The Cape Breton Partnership’s Missing Metrics

I went back and watched Cape Breton Partnership President and CEO Tyler Mattheis’ May 10 presentation to CBRM council and came away with the distinct impression that, like Destination Cape Breton, the Partnership has no real idea whether its work is producing the desired results—in this case, encouraging new businesses to open and established ones to expand in CBRM.

You’d think it wouldn’t be difficult to report how many businesses opened or expanded during a given time period, but it must be, otherwise why would the Partnership focus instead on how many files it has opened?

Cape Breton Partnership slide


You don’t have to be as cynical as I am to realize that “opening a file” on something is not the same as that thing actually happening (see my “Be Nicer” file).

So the obvious question is, how many companies expanded and how many startups started up and how many entrepreneurs opened businesses here in 2021/22 and as it happens, District 8 Councilor James Edwards asked it:

I’ve got one minute, Tyler, the businesses and the industries and the sectors that you cited here again, it’s fascinating stats, now are all of these statistics …businesses that you’ve landed or businesses that you’ve served and if you’ve served them, how many have you landed for CBRM?

And Mattheis replied:

They’re businesses that we’ve served. The lands one is why we’re…doing that project that I mentioned earlier with the RENs, we don’t have a good enough metric on landing, and not only that, but what landing means…I don’t know the specifics outright because, and that’s something we need to have, because I think it’s lacking in our data.

If you are slammed today and don’t have time to read this entire article here is all you need to know: the Cape Breton Partnership has no “metric” to measure how many businesses they’ve “landed.” Better still, they don’t even know exactly what it means to “land” a business. But they’re going to get together with the province’s other economic development entities and hammer something out.


Fun with metrics

Economic development is the Partnership’s raison d’etre. Introducing Mattheis during the May 10 meeting, Mayor Amanda McDougall said, “the REN does all of our economic development work for us.”

The Partnership is a service provider to Cape Breton’s Regional Enterprise Networks, or RENs, of which there are two: the Cape Breton REN (CBREN), serving the First Nations of Membertou, Eskasoni and Wagmatcook; the Municipalities of Inverness, Richmond and Victoria and the Town of Port Hawkesbury; and the CBRM REN, serving the CBRM — minus Membertou and Eskasoni.

(Mattheis’ history of the RENs is neat and tidy: RENs usually involve more than one municipality but as the municipalities of the CBRM had already, conveniently, amalgamated in 1995, it got its own. What really happened was much messier—there was initially one REN for the entire island and former Mayor Cecil Clarke withdrew the CBRM from it, although Membertou and Eskasoni chose to stay behind. After some negotiating, the CBRM REN was established.)

REN boards come up with “strategic plans” for their communities which the Partnership executes, so admitting you have no way to measure the impact of your “strategic plans” should trigger some sort of existential crisis all round.

Especially since, as an organization, the Cape Breton Partnership predates the REN system, having been established in 2006. Are we really to believe it’s been in the economic development game for 16 years and is only now getting around to defining its goals and establishing a “metric” for measuring its success?

Although actually, the implications are even worse, because “regional economic development” has been a thing on this island for over 50 years, which suggests that at no point during the last half century has anyone thought to outline what regional economic development success would look like or how it should be measured.

I’m being totally disingenuous here because I think it’s obvious why economic development agencies can’t be too exact in their definitions or measurements of success. If regional economic development actually worked, Cape Breton would no longer need regional economic development, so to justify their existence, such agencies need more nebulous metrics, like “Number of files opened.”

Business Cape Breton (BCB), which used to carry out much of this work locally, used famously nebulous metrics, my favorite being “projected job potential”:

Pushed (politely) by Councilor Edwards for 2021/22 numbers, the best Mattheis could do was cite the change in ownership of the Ugly Mug Cafe (an existing business changing hands) and two NSBI-arranged visits to the CBRM, one by representatives of Admiral Insurance (which has a contact center in Halifax) and another by a representative of an Indian agri-tech company, the name of which I could not make out (I asked the Partnership about it but as of press time had received no response).

That’s pretty thin gruel.



