What it really means to be an entrepreneur: it isn’t easy, or safe

Last week was the 5th year anniversary of starting the Wise Economy Workshop– my second foray into entrepreneurship and my first that didn’t stem from a lack of conventional opportunities (meaning, this time I chose this path because I wanted to). Normally, that’s a cause for celebration, or at least a Facebook announcement to solicit some of those “Like” clicks that make you feel good even though you know they don’t mean all that much.

But I didn’t.  I said to myself that I had been too busy, too tired.  Too something.

But the fact of the matter is, at that moment it didn’t feel like much of a thing to celebrate. what success looks like

My business is in the middle of a pivot, a repositioning of what I do and what I offer. I added book publishing and sales, promoted myself as a speaker, built partnerships, tried to figure out ways to make money doing this work that can supplement the fee-for-services consulting that I have done for over 20 years.  From an income perspective, the consulting life can sometimes feel like a particularly nauseating roller coaster, and I wanted to even out some of the plunges.

Pivots are hard. Maybe harder than even a supposed small business economic development expert realized.  And certainly harder than then game plan I laid out a year ago looked like.

Entrepreneurship is hard.  Am I doing the right thing?  Can I trust that potential partner? What do my customers want? Do they know what they really want? (You’re supposed to ask them, but sometimes the answer they give you isn’t clear at all).

Entrepreneurship is scary.  Can I pay that bill?  What happens if I put that one off?  How the hell am I going to pay for (fill in the blank)? What happens if…

Entrepreneurship is tiring.  I finished this, but now that is overdue.  The list never, ever ends.  And the amount to do and the people and time you have almost never match up neatly, whether you’re on your own or managing employees. There is overwhelm and there is famine, and sometimes not much in between.

Entrepreneurship is risky.  What am I giving up? What do I lose, do others lose, if I fail?  We like to believe that anything is possible if you try hard enough.  But a high proportion of small businesses in every field fail to see the five birthday milestone that my business has somehow stumbled across.

And entrepreneurship is lonely.  You have to make the decisions. You have to put on the success mask, even when you might not feel so successful today.  You can’t admit to what’s not working, what you’re scared of, the wolf that seems to pace constantly just outside your well-painted door.  Even to your spouse, your partner, your friend, sometimes. They aren’t in your shoes, and trying to show them the dark places might scare them off.   There’s some evidence of a higher than average rate of depression among tech startup founders.  I would not be surprised if that trend covered a much broader small business population.

I’ve put a lot of thought lately into whether we as communities are really doing the right things to foster small businesses and entrepreneurs–and whether we aren’t unintentionally setting too many of them up for ugly and damaging failures.  Should we tell a poor person, a young person, a retired person that they can be an entrepreneur if they just want to enough, when they may lack personal savings, family support, mentoring, and more?

What do the entrepreneurs that our community really needv– needs that we aren’t seeing because we’re allowing us to be satisfied with feel-good stories, and not truly trying to understand?

How many of our entrepreneurship success stories actually end as a small scale tragedies, with failure lost savings, broken relationships, a deeper slide into the personal and community hopelessness that the “you can do it!!!!” of entrepreneurship was supposed to overcome…

Chances are we stopped looking shortly after the happy ribbon cutting, so we don’t find out.

We probably can’t avoid entrepreneurship failures – it’s part of the deal you accept when you start a business.  My suspicion is that we’re not doing enough.

But not asking the question, not paying attention to the full range of issues that differentiate successes from failures, and insisting that faith in yourself is all you need, you can do it if you just try hard enough…

I am pretty sure now that this is not enough.

If entrepreneurship matters, if healthy small businesses matter, if local ownership and investment matter, if economic opportunity for the historically disadvantaged through self-employment and minority-owned small business matter,  then singing our favorite songs from Sesame Street while tossing around a little money and some how-to-start-a-business classes is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

And that’s not a plea for more money.  The answers to small businesses’  needs are not all found in a pitch prize or a program grant.  And money without a sound underpinning can make the fall only that much harder if and when it comes.

I’m in an ideal situation.  I have a business with low costs, plenty of education, a household such that we will not starve when I have a bad month, good health insurance, a good credit score, friends, family… Not to mention a huge ego and an abnormal level of self-assurance.

And even with all those considerable advantages, I have bad months.  I struggle. I get scared.  I wonder if I made the right choice.  I doubt.

Imagine the situation I would be in if a few of those advantages were missing.


Entrepreneurship is also thrilling, exciting, empowering, and deeply self-actualizing.  On a deep, personal, fundamental level, I’ve been happier in the past 5 years than I ever was before that, because I can feel and see my own self moving into my potential, the potential that was there for a long time but got truncated and stuffed behind an employers’ priorities.  In a strange way, that’s a gut-level peacefulness that I didn’t start to realize until I took that brave (and, truthfully, kind of naive) step 5 years ago.  For the people whose guts cry out to be entrepreneurs, that is probably the most powerful intrinsic motivation.  And it’s what keeps you going through the lean times and the doubt and the fear.

We say that we value entrepreneurs and small businesses, that we want them to grow and prosper in our communities, for a bunch of reasons. But we don’t act on it very well.

We have to do that work of supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses  better, much better, if we are going to achieve any of those benefits.

We have to cultivate small business, the way we cultivate anything of value. Today we often do little more than throw some seed in a vacant lot (“you can do it!!!!), pass a watering can over the field once or twice (“here’s a loan!!!”), and then wonder why the garden doesn’t explode with produce.  As anyone who has worked a garden knows, successful cultivating takes much, much more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses and entrepreneurs —  like me, I guess — really need if we’re going to get serious about growing that increasingly important small business sector of our local economies– you know, the ones that make most of the new jobs and all that.  But I’ve been putting off writing that down until I got some other projects out of the way.

Maybe I need to move that up the list. For myself as much as anyone else.

Building a startup ecosystem: my interview with Mike McGee of Starter League

One of the topics that I continue to study closely is the question of how startup ecosystems and other kinds of small business communities can best be supported, encouraged, fed and enabled to grow into their potential.  I did an interview a couple months back with Mike McGee, a central part of the Chicago startup ecosystem and one of the founders of Starter League, which teaches people from all backgrounds how to code.


As you’ll see from this interview, the ability to create web applications isn’t just relevant to “tech dudes” — increasingly, the ability to at least understand how code languages work and how to create things online becomes central to every kind of small business, even in fields where we don’t normally think of coding as a necessary skill.  Mike also gives us some insight here into how the different elements of the startup community in that city relate to each other — and it’s that interrelationship, as much as anything, that has a lot to do with why businesses like Starter League and others are growing in that city.

You can read the full interview at Creating Genius, a lovely publication that focuses on sharing entrepreneur’s stories and to which I have become an occasional contributor.  Here’s a selection from it:

Della:  Who takes your classes? What types of people end up getting involved with Starter League?

code classroom
Inside Starter League. From CreatingGenius Magazine

Mike:  It’s a very diverse group in terms of age, professional background, educational level, city, state, country, etc. The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

The common thread is that our students typically are those who want to transform from consumer to creator.

They’ve worked in other industries and they’ve gone to school for another focus entirely, whether it’s history, education, law, retail, real estate. Every professional industry you can imagine. They’ve experienced problems in those areas and they’ve talked with their family and friends about them.

They often say things like, “Oh, it’d be great if I could solve this problem”, but it stops right there, because they don’t have the skills necessary to solve those problems with technology. It’s been festering and boiling inside of them. It’s like “If I could only do this…or if I only had these skills, I could build this app.”

That’s the thread that ties all of our students and graduates together, is that they are just sick of using someone else’s solution, or they’re sick of not having a problem solved. They want to take matters into their own hands and build a solution for it, or just to change their career.

Mike rocks, and you should definitely read the whole interview.  My thanks again to Mike for spending the time with me, and to Lee Constantine, CreatingGenius’s publisher.


