As PNREC looks to the future, it shares a number of challenges with CABE and its regional chapters. In no particular order of importance, these include:
The volunteer spirit: PNREC relies on a new group of volunteers to organize the annual conference in a different city each year. With about 10 preferred locations for the conference in the region, and the conference returning frequently every four or five years to major centres such as Seattle and Portland, fatigue can set in among local organizing committees. Of course, this sharply boost conference costs and fees.
Affordability and fund raising: PNREC has had a policy of keeping registration fees low, recently in the $375 U.S. range for the two-day conference. This adds fund-raising and seeking corporate sponsorships of speakers, meals and coffee breaks to the tasks of each local organizing committee. As a result, some board members have been concerned that this could compromise the conference’s integrity. To the credit of PNREC’s corporate sponsors, few have ever demanded much, other than deserved recognition for their generosity. PNREC recognizes support through placement of corporate logos on the program and banners in the conference rooms and acknowledgements at plenary sessions.
Keeping the momentum going between conferences: PNREC’s raison d'être is to put on an annual conference. Participants are widely scattered around the region, with few opportunities to network between conferences. This has led to debate on the next question...
Should PNREC be a membership organization? The PNREC board debated this issue and decided against it in 2000. Most thought that it would add additional complexity and require additional volunteer efforts to organize and manage.
State/provincial budget cycles affect attendance: Throughout its history, PNREC attendance from its key audience of academics and bureaucrats has ebbed when economies have turned down and budgets have been tightened.
Making PNREC relevant: As in Canada, the economics department in private sector U.S. firms is fast disappearing. They were once key participants in the conference and their firms were often generous financial and in-kind supporters. PNREC faces the challenge of finding de facto economics practitioners in corporate finance, strategy, marketing and planning departments and convincing them it has something relevant to offer.
The virtual world: The Internet's explosion in the mid-1990s has made huge amounts of information available at people’s fingertips. As a result, many question the value of conference’s when presentations and speeches can be downloaded to tiny, portable electronic devices and be browsed at one’s convenience. This has no doubt put downward pressure on conference attendance. The reason people still attend conferences is that there still no substitute for face-to-face interaction and discussion.
Canadian participation: PNREC has made many efforts to attract Canadian delegates and speakers, with Gus Mattersdorff offering strong support over the years. Despite his and others’ efforts, this has had limited success other than when the conference has been held in Canada. Of course, as in the case of private sector economists, there is a chicken-and-egg element to this, as Canadians are only attracted when there is sufficient content to interest them.
Student participation: PNREC has long sought to attract student delegates, offering low student registration fees and encouraging academics to publicize the conference to their students. The Gus Mattersdorff Student Paper Award, named after PNREC’s long-serving former executive secretary paper award, was established many years ago to offer cash prizes and free registration at the conference to the best student papers. PNREC’s former president, Gary Smith, organized on-campus economic outlook sessions and “economics beyond the classroom” workshops aimed at students for a few years in the 1990s. The main hurdles to student participation remain travel costs and the timing of the conference.
The decline of the study of regional economics: Waning participation in PNREC by the major universities in the region perhaps reflects the decline in interest in regional economics in an era of globalization and instant communication. PNREC has responded by reaching out to the geography and planning communities, while retaining its focus on regional economics.
For all the challenges PNREC wrestles with, it still survives. After each conference delegates invariably come away enthused, invigorated and brimming with new ideas, having made new contacts, seen a new town, or renewed old acquaintances with people and places. As one board member commented, “If PNREC didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it.”