I need your help: does economic development make a difference?

The great fun of blogging is always the feedback.  But when you have thoughtful critical thinkers for readers, the way I do here, sometimes their comments shine a bright and uncomfortable light on one of those spots where it might be easier to just leave in the shadows.

One of those came up last week in response to my article about Consultants as Wizards [expletive deleted].  After discussing with the person who wrote this comment, I changed his name (just in case his department head or city manager stumbles across it).  But I felt that the questions he raised were too important to be left in the comment thread… and since these are questions that I am grappling with myself, I felt it was necessary to bring it out into the open.

I’m going to paste in the original comment from William P below, and then give you my perspective after that.

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The more I see everyone’s comments and the original blog post, I am thinking that the profession of Economic Development is beginning to revolve around two universal axioms (neither of which are good in my opinion).

First, economic development seems to be more about the process than the product. From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, economic development is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building. I understand how those activities can play a role, but it’s role that seems too pronounced. What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help? Do we understand what differentiates us from our competitors in the economic development realm?

The second axiom is that economic development is more about outputs than outcomes. We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or when the new restaurant breaks ground. And yes, that is important, but when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts? Are those jobs created by that restaurant moving the needle? Does that new watering hole instantly become a community asset? Did that new glossy handout convince anyone?

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More process than product, and more output than outcome.  William’s point is pretty damning: from his perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference.  Ow.

I received the following email from a friend (I’m also not going to use his name) at about the same time, and asked for his permission to reproduce part of his comments here, because I think he’s saying the same thing in a somewhat less… well, polite manner.

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I really liked your last blog article on consultants.  What a hoot!

As I reflect on it, I don’t think I work in economic development.  I don’t subscribe to going to every [event] that exist and other activities that seem more social than actual work.   These types of activities seem to be what economic development is all about.  I often wonder if I should try to be one of those fancy certified ED professionals, but [the question in] my mind is why?

I am not trying to be insulting, but the practice of economic development doesn’t seem to have much “practice” to it.  It just seems to be a bunch of high level BS speak based on hopes, dreams and poor assumptions.  There has to be meat to these bones, right?

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Cartoon of used car saleman
Is this what William P is seeing?

Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.

It’s hard not to see some truth in what these two are saying.  The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job —  your mission was to entice businesses to come to your town or your state. Close the deal.   Get the win.  And you don’t have to spend a lot of time around economic developers to know that for many professionals, and many communities, selling is still the primary definition of the job.  Going and schmoozing and relationship-building…it’s fundamentally the same work that the business development director of a company does.  Make the sell, or make the connection that down the road might lead to a sell.  But the sell – the win – is the name of the game.   Sure, the targets are usually smaller now than they were in the halcyon days, and now we allocate at least some of our effort to trying to make that sell to our local businesses so that they don’t pick up and go somewhere else.  But fundamentally, for many economic development professionals and organizations, the sell is still the purpose of the job.

 

There’s a problem with sales, and I say this as someone who tries to sell professional services every day:  it’s can be pretty easy to sell someone something that they don’t need, and it’s awfully easy to sell someone something that you cannot or should not try to supply.

 

For economic development, it’s  that second element that’s making me more and more uneasy.  The purpose of economic development, fundamentally, isn’t just selling more and more and more.  The purpose of economic development is to support the places that we live and work and play in – to improve their economies, help their people make a living, build the tax base that they need so that places can be kept clean and safe and comfortable.   That’s why governments and communities and businesses fund these things.

But I think we’ve all had to admit in the last 20 years, at least to ourselves, that some of our economic development “wins” didn’t turn out to be wins at all – or at least not the happy, unambiguous wins that we might have told ourselves they were.  Gave a sweet deal to a big box store and now you’re discover that your other commercial spaces are going dark?  Recruited a distribution center and now you’re finding that the rate of police and ambulance calls there are far higher than expected?  Provided tax increment financing for a shiny new office building, and now your city council is cutting the budget because tax revenue isn’t keeping up with service demands?

In a lot of cases, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we sold something that we shouldn’t have sold – at least, not for the cheap price or with the bells and whistles that we sold it.   And sometimes it seems like we’re not learning from our mistakes.