Well, at least kind of shiny: Brilliant Economic Development panel at IEDC Leadership

About a month ago I sat on a panel with a collection of leading economic development people from all over the country as Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GISPlanning, threw hard questions at us in front of an audience of our peers.  This little pressure cooker happened at the IEDC Leadership Conference in Irvine, California.  And it was one of those situations where you walk into it worrying about how you’re going to come off, but you walk out of it realizing how privileged you were to get to hear and talk to the amazing people sitting beside you.

IEDC’s publication, ED Now, did a brief write up on the session (and knowing GISPlanning and their fondness for videotaping, I’m sure footage will emerge eventually).  One of the neatest things about the conversation was that we were able to take on the reframing of economic development work — as a key contributor to a community’s resilience and strength, part of the mix with urban planning and housing and all of the other elements of community management that we have too long treated as Someone Else’s Job.  What I myself said on that topic apparently resonated, and not just inside my head, because that’s what Louise Story of IEDC picked up on in her article:

Building resiliency and community

Echoing a broader conversation currently taking place, the first audience question for the panel was about the growth in income inequality. Della Rucker, principal of the Wise Economy Workshop in Cincinnati, pointed to practical reasons why economic developers should focus on this issue.

“More and more, our viability as an economy depends on our viability as a community,” said Rucker. “Economic development cannot exist in a silo, planning cannot exist in a silo. It’s really all about making communities as functional, as vibrant, as resilient as possible. Addressing disparities of all types becomes an essential element of that, even if just from a self-interest standpoint.”

Thanks again to Anatalio for his ongoing kindness to me and the Wise Economy work, to GISPlanning and IEDC for being willing to push this conversation forward, and to the other amazing people who sat on the panel for enlightening and energizing me.

Cultivating the Small Business Ecosystem (part 2)

To continue where we left off last week, talking about small business ecosystems:

When you grow a garden, you don’t build the plants out of rocks and plastic.  You create the environment where those tiny, threadlike little seedlings have the best chance you can give them of growing into strong and resilient plants.  Some plants grow faster than others, some are inherently hardier.    You can’t do it for them.  Your job is to give them the best chance you can give them to grow. 

Just like gardeners work at giving their plants the best odds to thrive, we who care about communities can build an environment where our small businesses have the best chances to grow.

Fine.  So you can’t build seedlings out of rocks and plastic.  So what the heck are we supposed to do?

If you want to build a healthy small business ecosystem in your community, you have to

children at white house working on garden

put in a significant amount of work ahead of time, and maintain diligent attention once the seedlings start coming out of the ground.

Okaaay…and the prep work looks like…what?

  • Helping potential entrepreneurs select the right seeds.  One of those capacity issues we talked about the other day has to do with market knowledge.  Entrepreneurs tend to start businesses on a gut sense of an opportunity – or on a “gee, it would be cool to do that” sort of model.  A lot of time that works out just fine, but there’s also a big risk of wrong moves or mistaken choices that can cut into the entrepreneurs’ reserves.  As we discussed, one of the biggest differences between small businesses and larger businesses is capacity, whether that’s cash reserves, hours in a day or knowledge.  Missteps in the beginning can set a business up for failure, and anything that wastes capacity cuts away at a very thin layer of reserves.


Communities can help select the right seeds by sharing real-world information about their assets and their opportunities.  What’s our economic makeup?  Where are we over-supplied or undersupplied?  What are the hidden, maybe small-scale opportunities that result from population subsets or unusual regional destinations that out-of-towners might not know about? This information isn’t hard to come by, if you know where to look.  But it can make all the difference between a hometown success story and a could-have-been-if-only.


  • Preparing the soil.  If you are starting a garden on a vacant lot, you don’t just throw seeds down and hope for the best.  You have to make sure that the dirt can nourish the plants you’re planning to grow, and of course all dirt is certainly not created equal.  What you need to add or do depends on what you are planning to grow.  Peat moss?  Mulch?  Compost?  Fertilizer?  Lime?  One seed needs one, one seed needs another.


Some business types benefit from opportunities to build strong local networks, while others need international connections.  Sometimes they need help with inventory management, human relations issues, finding funding to grow into their potential.  None of these require a degree in rocket science, but again, remember capacity: if I am an overwhelmed small business owner, chances are I will stumble along by the seat of my pants….until the crisis that has been building up through my inability to manage that issue effectively takes front and center.  And by then, it may be too late.   If we want to build a small business ecosystem, one of the easiest and simplest things we can do it to make this assistance easily available.  Chances are someone somewhere is providing the information your local businesss need… they just aren’t aware of it or able to get it with what little energy they have to throw at it.  Putting that within reach isn’t hard…but it takes consistent effort and lots of repetition.  Just like with fertilizing, once is never enough.


  • Monitoring the ecosystem’s development.  Biologists don’t just look at an ecosystem once – they identify key measurable indicators, and they check them regularly.  What’s the water ph?  How many songbirds did we count this year?  Are we above or below the average for rainfall?  How else are you going to understand where things are going – or what we need to change in order to nudge trends in a better direction? 


We do a particularly lousy job of monitoring our local small business ecosystems.  We tend to assume that everything is fine based on a few overly-simplistic indicators, like the number of new businesses, without digging deeper into the data to understand whether those factors are actually signs of growth or decline.  An increase in the number of birds might look like a good sign to a biologist, but if most of the growth is invasive species who compete with the natives, that numerical increase might not be such a good thing.  Similarly, adding jobs that pay minimum wage or require only minimal skills could be less something to crow about than something to take as a warning signal.


None of these tasks are hard, and none of them require skills or information that we don’t already have or can borrow from other professions.  What we do need to bring to it is the diligence and the long-term perspective to cultivate our small business ecosystems.  It won’t happen overnight.




Building a human ecology (plus a lot of gorillas)

What does a community ecology need?

I have been musing a lot lately over what I think is one of the most critical challenges of this era: what can we who work with cities and villages and neighborhoods do to build better community ecologies?  That’s a strange way to put it, but I used the words I chose on purpose.

As I’ve talked about here before, the challenge of building a Wise Economy requires us to shift how we think about our communities away from separate systems (parks, economic development, planning) and toward a community as an ecosystem.  I’m not particularly environmentally-minded (or good at not killing plants), but for me, the metaphor makes the most sense:  communities are human ecosystems, and it is the health of whole system, and particularly the relationships between the parts of the system that make the biggest difference between places where people choose to live and thrive, and places where people get stuck because for one reason or another they have no choice.  A community with great jobs  but no community leadership will not stay healthy for long, but using the need to protect and grow the community’s economycan create an environment in which better leadership can also thrive.

We have sometimes done a lot of damage to our human ecosystems in the name of planning and economic development.  We have demolished vibrant neighborhoods, wasted millions of dollars on projects that demonstrated little long-term benefit, and too often demonstrated that our mental model of how a community works  looked more like a simplistic mechanical model than it did like the complex, organic, constantly-changing places that we could have observed is we’d been paying attention – and that people from outside our box, like Jane Jacobs, pointed out to us.  We need to learn those lessons and view our communities as human ecologies,  not only for the hard-core economic reasons having to do with jobs and tax revenues, but because we need to do a much better job of leveraging our communities’ capacity to do the hard work of making the place work better.

Today we have an economic environment surrounding most communities where the Big Players, the Big Businesses, the Big Leaders that we relied on in the past simply aren’t around the way they used to be.  I spent time recently working with a classic Rust Belt city where we had a variant of a conversation I have had more times than I can count:

In generations past, a small group of 800-pound gorillas in town Got Stuff Done.  Need to raise money for a project?  Need new blood on City Council?  Need to set priorities, kick someone into gear, make something happen?  As long as you could get their attention (and you were willing to let it be done their way), you had it made.  Stuff Got Done.