The Partnership is funded in part by its private sector “investors,” who pay annual membership fees ranging from $500 to $5,000 and who, according to Mattheis, bring a certain “gravitas” to the organization. But mostly it’s funded by government, which apparently doesn’t bestow the same sort of “gravitas,” probably because a business organization getting all its money from government is like an adult getting an allowance from their parents.

The Partnership executes the “strategic plan” drafted by the CBRM REN, a process undoubtedly made smoother by the fact that the people on the CBRM REN board (see below) also sit on the CB Partnership board, so they oversee both the drafting and the execution of the plan:

  • Tracey Boutilier, Vibe Creative Group
  • Brad Jacobs, Colbourne Auto Group
  • Damien Barry, Louisbourg Seafoods
  • Howie Doiron, Lindsay Construction
  • James Wooder, JBW Consulting

To be clear: these are businesspeople overseeing the expenditure of what is overwhelmingly public money and as I discovered back in 2019, that’s a feature not a bug of the REN system, which was designed to “let business do business” (with public money).

Public oversight of the REN is supposed to happen via the Liaison & Oversight Committee which has met precisely twice since 2018. It was scheduled to meet on 24 September 2021, but that meeting was postponed and while there’s no record of a rescheduled meeting being held, Mattheis told council it had met in November 2021. If this is true, then it has somehow been decided that public oversight of the CBRM REN is best conducted in private. I asked the municipal clerk what’s up with this and was directed to contact Mattheis, which makes absolutely no sense—the committee is made up of CBRM and Nova Scotia government representatives, the CBRM should be able to answer my question. (Besides, Mattheis tends to ignore my emails.) I protested, but have yet to receive a response.

Deputy Mayor Earlene MacMullin, District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons, Community Development Coordinator Ken LeBlanc and CFO Jennifer Campbell represent the CBRM on the liaison committee. The province used to be represented by Ron Dauphinee and Emily Pond of Municipal Affairs so I contacted the department to find out if this was still the case, but as of press time…well, you know the tune.


Staff gaps

As with Destination Cape Breton last week, I’m going to do a highly idiosyncratic highlight reel of the Cape Breton Partnership presentation, beginning with the mysterious missing staffers. The Partnership—whose focus, need I say it again, is economic development—has a full complement of communications and marketing people but is looking for a business development officer and an economic development officer:

CB Partnership Staff




I have to quote Mattheis on the subject of research, the commissioning which is longstanding pillar of economic development.

Mattheis explained that the Partnership had represented the CBRM at an International Council of Shopping Centres trade show in B.C., one of only six municipalities among the 98 exhibitors. (They’ve had “35 follow-ups” from the show which perhaps led to the opening of 35 new files, I can’t say).

Mattheis volunteered the information that they’d brought along copies of a 2020 (Updated in 2021) Retail Market Analysis for CBRM commissioned with help from ACOA. (I’ve written about it previously, focusing on the nutty “Lifestyle Cluster Descriptions” that purported to pigeonhole Cape Bretoners into categories like “Rural Handymen” and “Empty Nesters.”)

Said Mattheis of the study:

That kind of information is what these folks want to look at, oftentimes not to actually go through it but just to know that a municipality knows that a developer wants to know about its marketplace…

The implication seems to be that you could fill a binder with blank paper, label it “Retail Market Analysis” and achieve the same effect for much less money, but maybe I’m missing something.


QR Codes

The entire presentation to council was filled, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, with QR (quick response) codes that councilors were encouraged to use to access further information.

CB Partnership QR codeI gave up on QR codes back when you had to download a special app to use them, but apparently most can now be scanned simply by pointing your phone camera at them and they’ve been growing in popularity since the onset of COVID. (The example I see cited most often is that of accessing a restaurant menu, although the Super Bowl ad for Coinbase that was just a QR code comes a close second.)

But as they’ve become more mainstream, they’ve attracted the attention of scammers whose marks have become more cautious about clicking links in emails. When you google “QR Code,” you turn up a bunch of articles about the security risk they pose. I asked a friend of mine, Peter Lowe, the principal security researcher for DNSFilter, what the deal was with QR Codes and he said they don’t pose any danger in and of themselves but:

They facilitate exploits by hiding the target of a site that’ll do “something bad”. So that could be stealing your data, or it could be stealing your actual money if it’s a fake bank or something, or it could be infecting you with ransomware, or whatever else.