 

There are a lot of people who are doing good, thoughtful work in economic development – who are connecting the importance of their work to the health of their communities.  There are people and communities who are trying to anticipate and head off the potential unintended consequences that some economic development projects present, and there are people and communities who are shifting toward a holistic perspective, toward growing a local economy that can provide its residents with long-term stability and resilience.

But then… there is the view from William P’s window.  And it’s not the view I want to be shown.  It shows an uncomfortable lack of critical thinking, a failing to learn from the past mistakes of the profession, and a tendency to overlook or ignore the ways in which new projects and exciting proposals can create more problems for the community we’re working for than they solve.

Instead, the view from William P’s window shows a playground-style tally sheet: points for me on this side, points for you on that side.  Get more points in my column than yours, and I win!  Simple as that.

Except that winning at that game may actually do no good at all.

 

So…I need some help here.  Who is going to come to the defense of economic development?  Who is going to tell William P that marketing and networking is actually worth that 90% of our economic development effort?  That the sale is truly the thing that economic development needs to do – that the pursuit of the next score isn’t just about the ego trip of winning the game?

Who’s going to tell him that it’s someone else’s job to worry about what happens after the sale is closed?

Some of you might assume that the last two paragraphs are rhetorical flourish. And there’s probably a little of that.  But I truly need answers to those questions.  I need to understand, for myself and for the people like William P and my email correspondent that I encounter regularly, whether or not that approach to economic development has legitimacy.  I don’t see it, and I want very much to understand whether I am missing something important.

So please, I’m serious, tell me in the comment box below.  Help me stop squirming… and help me help William P see the benefit of the economic development profession.

15 thoughts on “I need your help: does economic development make a difference?”

  1. Great post, Della.

    IMHO, Economic Development and economics in general are very fluid things, and it’s impossible to control them to any great degree, especially when you come down to the scale of an individual ED professional or team. Economics turn on the individual decisions of millions of individuals and families making decisions on where to live, buy things, open businesses, etc. Layer onto that issues with laws and government regulations, climate, geography, education levels, history, dumb luck… you name it, it influences ED. With these many factors at play, it’s unreasonable to expect them to conform to logic to any great degree… and it’s unreasonable to expect that ED professionals (or governments, or anyone for that matter) will be able to exert any significant control over the situation. So I think ED really does come down to a sales job, and one that is knee-deep in cutthroat competition with other jurisdictions. You can try to make it into a science, but where is the empirical data to back up ED theories? I’m not in a position to answer that question, since I’m not an ED professional. Maybe you can help me with that one.

    1. Matt —

      Thanks! You’re right that there is a huge amount of complexity, and sometimes just random events, that influence what happens in a local economy. But here’s what I would argue: that’s the case with any of the factors that influence our lives in communities. Human communities are complex, messy,and darned hard to understand. Even the supposedly “logical” elements, like traffic flow (talk to you local traffic engineer if you don’t know what I mean) turn out to have infinitely more variation than the conventional theories predict — that is, when you actually look at the interrelationships of issues that we would have called non-traffic issues on how cars move in a city. Strong Towns (www.strongtowns.org) has done some really great work on these issues lately.

      There are intelligent models and theories within economic development that have at least a reasonable claim to providing a good model for how to actually build an economy, rather than sell stuff for the sake of selling stuff. Many of these approaches, like economic gardening and supply chain management and entrepreneurship fostering and business retention methods, tend to have a theoretical and research-based, or at least case-study-based, justification that is generally as robust as any you will find in the community-based social sciences, including planning and urban design (both of which have claim to both well-worked out and documented approaches and their share of half-baked goofiness).

      We don’t use the lack of perfect research or perfect knowledge to abdicate responsibility for trying to design places to work well, or manage local governments in a productive manner, or plan for future growth. Ideally, we do the best we can with the information and understanding we have at the time, and then we keep an eye on what we did to determine what the intended and unintended impacts were and learn from our mistakes. But it’s that last part where many of the community social sciences tend to fall down. When we don’t go back and look critically and honestly at the impacts of our earlier approaches, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. That’s certainly been the case in planning — the number of failed urban renewal projects nationwide shows us that pretty starkly. My concern is that I don’t know if the economic development profession has developed the self-awareness to learn from its own past mistakes.