In this community, as in hundreds of others, the 800-pound gorillas, for better or worse, are gone.  Instead, we have communities with a large number of smaller players – 100-pound or 50-pound gorillas, if you will.  Capacity is still there, but it’s not as simple to get it in motion as it used to be.  Since we have tended to think so simplistically, we don’t know how to harness those gorillas together.   So we underestimate the capacity we have, we decry the loss of the Old Days, and we assume that we are stuck, that we can no longer make our communities better.

Like so many of these issues, we have to evolve beyond seat-of-the pants assumptions and the rules for playing together that we learned in elementary school.  If we are going to create better human ecosystems, and if we are going to do so in a world where we can’t be passive, where we cannot simply rely on someone with big muscles and deep pockets to do it for us  We have to actively engage the smaller gorillas and lead them to harness

harness for bowhunting
This thing is actually called a Gorilla harness. I have no idea why. www.bowhunting.com

themselves together.  That means that we have to:

  • Pull them together.  Gorillas are territorial, so this in itself has to be done in a way that makes them feel safe – and doesn’t create an opportunity for any particularly ambitious gorilla to try to assert dominance.


  • Paint for them the picture of the community’s deepest needs.  Gorillas are smart, but they know their own territory better than anything else.  We need to help them see the whole picture through facts and through stories, and help them understand how their most urgent issues, their own piece of ground, relates to the health of the rest of the environment.


  • Lead them through the process of identifying priorities.  With so many gorillas and no silverbacks, consensus is essential but seldom comes easily.  Someone, perhaps you, has to lead  — but not the old way, with growling and chest-pounding and intimidation.  Lead from within.


  • Don’t leave getting it done to chance.  Gorillas can be powerful, but a lot of other issues are demanding their attention.  The most successful communities not only plan, but set up the process for making it get done.  One current client that has  an impressive history of successes in the face of tough challenges  set up a committee of Council, consisting of electeds, staff administrators and key members of the community.  Their job?  Literally, hold the feet of the City and other agencies to the fire of doing the work that the community set out for itself through the plan.  No shirking.  We are watching, plan in hand.


We no longer live in an era where we can take healthy, vibrant human ecologies for granted.  We who work with local governments and nonprofits are our communities’ biologists – we see the warning signs of trouble before almost anyone else.  We don’t always know how to solve it, and we don’t always do a good enough job sending up the alarm.  And sometimes we get scared and don’t send up the alarm at all, or we raise our concerns timidly and back off when the gorillas growl.  But we know what’s at stake.

C’mon, everyone, time to stop chest-thumping and put on the harness.

Helping places make room for What We Will Be Next

Damn movie.  There’s another one on the list.

I learned a long time ago that I am way too good at buying into what theater people call the willing suspension of disbelief – what you do when you get caught up in an acted-out story and react to it as though it were real, even when you know darn well that it’s make believe.  I have a ridiculously long list of movies that hit me so hard when I watched them, got me so worked up, that I know I can never watch them again.   What Dreams May Come?   Forget it.  The Mission?   No freakin way.  Up?  It’s a cartoon, after all… crap.

I knew the first time I watched Up that I needed to skip the first five minutes about the main character’s life with his wife and his losing her after a long happy marriage.  Bull’s eye on Pressure Point  #1, but we can handle this.

Of course, near the end of the movie, that character has to re-confront his loss, accept it and let go.   I walked in on my 10-year old son watching it last night (I had purposely avoided the room all evening, but it was getting late and I wanted him to go to bed), and ended up watching the last five minutes with him.  Cue the waterworks.

In his recent book The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes most eloquently about the underlying sense of loss and struggle to move on that pervades many communities, particularly in the Rust Belt and other areas that have struggled to transition to the new economic epoch that is unfolding.    As I have mentioned here before, many of the places I know best have been struggling to deal with that loss, and make that transition, for decades.  I watched my parents and many others where I grew up come face to face with the consequences of a changing world long before I had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

Florida includes a lovely quote from John Craig, former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fundamental change will be much longer in coming than you can imagine.  You’ll survive.  But there’ll be no ‘getting over’ your past, only moving beyond it.”


You also can’t get back your past, as much as you might want it.  It just doesn’t work.

I have spent more time than I can count with communities where leaders – council members, Chamber of Commerce officials, and others – have said to me with complete sincerity, “we just need to get the shoe factory back.”  Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same idea: “We just need to land another big factory/a new shopping mall/a new…something.”

Go find that unicorn, and when we bring it back to our community, we will all live happily ever after.


We who work with communities know, or should know by now, that this is a fantasy.   The world has changed, and is changing.  We have to get on with it.

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described grieving as a five-step process:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.   In Up, the main character reaches the point of acceptance when the house in which he lived so happily with his wife, and which he has clung to and protected throughout the movie, floats away into the distance  (If you haven’t seen it, trust me on that one.  It involves a lot of balloons.)    

For some of us, the greatest challenge we face is to help our communities allow their past identities – industrial heart, shopping mecca, favorite tony suburb– float away.    In the community context, that requires a combination of

  • Data that puts the change and the opportunity in front of our eyes,
  • An empathetic, collaborative approach that makes everyone, not just a few, the owners of our future, and
  • A clear-eyed, pragmatic strategy for doing the tough, long-term work that has to happen to make that transition happen.

Florida also paraphrases and then quotes Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[The lesson of resurgent places] is to pick yourself up and get back to work.  Don’t expect the federal government or anyone else to save your city or bring back your industries.  ‘It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.’

We have to remember, honor and love our pasts, but not cling to them.  That’s true for us as people and use as communities.  Only when we can help our communities do that work of letting go do we allow ourselves to have space for What We Will Be Next.

salt, pig, chicken something…re-learning how to grow a community.

This post is adapted from one titled “Salt of the station street pig and chicken” that originally appeared on the blog of a dear friend and a woman I admire.   Rebecca Maclean is both the blogger behind Food Me Once, and also one of the editors and primary authors of the Digging Deep Campaign.  Becky and I don’t always see eye to eye, but she understands successful urban environments as both a planner and as a person who has made the dedicated choice to live in the city, small kids and husband in tow.  She’s quite an asset to Pittsburgh.  I hope they’re starting to get that.

When I tweaked this entry, I did so to highlight Becky’s message about something that can be tough for economic developers and planners to hear: the places that do best are often the places that do so despite us.  There’s something that happens in successful neighborhoods that a zoning code, an incentive package, or a nice maps with lots of colors…doesn’t.  The critical challenge to our professions in this era is to drop our top-down assumptions and get deep into the understanding of how exactly these places thrive — and how, tactically and incrementally, we can help make that happen.

My distaste for the short-man-in-the-long-cape approach is pretty well known by now, but that’s not the point here.  The point is that we need to start looking closely at case studies like Kevin Sousa’s in Pittsburgh: put some effort into taking them apart and understanding the moving parts.  We need to analyze the details and the myriad of factors that go into these kind of places, and figure out how to support them —  more tactically, more delicately .

We need to regard planning for the revitalization of communities as a social science, not a mechanical, this-goes-in-one-end-and-that-comes-out-the-other process.  There are no magic levers, no simple buttons that we can push to make it go.  Long-term, resilient, successful places need to grow, with all the messy complexity that comes with that.  And if communities seeking revitalization don’t need a Grand Design, they most certainly need a good gardener.  One that doesn’t squash or over-water the seedlings.

That is our job.  Here’s Becky:

Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of that “what to do” lies a mental barrier that urban planners (myself included) often fail to address.

At the end of the day, we can’t “do” anything with property that we don’t own – at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is why many of the best-loved neighborhoods, those that have revitalized and stabilized, are organic ones – places that developed, regrew and thrived for reasons that no planner ever planned.  Perhaps they were steered or supported by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments, but, at their core, these places have been driven forward by people on the ground who were willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, make connections, and hope it sticks.

Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, East Liberty has great history, classic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground from the neighborhood Community Development Corporation and other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. The smaller spaces in the neighborhood have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and now include a mix of established and relatively new businesses.


Here’s the sticky part: who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who stuck it out here through the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce? The CDC, which busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants, only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’?

The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based  – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these businesses are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-timer; the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role.


A conversation with a fellow local food blogger raised a tough question: what level of new investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to bring into the community from outside? Does that level change if the business owners are from the neighborhood, the city, the region – or if they’re a complete outsider? What if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in their world?


Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurantSalt of the Earth logo triumvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing that building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night.  He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken.  And the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire.


I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).


Food preferences aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I keep wanting to ask the naysayers these questions:

  • What would you have put in place of those restaurants?  Both storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations.  While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, they’re not overpriced.   If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at a chain restaurant for a mediocre rack?


  • If you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t.

Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too.

This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh.  I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.

Thanks, Becky.  Take me to lunch the next time I’m in town, OK?

Crocuses in the land of Strong Towns

Crocuses…lovely little sentiment for a blog post.  But come on… how does that relate to a community?  How can we actually build places that have resiliency?

I’m proud to count Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns as a friend and compatriot, and his fire in the belly for rethinking how we plan and build communities has been an ongoing inspiration for me over the past couple of years.  One of a handful of people I know with a background in engineering and planning,  Chuck does a better job than anyone I can think of in terms of articulating how some of the most mundane choices we make within communities – where and how to build infrastructure – eat away at our communities’strong towns logo resilience by exhausting our resources.

After a career spent with engineers (plus 20 years of marriage to one…), I have my share of scars from head-butting with that highly-defined point of view.  But there is something refreshing, something clarifying in Chuck’s ability to take the machine of our communities apart and help us understand how it might fit together better.

If you haven’t read Strong Town’s posts or listened to their podcasts, you should.  Soon.  Here’s the woefully inadequate Cliff Notes version:

The way we decided to build communities after the second World War led us in the local government world to think we could pay for infrastructure maintenance (older roadways, sewers, and other systems) by building new buildings and industrial parks and subdivisions.  It was a sweet deal – the lion’s share of the money to do it came from federal or state programs, and we got the tax money from the new stuff.  Copasetic.

But if you “grow” your local tax base this way, what happens when the new roads and pipes become old and need investment (not to mention the original old stuff)?  What happens when you start running out of developable land, or you come face to face with the unpleasant consequences of doing that?  What happens when those federal and state dollars dry up?

Then what do you do?

Chuck and his team at Strong Towns have documented this trajectory better than I can here.  And they’re grasping along with me and other to find better solutions, including a great analysis of the level of development density needed for a road segment to be able to fund its own maintenance.   They’ve also identified five benchmarks for a Strong Town – principles that definitely resonate with a Wise Economy:

1. Must be near-term financially solvent.

2. Must have the tax base and resources to cover long-term financial commitments.

3. Must have sufficient age diversity so that population will be added at a rate greater than population is being lost.

4. Must have sufficient economic diversity and vibrancy so that businesses are being added at a rate greater than or equal to the rate they are being lost.

5. Must have the courage and leadership to plan for long-term viability.

As I’ve said somewhere before, the reason why I evolved from a reporter to a teacher to a public historian to an urban planner has to do, I think, with wanting to get my head around how communities work, and how they can work better in all their complexity and messiness and moving parts.  To me, the Strong Towns message is critical to that understanding.  And where the Wise Economy tends to emphasize creating resilient economies, Strong Towns helps us see how the choices we make in our local governments impact our long-term ability to do what our communities need us to do.

The Strong Towns message is sobering stuff, and the answers aren’t at all easy or clear yet.  But we’re grasping toward it.  And as long as I’m going to be grasping and stretching toward those answers, I’m glad to have a bright and articulate engineer-planner in the trench with me.

Just don’t tell my husband about that last sentence.  🙂



One of my favorite pictures in a plenary presentation I often give is a stock photo of a yellow crocus blooming through a melted patch in the snow.  Growing up in the Cleveland snow belt, plants weren’t much on my radar… except for that first crocus of the year, which came up at a time when spring was still imaginary and the black crust along the edge of the roadway made you think more of something dead than something coming back to life.  Despite blizzards, despite ice, despite unending leaden grey skies, that impossible little patch of color came back year after year.  There is something audacious,crocus in snow even ridiculous about a crocus… tiny, flimsy little thing with its blossom too big for its stem, pushing in when larger and prettier plants won’t grow, and taking on the same battle year after year.

Crocuses is nuts.

What do we want for the communities that we care about?  It’s fair to say that we want them to be healthy – to thrive and succeed for the long term.  No one goes into this business wanting to make short-term wins that will set the community up for disaster down the road.  But even with our best efforts to create a Wise Economy, we know that blizzards and long stretches of black snow will probably show up.

What we really want, then, is to build resiliency – to equip our communities to be able to bounce back from setbacks — to overcome lost businesses and political fights and bad development decisions and continue to provide great places for people to live and work and all that other stuff we talk about.

Here’s the kicker, though: resilient isn’t flashy.  Resilient isn’t necessarily dinner-plate-sized blossoms, neon colors, explosive growth, front-page news.  Resilience requires the right fit with the environment it’s in, with all its limitations and dirty snow and lack of sunlight. In most places, growing resilience requires a long-range, fine-grained strategy.  Community resilience requires careful attention to issues like business mix and diversity, places for many different kinds of people to live, plentiful options for getting around, systems for food and water and travel and people’s livelihoods that spread the risk, lowering the odds of a catastrophic blow.

About the time I became aware of the crocuses, the economy where I grew up was falling

Cleveland in the1970s
the Cleveland I knew then.

apart.  We in the Rust Belt had learned to depend on a few industries, a few leaders, a few simple assumptions about the world, and we concluded that things would go on that way forever.

It didn’t.  Cleveland today is a different place than it was in 1980 – better in some ways, more challenged in others, but in terms of many measures, a place facing much harder times than it used to.  If we’d had our eyes open, if we would have lessened our dependence on those few industries, leaders and assumptions, maybe things would have been different.  Maybe, at least, we could have weathered that blizzard better.

A resilient community might not make a Million Places to See Before You Die list.   It might not feature the showplace blossoms or the tallest stems, and it might look stupid on your dining room table.  But if what you really want is a place that lasts, a place that people will care about and care for through generations…if you want your community to be able to bloom again after the winter…perhaps we should take a closer look at that crocus.  Maybe it’s on to something.

The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

Don’t loan me a book.  At least, don’t loan me a book unless you’re willing to get it back with pencil scribbles all over it.  Just ask my husband.

In the last post, I talked about the often-fumbling search for more meaningful solutions that I think a realization of the need for a Wise Economy forces upon us.   Abstract ideas about communities as ecologies and beware-ing of magic bullets and the like is all fine and good, but what do you do with that?  How do you make change happen in the places where you live and work?

That last post talked about some baby steps that we can be taking to start to shift toward a Wise Economy, and it talked a lot about the assumptions we make about the Way Things Work and how those Cannot Be Changed, Ever.   In another post recently I referenced Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm-breaking: how breakthroughs requires that one somehow learn to see where the false walls are around them and what opportunities might lie beyond.

Within a Wise Economy context, the rubber-meeting-road moment is when we make plans for the future of our communities.  Comprehensive plans, strategic plans, action plans, organization plans…whatever we do to set the direction of the organization that we are counting on to make the community’s future happen,  that’s where a Wise Economy either begins to take root or falls on the stone and withers.   And after many years of making these kinds of plans, it’s clear to me that when our plans fail us, it’s often because our blind spots, our limited assumptions and our overlooked mis-interpretations equipped us with a wrong or faulty plan.  We often set ourselves up for that failure because we didn’t know and could not see all the things we were missing.

