donald, B., Innovation and Creativity on the Periphery: Challenges and Opportunities in Northern Ontario, Ontario in the Creative Age Working Paper Series (Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, 2009).

[20] These, and other economic revitalization resources are available at




Jeff Dixon

Dr. Yolande Chan

Queens University


Yolande E. Chan is a Professor of Management Information Systems at Queen’s School of Business. A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Chan’s educational background is multifaceted. She holds a Ph.D. from the Richard Ivey School of Business, an M.Phil. in Management Studies from Oxford University, and S.M. and S.B. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to joining the Queen’s faculty, Dr. Chan worked with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). A gifted educator, Dr. Chan has received the Commerce Teaching Excellence Award and the Commerce Professor Student Life Award — awarded to the professor who has contributed most to the student life of the graduating class over their four-year term in the Bachelor of Commerce program. Dr. Chan teaches PhD/MSc and Commerce courses. Dr. Chan’s research focuses on knowledge management and on information technology strategy, alignment and performance. Dr. Chan’s work has been published in numerous academic journals, including Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly, MIS Quarterly Executive, Academy of Management Executive, Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of the AIS, Journal of Information Technology, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Information & Management, and IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. Dr. Chan is entered in the Canadian Who’s Who, the Who’s Who of Canadian Women, and the Who’s Who in Canadian Business Directories.

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