  2. Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. I’ve definitely seen the same thing in the planning profession (that is something I do know about). I guess it all depends on the goal… is it economic vitality? Livability? What metrics do we use to assess “livability?” I don’t want to go back to school, but if I did, those kinds of things would be the things I’d be looking into.

  3. Della, I love that you so often ask the tough questions in a thoughtful way. This blog post is one of the more important ones.

    I am not sure that the problem is that as a profession we don’t focus on outcomes as that we often focus on the wrong outcomes. Let me try to explain an idea that is still a little fuzzy in my head. Our communities often have a tag line, either of their own invention or provided by one of the firms that hypes branding as a “must-have” for any city. Less often, they will have a mission statement. Still fewer will have engaged the public in defining a consensus vision, and this is often found hidden in a comprehensive plan that is seldom read or followed. Even fewer – only a very small group – will have defined the principles that they share and are reflected in all they do. And yet that community vision and those principles are, I think, critical to providing meaningful economic development. I eschew the typical definitions of economic development in favor of the concept that economic development is the sum of actions taken to ensure the community has the resources to achieve its vision. In that definition there is also the idea that building capacity is the driver, rather than smokestack chasing and incentives.

    Perhaps related to this first idea, I think we often lose sight of our clients’ needs. We take our goals, such as job creation, real estate development, etc., and try to convince businesses or property owners that they should have those same goals. Why not instead listen before we try to sell, and then truly respond to their needs rather than try to fit them into some existing program? So yes, I would also agree that the profession has become too formulaic.

    1. Thanks, Michael!

      Your driving down to the community vision and the sense that “We take our goals, such as job creation, real estate development, etc., and try to convince businesses or property owners that they should have those same goals” is intriguing, perhaps because I am obviously a big supporter of that type of public engagement, and partly because…well, that kinda sounds like planning!

      What benefit to economic development do you think come out of that approach? One might argue that what you’re describing is _too_ community-planning-like. What if the community visions and priorities don’t include economic growth?

  4. Thought-provoking post, Della. I have been in this profession for over 28 years, starting in rural community and economic development. My role then was perceived by the profession to be “simple” – marketing and sales to bring new investment and jobs into the community. In reality, my role was to facilitate civic leadership to solve problems it could influence (infrastructure, education, town appearance, zoning, tax policy, etc.) so that the product my organization had to “market” was attractive to a business which may be considering a location decision. And even then, part of my role was to challenge civic leaders to think about what TYPES of business they wanted to attract: businesses that could be successful with the attributes we offered. So, not trying to be the “if it flies, shoot it and claim it” type of marketing/sales, but rather the “find a seed, plant a seed, cultivate the seed, and grow the future”.

    And that functional purpose, in a small rural community,made sense. But it may not make sense in larger communities, or at different levels (regional, state) of the profession, where sphere of influence necessitates more customization by multiple organizations, each with a piece of the ED function, and each needing professionals with select skills in differing functions. In such areas, the ED system may have multiple organizations and professionals, all who are part of the larger system.

    However, regardless of the size of the ED system, positioning the assets and attributes of the geography that is represented, requires a marketing and sales function to be embedded. Where we as a profession fail, I believe, is that because we came out of “marketing (shoot it/claim it) and sales”, we don’t easily respect and understand that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution; that localities/regions/states may be better served with thoughtful hunting AND gathering, and that competition, while necessary, does not serve our citizens as effectively as intentional, solution-oriented collaboration to solve problems that make it easier for business to thrive.

  5. Great article… very thought provoking.

    I wonder how many jurisdictions have or contract with an economist that specializes in development economics to tract suspected and unsuspected consequences of ED efforts. I’m not saying that would be a cure-all, but it could certainly help refine the process for better results.

  6. Economic development is about building relationships. It may take years to realize benefits from building relationships. That doesn’t make it irrellevant. A wise and experienced colleague says “economic development is a marathon, not a sprint.”

    Like the commenter, I don’t really enjoy the posturing and schmoozing and self-congratulation that inevitably goes on. I do see some tendency to focus to be on justifying our existence rather than producing real results. Accountability also appears lacking, when questionable startups claim ridiculous job outputs, and they don’t materialize and never had a chance of materializing, but no one is allowed to point this out and ask “why did we voluntarily allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by these hucksters?” If that sounds a lot like what goes on with out national government, that’s no coincidence.