One of the books that has been most influential on my thinking over the past few years is a 20-year old volume with the catchy title, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations  by Dietrich Dorner.  I’m going to assume that it sounds more appealing in the original German.  Recommended to my husband by a very wise boss, this book details the results of a series of studies examining how people made decisions in complex and ambiguous environments.  Complex and ambiguous… sounds nothing like the communities we work with, right?  Add  to that the fact that the participants were typically dealing with economic development and public policy scenarios, and it starts to hit uneasily close to home.  So Dave bought it, but I read it… and found it so insightful that I marked passages on nearly every page.  He doesn’t share books with me much anymore.

In some respects, it’s a depressing read.  Participants in Dorner’s studies make a lot more mistakes than correct decisions, and much of the time they fail miserably.  By studying the participants’ choices and assumptions closely, and doing that a mind-numbing number of times, Dorner does develop a pretty reliable differentiation between those who made consistently good decisions, and those who set themselves up for disaster.

Dorner illustrates a large number of differences in how successful and unsuccessful participants approach and manage the tasks, and I’ll continue to write about those.  Here is one that particularly stood out for me:

Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effect higher taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale would have.  The good participants different from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses.  The bad participants failed to do this.  For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary.  Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated ‘truths’ (p.24)

How often do we test our hypotheses?  How often do we assume that a project will have a certain impact without taking a hard look at whether those assumptions are sound?   How often do we go back and re-examine the basic assumptions that we built our last plan on?  How often in the history of the last 60 years have we as planners and economic developers and administrators and communities generated our own “truth,” expended enormous resources on that truth, and then acted surprised when something hits us that we didn’t see coming?

Admitting that we might not have the truth takes bravery.  Taking apart and examining the foundations of the structures we have built feels rightly dicey.  But the termites work silently until the structure falls down.  There is a kind of vigilance that we have to maintain: anticipating and expecting that the world will change, that we might have gotten something  wrong back when we made that plan, that we cannot just finish the plan, sigh with relief and move on to getting it done.  We have to regularly test our hypotheses – and be ready to change what we are doing when those tests show us that we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

That is generating wisdom.  I’ll take that over “truths” any day.

The first steps toward the marathon

It’s a tough challenge that I keep laying out with this Wise Economy thing.  If you share my belief that the realities of the world and communities around us require us to rethink, reboot and re-engage in the work of building great communities, it’s easy to find yourself in the blind alley where those good intentions thump into a brick wall.  So the key question becomes, “How?”

I don’t completely know yet.  I have pieces and parts, and I can point to some tools, but there aren’t any easy solutions.  I’m working on it.   And for all of us, I think it’s going to be a long road to some perfect answer.

I started running recently after a lifetime of complete visceral aversion to anything having to do with fitness.  As I was putting on my new shoes, my 10-year-old son asked me when the last time I had “run” anywhere was.  He’s certainly never seen it.  I racked my head, and the only thing I could come up with was elementary school gym glass, where Mr. Ridgeway, who must have weighed 300 pounds, would chase me while the class was running laps because I was far and away the slowest kid out there.  I’ve always said that I only run when chased by something– that must be where I got it.  Believe me, the picture in my head probably looks scarier to me than whatever you’re imagining.

As a result of my complete lack of any sort of conditioning, calling what I do a “run” is like calling a kid on a tricycle Lance Armstrong.  On a ¾ mile circuit, I “run”/galumph/lumber  for a few segments of 100 yards each, interspersed with a lot of walking and wheezing.    But for some reason, I’m not hating it as much as I thought I would.  And every time out it gets a little tiny bit easier.

One of the precepts of the Wise Economy idea is that there are no magic bullets, and that we need to commit to the long, hard haul of incremental, deep-rooted, meaningful change.  I can’t take a pill to become a marathoner – I have to keep plugging at it, every day, bit by bit.  And I have to start with the uncomfortable step of looking like a fat blob ker-phlomping my way through the neighborhood, because without that start, I won’t get anywhere at all.

So what can we all do to start working toward this Wise Economy idea – toward communities that are vibrant, resilient, economically powerful and great human ecosystems?  Here’s a few thoughts as to what those first steps might look like:


  • We can strive to be alert to the context we are in, and be conscious of the fact that what we see here isn’t automatically the only way to do it.  When we assume that “our way is the only way to do it,” we are stopped at Step 1, and every consultant knows that the “this is the only way to do it” held by one community is usually the polar opposite of another.


  • We can read and listen to people outside our field.  One of my assets,  I think, is that I have a pretty wide-ranging mental diet – from planning and economic development to education, business, science, psychology, and so on.  I think this is critical to being able to break out of our self-defined boxes – we need to experience the world, at least a little bit, through perspectives that are different from our own, to help us see where the walls around our own perceptions are.


  • We can share our successes – even those first 100-yard lumbers — here at the Wise Economy Workshop through the “Contact Us” link.  I’d like to start collecting and sharing case studies of Wise Economy approaches in action, but I can only scratch the surface without you.


  • If you want to build a Wise Economy in your community, but you feel like you’re lacking support or you need some back-up, consider bringing me or one of my colleagues to your community to help kick-start that conversation.  A little outside perspective, a reinforcement of your voice crying in the wilderness, a call to action and some guidance on how to start taking those steps might make the difference between hopelessness and hope.  It’ll at least get folks off the couch.


Please let me know if you have other ideas or perspective.  I might not need Mr. Ridgeway to chase my butt anymore, but I certainly haven’t got all the answers.  Together, though, we can train for the marathon.



The Wise Economy Manifesto, Version 2.0

Over two years ago I wrote down something that I called the Wise Economy Manifesto (first draft).  The purpose of that statement was to try to capture the sea change that I think we need to make with regard to how we manage the world of local government.  I have worked with communities for about 20 years, and I’ve stood in the midst of places that were thriving and places that were collapsing.  From what I saw and what I know about economies, planning, organizations and psychology, I ended up joining the small but growing army of folks advocating for a a deep-seated reset to how we do the important work we do – convinced that the needs are bigger than a new program or a new method.  And because my experience has crossed many professional boundaries, I was inclined to seek a holistic approach – a sort of universal theory that takes the work of many who strive to make communities better and sets their efforts in a deep-structure context.

So I wrote a thing called the Wise Economy Manifesto, and in it I tried to encapsulate everything I was thinking.  And I think it did that.  But as I have been living with it, and speaking and writing from it over the last couple of years, I have been coming to the conclusion that I made that first attempt more complicated and more fragmentary than it needed to be.  So I’ve taken another whack at it, and I’d be grateful for your feedback.  In the coming months, I plan to be developing some tools to help you put this into action, so the secondary question I have for you is, what can I provide to help you get there?


Here is the Wise Economy Manifesto (version 2.0):

  • Communities are human ecosystems.  Everything we do, whether a land use plan or an economic development incentive, or any other public policy, isn’t going to stay in the silo where we put it.  What we do will have wide and deep, and often unintended, repercussions, and we need to change how we work and think to anticipate those as best we can.


  • That which makes you unique makes you valuable.   Communities cannot offer everything to everyone, and they shouldn’t try to.  The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover, brush off, and illuminate those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique.  There is little value in being a commodity, but much opportunity in a well-defined niche.


  • We must focus on cultivating our native economic species.  The thing that grows naturally where you are can, with a little help and protection, provide more long-term benefit (and fewer of those unintended repercussions), that the exotics that we try to transplant at great cost.  In this era, the chase after the flashy, the big, the long shot, is too costly and too risky to deserve the lion’s share of our attention.


  • Beware the magic pill.  We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution.  There isn’t one.  Get used to it, and commit yourself to incremental, complex, messy change.