The FBI actually issued a statement about QR Codes in February, warning:

Cybercriminals tamper with both digital and physical QR codes to replace legitimate codes with malicious codes. A victim scans what they think to be a legitimate code but the tampered code directs victims to a malicious site, which prompts them to enter login and financial information. Access to this victim information gives the cybercriminal the ability to potentially steal funds through victim accounts.

I’m not really worried councilors using the QR Codes were being directed to sham websites, but I am wondering if the value added by QR Codes is worth the security risk and if anyone at the Partnership has looked into this risk. I also wondered why the Partnership QR Codes had a dinosaur in the middle and it turns out that Google Chrome allows you to generate codes decorated with its “cute little dinosaur mascot.” So, cool, I guess.


Ship Shape

As mentioned earlier, RENs draft economic development plans which the Partnership executes but we’re doing things a little differently here in the CBRM where the CBRM Forward initiative is in the process of drafting the mother of all economic development plans for us, one which will “direct” the CBRM REN’s work and annual business plans for some unspecified time to come. The strategy is on track to be “fully completed before July,” according to Mattheis, who drew councilors’ attention to an info graphic intended as “a bit of a teaser” for what is to come:

CBRM Forward info graphics

Those graphics represent “capacity, strengths, population growth, partnerships and regional projects” and I can’t help but notice that the “regional project” graphic looks like a container ship being loaded, so brace yourself for an economic development plan based on the belief that Albert Barbusci’s Novaporte project has legs.


Jobs, what jobs?

Mattheis says the Partnership has created a Cape Breton Job Board that features only local jobs and this a good thing because when the Partnership connects job-seekers to a job-search website like Indeed, “they wind up finding other opportunities which is great for them but not always so great for us.”

By limiting postings on their job board to local opportunities—and, presumably, sneaking into local job-hunters’ houses at night and installing software on their smartphones and computers that prevents them from accessing any other job sites—the Partnership ingeniously tilts the playing field in favor of local businesses.

Okay, that was mean, but really, what kind of logic is that?

The Job Board also allows local non-profits to recruit volunteers and board members, so that’s good. And I must also note that Mattheis has very different thoughts on the issue of seasonal workers than those expressed by Destination Cape Breton’s Terry Smith last week.

Where Smith proposed lobbying the feds to increase the number of hours required for EI to force workers to remain at their jobs throughout the shoulder tourist season, Mattheis argued that skilled, seasonal workers should not be considered “available for work” when on EI. The argument being, I presume, that if forced to find work, they might leave the area and that would hurt the seasonal businesses that make up the bulk of the tourism sector.

As I read that, I’m thinking the answer might be a combination of the two—extend the number of hours required for EI but, in return, exempt such workers from the need to look for work during the off season.

(I have no idea whether that would work so don’t come at me, I’m just thinking out loud.)


Doing stuff

It’s not that the Partnership doesn’t do things, it does lots of things, many of which seem perfectly good, like hosting conferences on workplace safety, it’s just that, as Mattheis admitted during that council meeting, they have no way of measuring whether what they’re doing is working.

But part of the problem is our narrow definition of what “economic development” should encompass and as I’ve noted before in these pages, the original “REN Start-Up Guide” published by the province in 2014 (and since wiped from its website) had a much more expansive definition of economic development than “letting business do business”:

Economic growth is just one aspect of economic development. Economic developers may also focus on other aspects, such as infrastructure, transportation, sector development, environmentalism, urban planning, education, literacy, health, safety, and social inclusion, all of which are needed for a healthy economy, or “eco-system.”

Because of its varied nature, economic development – by its very definition – depends on many partnerships, such as with different levels of government, the private sector, not-for-profit organizations, and the community at large.

Why doesn’t the CBRM REN board include a representative of an environmental NGO, a literacy specialist, a health specialist, a transport specialist, a social inclusion specialist, a food security expert?

No reason, really, except that we’ve decided to draw our REN board from the CB Partnership board which includes none of the above.