    Distressed economies rarely improve overnight, sometimes not at all. But marketing and building relationships are essential tools in creating the change that should be our focus. Perception is reality. You can’t change the reality until you change the perception of a place.

    Output and outcomes are directly related. Output is easy to measure, many of the outcomes we want cannot be measured. Did that new restaurant create a job for an unemployed parent, who used the added household income to send a daughter or son to college, who otherwise would not have had that opportunity? Did the new distribution center create living wage jobs with benefits, so a single working class mother could stop cleaning office buildings in the evenings and spend more time with her middle school son, who as a result never started selling drugs, stayed in school, and built a career instead of filling a prison cell?

    Economic development is not about making wealthy people wealthier, it’s about creating opportunity at the bottom end of the socioeconomic ladder. But if you think you can readily measure that in the short run, you’re mistaken.

    I think your commenter William P. is correct, he doesn’t work in economic development. He’s just pissed off. The “P” fits.

  7. There are two primary aspects to economic development.

    Aspect #1 are the characteristics of a community. Is it close to resources and / or markets? How educated and reliable is the work force? How efficient and reliable is the infrastructure? Are the schools good? Is it a fun and interesting place to live when one is not at work? Etc.

    Aspect #2 is telling the story about a community’s characteristics to the people or organizations that might want to invest there. This may involve schmoozing, creating a slogan, a jingle, a brochure, a video, etc.

    You can come up with the best slogan, the slickest brochure and the most awesome video — but if the underlying conditions of a community do not promote investment, few people or organizations will develop businesses there.

    On the other hand, if conditions in a community are ripe, but hidden or overlooked, then a good marketing campaign can make all the difference.

    As for me, I focus on Aspect #1 by helping communities create economic incentives for job creation, affordable housing, transportation efficiency and sustainable development. Others could help out in this area by improving schools, streamlining regulations, reducing pollution or creating parks, playgrounds, museums, etc.

    From my perspective, focusing on Aspect #1 makes the most sense and is the most satisfying. But Aspect #2 is important also.

    Where “economic development” becomes problematic is when a business has identified several communities that are equally conducive for its business enterprise location. At this point, the business starts asking for “special favors” as an enticement to choose one community over the others. This is a very destructive type of competition. It is important for economic development professionals to resist this “race-to-the-bottom” of tax give-aways. It takes courage to avoid this game. But if the amount of energy (and money) that goes into tax abatements and special favors was redirected into improving a community’s underlying conditions, then businesses would be knocking down your door to get in.

  8. John….I agree with you that outputs and outcomes are closely related, but I think you would agree that they are completely different. I also agree that many times that the outcomes we are looking for are hard to measure, but they certainly aren’t hard to define. Many of the EDOs I see can’t even bring themselves to define what outcomes they are trying to achieve. Instead of going through the hard work of defining it, they settle on a bland set of outputs that everyone hopes will move the ball forward.

    Additionally, while I appreciate your compassionate attitude about economic development bringing additional economic opportunities to the lower end of the economic scale, I must strongly disagree that such benevolence is rarely practiced in economic development, from where I stand. If such benevolence, was practiced, there would be more of a concerted effort to focus on the needs and skills of the employee rather than the employer.

    As someone in their mid-30s, many people my age that I know have little excitement or appetite for working for the large conglomerate corporations that EDOs trip over themselves to attract. Why? Many in my cohort have deep memories of their parents, or their aunts and uncles or other loved ones that were given pink slips by these large corporations sometime over the past thirty years. The large industries that built the small towns of the Midwest have been bought, sold, broken up and disassembled to other interests around the world. Not only was there the prevalent idea that someone could get a factory job out of high school, but that factory had a strong sense of affinity towards the community.

    My whole point is simple, if we think we are truly growing our economy by providing jobs for the next generation of the American worker by attracting what we are attracting, I think we have another thing coming. The next generation of American worker, whether we like it or not, is more technologically adept, more willing to go their own way and more suspicious of large corporations than I dare say any other generation. We aren’t going to attract our way out of this mess, we are going to have to grow our way out.