  • Crowdsourced wisdom is the best way to find a real solution.  We have tough challenges in front of us, and we need all the bright ideas that we can get.  But just like water needs to be guided into a channel before it can drive a turbine, we have to take the lead in guiding our community’s wisdom into fruitful efforts.  An open mic in the middle of the room ain’t gonna cut it.


  • We whose have the job of helping communities work better have to be brave.  We have to reconnect to the reasons why we got into this, before the rules and bureaucracy and politics tried to beat it out of us.   Whether we want to or not, we are going to be on the front line of the fight for new solutions, and we are going to be useless if we are just punching the clock.  We have to critically re-assess our professions and organizations and communities, and find the fortitude to break through the walls that are keeping our communities from being successful.  We cannot be foolhardy, and we must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  But we have to be brave enough to do our job, and lead the expedition.


I’d be grateful to know what you think, if I am missing anything, etc.  Thanks.

Step into the spotlight

This article is not one of my usual sources (I hate to sound like a snot, but pink type and multiple exclamation points are usually a cue to fast forward for me), but it was sent to me by someone who thought it resonated with the angle I have been taking over the past few months on the need for bravery in rebooting planning and economic development. While I doubt a whole lot of us are aspiring to be the next Lady Gaga (and I can’t say I’ve pursued a career as a psychic with a lot of vigor), there’s a kernel of truth in here that I think is worth pulling out.

We are conditioned as community professionals to be part of a team, to stick with the instructions handed down by Them, to avoid rocking the boat if we can help it. For those of you who work with local governments, elected officials, nonprofit boards of directors, etc., you’ve probably gotten that message for years in no uncertain terms. It’s no wonder so many of us give up on that first impulse we had, to go into this work because it seemed like doing something that matters. After a few years of perpetuating a status quo that you know is limping, it’s no wonder so many start counting the days to retirement.

The author of this post goes a little deeper, and summarizes the most primal, fundamental fear that keeps people from doing what in their guts they know they should do:

The fear that if you actually stand in all your glory and say “Maybe I AM good enough! In fact, maybe I’m completely awesome…that all of a sudden the people in the shadows start looking at you differently and whispering “Who does she think she is?!”


As grown-up professionals, we don’t like that “who does she think she is?” prospect any better than anyone else.  And add to that the fear that stepping out like that could conceivably impact your career and your personal economic sustainability, and it’s no wonder that we shrink from the spotlight.

But we need planners and economic developers and passionate community people to step into the spotlight in the world of local government and planning and economic development as much or more than any other field. Where else do you touch so much of what makes communities worthwhile? What other fields have such an impact on the places that form everyday life?  We so easily underestimate how much we know and how important our contributions are for the long term viability of the places that we care about.

It might not look the same for us as for the astrologer or Lady Gaga or whatever, but we need to claim that same spotlight. We need to stop being beaten down by fear and step out there in the service of the good work that we know better than anyone else needs to be done.

We can do this.  We gotta do this.  Let’s get at it.

Do the Math: Economic Arguments for Historic Preservation and Downtown Revitalization Webinar

Last summer I did a webinar for Heritage Ohio on making economic arguments in favor of public policy decisions to support historic preservation and downtown revitalization.  We focused primarily on the different economic lenses through which property owners and local government decision-makers have to view the economics of decisions, how short-term assumptions can lead local government folks to overestimate economic benefits to the community and underestimate long-term costs.  Heritage Ohio then put the slides and the audio on YouTube, where you can watch it.

I have spoken on this topic several times, but it’s a tough one to make any traction on, even within an hour-long presentation.  However, someone asked me where to find it recently, and I thought it might be useful to some of you as well.  I will warn you that it is an hour long, and the slides move but it’s my voice the whole way through until the moderator starts reading the questions that had been sent in.

Ironically, this was taped three days after I had a somewhat significant surgery, and Heritage Ohio kindly sent its staff down to Cincinnati so that I could do this from my living room in my flip flops. To me, my voice sounds a little softer than I am used to, but I don’t know if you’ll see any difference.   But thank heavens it wasn’t videotaped — that would have been bad news for everyone concerned.  🙂

Here’s the link:



I wasn’t nice to the Little Napoleons, but I guess that’s OK.

When you’re a woman who writes and speaks her opinions about issues, there’s a certain

zipped lips

voice in the back of your head that pushes back any time you’re inclined to be “not nice” to someone.  Even today, we all still deal with a deep-set acculturation against anything that might make someone else feel bad or sound like you’re being mean.  That’s why characters in a movie like Mean Girls never say things straightforward, like “you suck rocks,” but instead do all these sneaky twisty things to get back at someone they don’t like.  And that’s why people go see that movie.  Maybe that’s why the number of women who are thought leaders in local government, planning and economic development is relatively small.

I think the question of whether my acculturation as a “good female” ever took is pretty well open to debate… but that sense of not wanting to cut people down unfairly, of wanting to be perceived as “nice,” continues to hold.  And when I wrote a very heartfelt post last year based on an interview with Andreas Duany, in which I wrote rather passionately about the impacts of a short German architect in a cape whose lack of hubris resulted in irreparable damage to dozens of American downtowns, I was both stunned by the attention that the post received, and uneasy.  After all, I have nothing personally against Duany… and there is much good that has come out of his work… and, well, I don’t want people to “not like” me.  Scuse me while I go put my hair in pigtails and brush the dirt off my knees.

I saw a lot of the responses at the time, but I recently found the courage (and time) to go back online and search for responses to that post, and found a few that I had not seen the first time around.  One of my favorites is from the blog of a councilman in Alpharetta, Georgia.  I don’t know GAJim, or his political platform or why this resonated to him, but the post clearly gave him some encouragement.  Since much of his post is about the Duany article, and since, well, I like and still strongly agree with the quote he pulled from me, I’ll repeat here the part that he used:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

Napoleon PortraitIf the people who live around a proposed development oppose that development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.


Somehow, despite my own wavering bravery, it seems like I might have done some good.

I think I’m gonna take out the pigtails and stand by that one.


We all need to Turn Pro

The blog seems to be taking a turn toward the…I don’t know, motivational?  Metaphysical?  lately, with a lot of posts about making the choice to be a force for change — a force in our communities and organizations for creating a Wise Economy.  Perhaps it’s because of my reading and music diet lately, or the fact that I have been recovering from an intensive phase in the weeds of a project.

But I find myself consistently grasping for ways to articulate something that is hard to say to anyone without sounding stupid — and especially hard to say to people dealing with the tough realities of local governments and organizations.  What I am trying to get at is the fact that we need to be active forces in the movement toward solutions to the tough issues facing all of us.

A blog post in my morning reading today, as a result, was in the right place to twang all of my strings pretty hard.  Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative is one of my favorite business world readings and podcasts, and his ability to see and cut through the barriers that hold us back is a delight.  Todd and several other bloggers lately have posted about a new business book called On Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’  Work, by Steven Pressfield.  I haven’t read it yet, but when I do I’ll let you know.

Todd, however, took off on this, and wrote a really beautiful little confessional (there I go, sucker for a good writer again…).  Here’s a piece of it:

I spent much of my life as a paid amateur. I was doing what I needed to do to get the work done, but I was secretly waiting for someone to come along and “pick” me.  I was saving myself for a marriage that would never arrive, while unwittingly giving myself over to anyone who came along. I worked hard, but I wasn’t a pro. I was auditing my own life. I was a ghost.

In short, I lacked grit. I hadn’t yet developed the “you will have to pry this work from my cold, dead hands” mindset to which I now aspire everyday. My resolve wasn’t yet steeled.

I remember the day it flipped. I went pro. I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to get my work out each day, and to develop my mind for wherever life led. The change was subtle, but it was marked by three little words that I swear are inscribed somewhere on the inside of my cerebral cortex: “Here I Stand.”

Against the turmoil, here I stand.

Against the critics, here I stand.