  9. Hi Della. This is what I posted in response to your Linked In post.

    First the answer: Yes. (I should have stopped here…)

    Now the obfuscation: It depends. Economic development is not a simple matter; any activity that has to account for the complexities of an urban (or rural) system of people, places, politics, environment, laws, etc. etc. can’t be simple. But after doing this for 30 years I have a few thoughts about what works and what doesn’t.

    1. First rule of economic develop is keep what you have. That has been true forever. Any business worth its salt takes the best care of its regular customers. An existing business is that area’s regular customer. If you have spent so much time trying to woo a start-up software company that a door and window manufacturer with 300 employees moved out without you know it, you’re an idiot.

    2. Next, any economic development professional worthy of the name knows and accepts that most investment comes from the private sector, without subsidy. No standard measure for this, but it should be a very high percentage of your development, say, oh, in the 98-99% range. When it comes to downtown development I like to say that success is measured by what happens when I’m not looking. “Hey, where’d that shoe store come from?” If you have to subsidize everything, you are not creating a sustainable economy.

    3. The definition of economic development has become so broad as to absorb every known discipline. This is a result of a culture that has been forced to measure every action in monetary terms, even if you have to make it up. But economic development is NOT everything – not transportation, not parks, not public housing. (Those are, respectively, transportation, recreation, and housing.) Yes, everything is related to everything, but defining economic development by everything it touches or is touched by is to make the term meaningless, except to satisfy political agendas. And it makes for bad economic development policy.

    4. Now, you ask, how do I define economic development? Fair enough. My working definition is very specific. I define it, more or less (I try to avoid being too dogmatic) as development or investment that is somehow the product of deliberate market intervention. If Toyota builds a plant in Dallas without any public assistance, that’s called private investment, risk-taking, capitalism. If they get a loan from the state or a write-down on land cost made possible by an eminent domain taking, that’s economic development. If the city funds a training program for Toyota’s new workforce, that’s probably economic development, too, but it is equally education.

    5. To the point of your blog post, there is nothing wrong with selling yourself to prospective businesses. As long as you are selling yourself honestly, that is. For instance, one of my guiding principles in downtown development is “If you say it’s going to be great, make sure it’s great”. It applies across the board for business attraction. If you misrepresent yourself, word gets around. The key here is that everyplace competes with other places for investment. If a city or region is selling itself based on the wrong competition, it isn’t going to “win”. It is not uncommon for a declining industrial city to benchmark itself against a nearby declining industrial city. Why would you want to win that competition? Conversely (and I can name a large, prominent city that has done both of these, but I won’t), a declining industrial city may benchmark itself against a city that it isn’t in competition with with at all. That can lead to a lot of wheel-spinning and wasted resources. The competitive climate needs to be well-understood before you go out on the sales trip. If you don’t, one problem this leads to is the output culture – how may contacts, how many prospects, how many jobs attracted. Another problem it leads to is continued decline.

    6. But economic development can be defined too narrowly, too. It isn’t just selling and cajoling and making slick brochures and websites with pretty pictures of golf courses and happy children. In fact, I would say that economic development should concern itself mainly with working on two big things: 1. Building your underlying market, e.g., buying power; and 2. Making your business climate the most hospitable it can be while being socially and environmentally responsible. Getting these things done doesn’t happen quickly and requires interface with lots of other things – housing, transportation, etc.

    7. Based strictly on observation, I have long noticed that places with high environmental quality tend to do very well indeed when it comes to attracting talent and investment in quality jobs. Think of the places you like to visit.

    8. I’m not a huge believer in economic development plans, 150 pages of important-sounding statements that make no one unhappy and essentially ratify the status quo. I am a believer in quality of life and targeting businesses based on thoughtful criteria. (Yes, picking winners.) Admittedly there are problems with those, too: 1. Quality of life never seems like “real” economic development, but it’s what survey after survey of business leaders say is important to them, and 2. Targeting businesses takes a degree of discipline not often seen in political circles. That is the discipline to say No to a business that wants assistance but isn’t on the target list. For example, if a city wants to build a biotech engineering industry and has a fund to support it, what happens when a cut-and-sew company wants to bring 600 jobs and expects to be welcomed with open arms? Well, if your plan is right, you say “welcome!” but you keep your wallet in your pocket. BUT the politician has to tell his constituents why he turned down 600 jobs. See the problem? It’s very hard to say no.

    I could write many more pages about this, and the inevitable reactions to it, but electrons are really not inexhaustible so I’ll leave it at that. Good discussion. Glad I ran across it. Thanks, Della.

    Steve Branca
    Milwaukee Wisconsin
    October 2012

  10. Thanks Della for raising this. 12 years ago, I shifted my career to become an economic developer as I saw it becoming a profession, and not just a sales job. Before that, I had worked for the big corporation, started and sold my own business in Asia and become a planner. What has shifted is that there are now accreditations and tools for economic development professionals. I know that a large number are still ‘smoke stack chasers’ and that is what most councillors understand as it is historic, but I feel that educating councillors that data-based and asset-based strategic economic development is what really works. For example, I have coached one of our communities that did a thorough business analysis and business retention & expansion study to realise that their economic base was far different than what they had thought, that they had economic and social assets that differentiated them from other communities and they have gone on to create/attract over 200 jobs in a community of 5000 within 2 years and they continue to grow. Another interesting outcome was that businesses shifted their advertising dollars from where they assumed their customers were from to where they were actually coming from.

    Finally, most economic developers are tracking the knowledge economy and trying to attract those businesses. This is a good example of where economic meets social, as these are high-value jobs that often require international recruitment, and the CEOs know that they need a location with family/multi-cultural amentities, safety, good schools and healthcare facilities to attract the top people who are often spoiled for choice. It is not about tax incentives and the cost of land – it is the human capital that is the deal-maker.

    So that’s my two-cents! I know that economic development started to increase municipal (or utility) revenues only, but it is a much more complex game now. In some municipalities, the cost of a development permit is linked to the increased cost of policing, fire, roads or other services that are impacted. Once they do the math, it may not be worth the investment in the end once the calculation is done.

    Thanks again Della for starting this discussion.

  11. Hi Della, I spent some time over the weekend going over your question and the responses that you received. As to the question whether economic development makes a difference depends upon how we define it. That definition has been changing over time because the world in which it functions has been changing. Perhaps a better question would be is how do we define economic development in the future so that it does make a difference.

    Many see the roots and continuing path of economic development being in sales and marketing. The argument seems to be to what degree is optimal. Let’s keep in mind though that that nature of sales and marketing as also changed in the last couple of decades. Consumers are now far more in control of information and sales cannot be left only to a small group but must include the entire organization. Branding can justifiably be seen as another gimmick if used inauthentically, but if a community honestly tries to find and communicate what is the ‘soul of a community’ of that community is a proper branding.

    The most significant change over time from my perspective is a greater degree of complexity in economic development. Complexity makes fools of our assumptions resulting as you say in creating projects that create more problems for a community than it solves over the long run. Unfortunately, too many city halls respond to this situation by making things more complicated. Complex and complicated are not the same thing. Approaching a problem seen as complicated too often involves dependency upon so-called experts in narrowly defined fields who often sit in different silos. Complexity, while challenging, allows many to come from different angles to find the thread running through it that can be influenced and developed.

    Economic development has therefore expanded to include other fields and those other fields have to recognize the need for economic development in considering their outcomes. This seems to be especially true with traffic engineering but not merely through a simplistic calculation that more cars means more customers. Economic development should not be making bets for a community that planning and public works and particularly the finance department cannot back up.

    That still leaves random events, or disorganized complexity and dumb luck. Perhaps it is the role of constant salesmanship but we do fail to learn from our mistakes or even recognize them. Part of this comes from the political realm of city hall. Actually, In my view, much of what holds communities back in creating viable economies is a matter of a community putting too much power into the hands of a few individuals that too often cannot handle the complexities of economic development except to find means of sustaining their own power, but that’s my own albatross. We also fail to appreciate the reality that our efforts, as they say in the Model Thinking class that I have been taking, have a tendency to revert to the mean, which means a streak of success can be just a much a matter of probabilities as skill.

    This means to me that small bets in building a community are a better strategy than big projects bets. It also means that seeing economic development as primarily as a form of public sector competition no longer works. The reality of greater complexity and a tendency towards greater economic regionalism makes necessary greater collaboration between communities.