Against the scoffers and cynics, here I stand.

Against my own fear, here I stand.

Against exhaustion, pettiness, and excuses, here I stand.

Against compromise and short-cuts, here I stand.

Against the seductive love of comfort, here I stand.

Here I stand, and neither your words, nor your threats will move me. I am a pro, and while I may not always produce great work, I produce, so deal with it.

Awesome.   And an additional pleasure to see someone else fingering the need for “grit.”

Planners and economic developers and community professionals are creative professionals, in the purest sense of the word.  Our mission is one of the most fundamental and noble: to make human communities better.  We get mired in the details of meetings and projects and personality conflicts and politics, but you know what?  So do  people who do more conventionally “creative” work, like artists and writers.  Creating is tough, whether it’s a new painting, a new song or a new way of making local economies work.

Fear?  Insecurity?  Rejection?  What else is new?

We need creativity in local governments, organizations, agencies.  We need it more than ever.   We need to embrace our own creativity, and that of our communities,  if we are going  to find solutions to those very tough questions, and more and more urgent.  We need to claim our own commitment to working toward those answers within the messy world of everyday distractions and limitations if we’re going to in any way be true to the good intentions of our choice to do this work.

One of my favorite songs right now includes these lyrics: “I got this feeling underneath my

javelin thrower
Maybe what we love about pro athletes is that we can see their commitment to making something happen.

feet/like something underground’s going to come up and carry me.”  (15 points to the first person to name the song!).    Maybe that’s another way to say what it means to turn pro.  A pro taps his or her own energy and commitment for the good of something bigger.  You can’t get bigger than what we deal with.  We can’t afford be paid amateurs anymore.

Economic development, big game trophies and missing workers

This post is edited from a musing written by my good friend Bill Lutz, who has show up in these pages before here and here.   I was deeply impressed by the way Bill captured the essence of the conflict that faces economic development today — and set it in the framework of ongoing generational change, which is an issue close to his heart (and mine), and one that I hadn’t connected the way he has.

We all need to have our eyes wide open about how the world is changing around us, especially if we are old enough to have gotten comfortable with the status quo.  As a Gen Xer, I find myself straddling two increasingly divergent views of the world — views that are firmly ensconces among people ten years older, and ten years younger, than I am.  In my professional life, I don’t see this division as pronounced anywhere as it is in the world of economic development.  Even with all the talk about economic gardening and the

fissure in the ground
fissures: they grow under stress. www.azwater.gov

importance of recruitment and retention, too often the actions of professionals in the field, on the ground, reflect old and unspoken assumptions about what a community needs for its economy.  I wrote last week about how deep and meaningful change requires that we break through our old paradigms, and while that’s never easy, the economic development field seems to be having a particularly hard time of it.

I believe that we as a nation and as communities are in the midst of a zeitgeist shift, one that I continue to hope makes a Wise Economy more and more achievable.  But to make that shift, we have to think ahead and have the wisdom, and the bravery, to make it happen.

For another interesting read on the generational and economic sea changes we’re living throughfissure, check out Fast Company’s recent series on Generation Flux: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/162/generation-flux-future-of-business


Last month, Tipp City collected a major win in the game of economic development.  Abbott Labs, the makers of nutritional supplements, decided to build a new production plant for one of their products in this small community.  The project will lead to the building of a new $270 million facility and create in excess of 200 jobs.  These are substantial and impressive figures.

Each week, I have the chance to drive by the new home of Abbott Labs on my way to church and each week there is more and more progress on this massively large building.  But as I drive by the building, I can’t help but think if this facility is creating the jobs our future employees will want.  Yet again, is any project that promises hundreds of jobs creating the jobs future employees will want?  I know it’s almost sacrilegious to ask such questions in the heartland of American manufacturing, but these are important questions to ask.

Ask anyone currently working with those in manufacturing and it is not uncommon to hear a refrain that there are not enough people filling the jobs that are out there.  It sounds counter intuitive given the relatively high unemployment rates that currently exist.  Looking at those that are younger, the unemployment rates are even higher.

The big question begs to be asked: why can’t these businesses find people to do these jobs, even when the unemployment rate is so high?  Many postulate the work ethic of younger workers isn’t where it should be.  Some business executives say when their new employees clock in for their first day of work at 8:00 a.m. some leave at lunch and never come back.

Personally, I think it’s too convenient to blame this generation’s perceived lack of work ethic.  I am convinced that each generation has the same proportion of unmotivated, lazy and unproductive people.  I am sure my grandfather’s generation thought my father’s generation was a bunch of slack-jawed hippies that couldn’t carry their own weight.

What I am convinced is that the jobs we are creating aren’t the types of jobs the next generation wants or needs.

If you read a broad cross-section of the regional and national press about economic development issues, two themes  emerge pretty consistently these days:

#1:  Economic developers all across the country are tripping over themselves to get big businesses to come to town — and often throwing a lot of money at them in the hopes that this will make something happen.

#2: Young job seekers aren’t interested in working for big corporate conglomerates. There’s growing evidence, and there has been for a decade or more, that post-Boomer workers are looking for something very different from the Organization Man model that most corporations still hew to in theory, even if the promises of that employment are no longer reliable.

Take those two statements together, and you get a very different sense of where the problem lies.

The post-Boomer generations of worker grew up in turbulent times.  More than likely they saw their parents, or other older adults they knew lose their jobs during the corporate restructuring that was all the rage in the 1980s.  Those folks had been told that theirs were supposed to be career jobs, but it didn’t turn out that way.

In part due to the lack of these jobs, many in this generation grew up with their mothers going to work leading to another generational phenomenon: the latchkey kid.  These were the kids that came home from school to an empty house and it was in these few hours a day that these kids learned to be self-reliant.

So can we surprised when we see the most talented of this generation of self-reliant individuals reject the job offers of big business when they come to town, or don’t last when they discover what a mismatch there is between their guts and these places?

Post-Boomer workers demand to be flexible and agile.  They want to continually build new skills and new abilities, and if necessary,  they are willing to do it on their own.  These workers aren’t interested in signing up for a job, only to be pigeon-holed in a dead end with the ever-present risk of a pink slip handing over their head.

The fact of the matter is that economic developers are, by and large, playing a game that hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.  Attraction and recruitment is still a big part of the economic development game, the major effort still goes into chasing the big game trophy, and communities keep getting stuck in the slow dance of big incentives and slick marketing.

Most importantly, this approach to economic development is often failing to help answer a bigger question:  Are the communities we live in attracting the jobs and careers we need to sustain our community’s  future?


Structural Change, Cyclical Change, Institutional Change…coming to your hometown.

Readers of this blog know that I have a deep admiration of Umair Hacque, an economist and a great writer who has done one of the best jobs I have found of documenting the changes in the world economy over the past few years.  Maybe it’s because he started out as a neuroscientist, but he gets the interconnections between people and communities and economies and institutions… and he articulates it beautifully.  If I am a sucker for one thing, it’s definitely a good writer.

Umair recently posted a blog that is like a little miniature in a snow globe for its crystalline summary of the forces at work on our economy, our communities, our culture and our world.  It’s short, so I’ll reproduce it here:

I know we’re not really allowed to think subtly in the great gladiatorial arena of the American national discussion. But, maybe, just maybe, both “sides” in the structural vs cyclical debate are right–and wrong.

Let me put it this way.

I’d bet that our immediate unemployment problem is, indeed, “cyclical”–and can be ameliorated, to some extent, with more, orthodox, stimulus.

But I’d also bet that a panoply of other problems–stagnant median incomes, declining net wealth, underemployment, corporate cash-stockpiling, financial malinvestment and misallocation by the capital markets, to name just a few–aren’tcyclical. They’re structural, if only for the simple reason that most are decades-long trends, not the stuff of yesteryear.