    All of this leads to greater inclusion to build communities (rather than sell the glossy promoted version) by connecting the importance of economic development to the health of a community to build a holistic perspective that provides the residents as you say long-term stability and resiliency. We need to learn from the past but we are already going through paradigm shifts in communication, economics and governance. The environment is changing on many levels and we need to evolve with it or we might all go the way of the dinosaurs.  

  12. As businesses hold a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders, local governments hold a fiduciary responsibility to their citizens. Much of the criticism directed toward economic development and economic development consultants surrounds the provision of economic development incentives used to attract businesses. While the pros and cons of incentives have and will continue to be debated, the issue that appears absent from the discussion is finding the balance of economic sustainability for businesses as well as local governments, and what role if any incentives play in achieving that balance. I find often excitement of winning a business through incentives ends in disappointment even a few years later; when the city’s projected ROI fails to provide the not only the cost recovery of the incentives, but actually increases the long-term cost burden to the taxpayers once the business closes.
    I don’t mean to provide the impression that I oppose all incentives, I simply suggest that both business and government evaluate potential relationships on a fifty year time frame versus a five to ten year time frame. Communities must be willing to ask if incentives are really the best answer to secure long-term employment and expanding tax base. Businesses must be willing to examine their ever changing markets and ask if the short-term gains provided by an incentive package might have a negative impact on the long-term economic sustainability of the business by shifting community resources away from education or workforce development.
    I am sure some would argue that government and business working to for plan mutual benefit fifty years in the future is impossible, I would suggest that failure has taught us that it is a necessity. In my opinion, it is no longer about what business can extract from government in the form of incentives, or what government can expect from business, it is about developing a win – win long-term relationship that protects the long-term interests of all, while improving our competitive edge as a nation.
    We must also stop considering economic development apart from the overall community development process. In my opinion economic development is a subset of an overall community development strategy. We need to move the community development process from being more political to more practical if we are to make our local and national economy more competitive. Someone posted a comment regarding the work of StrongTowns.org, I agree their work has great value and presents a development model that strikes at the heart of the issue – economic sustainability. Community and economic development professionals must take the leadership role in promoting economic sustainability as the foundation of the planning initiatives for our cities.

  13. As an elected official and policy leader on the local, regional, state and national levels I’ve come to think of ED as a cooperative effort to grow our GNP overall and our individual segments in a multi-modal manner. The “publicity” each sector provides helps identify the resources available and causes various segments of the economy to group themselves in more cost effective and productive alignments.

    There are many organizations that focus on specific, narrow, pieces of the total picture. These include organizations such as Main Street, America In Bloom, StrongTowns, the League of Cities, Regional Councils, Economic Vitality corporations and others including specific agricultural and industrial organizations. Each of them has a contribution to make in the general understanding of where we fit in the overall scheme of things. Sharing responsibilities for various segments of the “pie” seems to work the best for individual jurisdictions, the broader region and nation as a whole.

    It is not just an idealistic fantasy IF each individual component looks objectively at the desires, needs and capabilities of itself and its neighbors extending out into the totality of a civilized world.

    The networking, conversations, research sharing and opportunity offers are all part of the process of assembling a growing economy, community comfort level and self-fulfilling civilization.

    As a former educator, personnel agency owner and nationwide landuse consultant (in my “other” life or lives) I’ve seen cooperation for mutual goals be the most effective means of growing an accepted, enjoyable economy for a majority of those in any given jurisdiction. Each interest area constantly seeks to control as many aspects of its “industry,” from resources to product delivery, as possible. That is most effective and manageable when done on a cooperative, rather than “ownership,” basis in a cost containing environment between the various segments of the totality. It is not necessary to have it all for ourselves only. That creates enmity and causes cyclic events which heighten frustration, stress and slows the evolution of civilization.

    We all have something to offer. It is important to let others know what it is and to recognize the potential contributions of others as well. Too many of us are still playing in the sandbox and seeking to control all of the toys. It is a self-defeating excercise.

    I believe we are all valuable as human beings and professionals. Cooperatively, together, we can all succeed. Our vision must be wide-angle.

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