I’d say there’s a tradeoff between the two–a kind of dilemma of political economy. Sure, you can throw money at failing institutions, to protect failed incumbents and create near-term “jobs”–but unless you want an economy of service McJobs, while propping up yesterday’s oligopolies and monopolies, it’s probably not the greatest investment in the world. Conversely, it’s difficult to simply twiddle thumbs and let a tide of human misery–human potential foregone–sweep the advanced world.

So here’s how I’d frame the challenge. Institutional is how we fix structural and cyclical.

If we accept that unemployment is cyclical, then the crucial question is this: will a stimulus package (or whatever) exert an opportunity cost–will it further entrench already failing institutions? Can we design one not to? Can we, better yet, design one to tackle the structural problems above at the same time, escaping the tradeoff? I think we can–and that it will involve investing in better institutions, not just rescuing yesterday’s, at the expense of tomorrow’s.

As I’ve said here before,  anyone who was hanging out in the Rust Belt in the 1970s knows that the problems that the national media has been squalling about didn’t drop out of the sky in 2008.

So many of our institutions — and perhaps more importantly, the assumptions that we built them on and still hold — are simply mismatched to the needs of a new world and a new economy.  Education focused on teaching to the test?  Yelling matches offered up as political debate?  Economic Development models of “winning” while our neighbors– to whom we all know we are joined at the hip — suffer?  Planning decisions that oversimplify the divergence and messiness of the humans that are supposed to live in these places? You don’t have to have an economics degree to see that in many cases, however you define it, this ain’t working.

Thomas Kuhn wrote years ago that the most critical scientific discoveries, the most profound observations, require someone or someones to break through the unexamined assumptions that underpin the status quo.  Because those assumptions


are unexamined, we don’t see them.  hey are literally invisible in plain sight.  Until we see them in a new way, or encounter someone who is coming into the situation from somewhere else — from someone who can see where the barriers lie and doesn’t believe in their legitimacy.  Real breakthroughs often require entirely new thinking.

Umair writes mostly about national economies, and he’s definitely a citizen of the world.

I’m not.

But from my position, rooted in the moderate-sized places of middle America, it’s hard not to see that deep change is needed.  Richard Florida calls it a Great Reset, Umair Hacque calls it a move toward eudaimonia (trust me — you’ll probably need to look it up.)  I call it a Wise Economy, and I think fundamentally, we are talking about the same thing.

Big picture?  Yup?  Idealistic? Probably.  Necessary?  Without a doubt.

And what does that have to do with you, in your local government, in your job, in your local community?


It means that each one of us who wants to make things better, who wants to build a better future, has to find ways to either bring out or be the conduit for that new thinking,  for the way to find a new approach.

Yes, I know that you report to someone, have a budget, have responsibilities, don’t want to rock the boat too badly.  No one said you had to trade in your suit for camel’s hair and eat locusts.

Instead, start looking for the walls of your community’s, your profession’s, your organization’s paradigm.  Think about what you and your peers are assuming, and what the alternatives might look like.  Talk to people who have a different perspective — who come from other professions and other places.  They might not want to rock your boat either, but there’s no harm in pushing them a little… and see what you can learn.

Umair wrote a column not too long ago titled “Make the Dangerous Choice to Dissent.

www.flickr.com , image curated by Shirl581

As you might have guessed, I think that’s a pretty good read, too.

So let’s go make it happen.


Annotated presentation, Economic Development /Business Enhancement/Economic Restructuring 101, Heritage Ohio 2012 conference

The file at the link below is an annotated version of a presentation that Craig Gossman of MSI |KKG (newly re-branded as MKSK Studios) and I gave at the Heritage Ohio conference earlier this month in Toledo.  Craig and I were asked to work from a standard presentation prepared by Heritage Ohio staff, but for the sake of presentation clarity we felt that we needed to make some tweaks.  As I usually try to do with presentations, I’ve created an annotated version of what Craig and I said… or should have said, or would have said if we’d been smart enough to think about it at the time.

The element of the Main Street Approach (c) that we were presenting on has been a challenge for Main Streets from the beginning and is currently undergoing a sort of rethinking/rebranding among specialists within and without Main Street nationwide.  For those of you who are not steeped in this strategy for downtown revitalization, the basic premise is to create a volunteer-driven organization, supported by professional staff, that works to revitalize a traditional business district through a comprehensive approach designed to address all of the elements of a healthy downtown.  Typical standing committees include Organization, Promotions, Design and Economic Restructuring.

In the past, Main Street Economic Restructuring committees were typically charged with creating a market analysis (there’s a fun task to try to get your volunteers on board with!) and recruiting new businesses to fill vacancies.  It’s become clear that supporting the economic function of traditional business districts may require a different approach.  What that approach should be, however, is still kind of up in the air.  Some people feel that the focus should be on helping downtown businesses operate more effectively, playing a role similar to what economic developers know as Business Recruitment and Expansion (BRE).  Another group of people feel that strategic recruitment of businesses to fill vacancies should be the primary goal, while others feel that the complexities of urban real estate development are such that the committee should be focused more directly on helping make real estate deals happen.  Heritage Ohio, for the moment, is trying to address all three angles, as you can tell from this presentation.  But you can also tell by the number of slides in each section where the organization is currently putting its emphasis.

My concern in giving this presentation is that I think that addressing all three of these elements well would be beyond the scope of most organizations with a full complement of professional staff, let alone an organization that intends to make extensive use of volunteers.  And I don’t know which of these approaches should be subbed in for the old Economic Restructuring in the official canon, or if any of them should be.  My suspicion at this point is that each of these may be a necessary emphasis in different communities and at different times in their development.  And that implies that this part of the organization would have to have a level of fluidity, an ability to pivot, that we don’t expect from other parts of a Main Street organization –and seldom truly expect from most economic development agencies.

This is why I have placed so much emphasis on developing a plan of action for this part of the organization.  A community that is serious about fostering economic vitality in its downtown is going to have to look very closely and unblinkingly at its challenges and opportunities — both the ones that show up in the convention bureau’s publicity and the developer’s sales pitches, and the ones that take more work to uncover.    The bigger challenge, though, will be the actual planning part — understanding the extent of the organization’s capacity, setting priorities and creating a step-by-step plan of action that gives them a fighting chance to actually make a difference.  That’s not easy, and because it’s not easy, it’s often neglected.  But making a sound and useful plan has never been more important.

As always, if you have questions or comments, please see below.  If it’s something more relevant to Craig than to myself, I’ll pass it along and post his response here as well.

With that loooong preamble, here you go.  Enjoy.

BE 2012 Rucker Gossman version annotated final 05 10 12


Don’t forget what success looks like.

The following blog post from www.businessinsider.com hit my inbox a couple of weeks ago during an intensely busy period.  We talk a lot in the Wise Economy world about the necessity of taking the long view, and that’s critical — especially when the near-term is seldom as straightforward and rational as we’d like.

It is very easy for ourselves, our communities, our local governments and our organizations to become demoralized by setbacks and misssteps — and if we are truly trying to get past old, ineffective approaches and move to something new, we’re going to have those all the more.

So the Hump Day message of this blog post is deceptively simple: focus on the long term, see the big picture, anticipate the unexpected the best you can, and keep pushing forward.  

Hang in there.  There’s a lot of us stuck in the tangle, but we won’t get out if we don’t keep going.


From Businessinsider.com:

This napkin sketch was tweeted this morning by Babs Rangaiah of Unilever (@babs26). It has been attributed to Demetri Martin, the author of a book called This Is A Book.

It’s wise:




Annotated presentations from APA 2012

When I give a presentation, my slides anymore usually have more words than pictures.  That’s what the presentation experts say you should do, but it means that when you download them from Slideshare or a conference website, the reaction is pretty consistent:  “Wha…..?”

To try to solve that problem, I have gotten into the habit of creating annotated versions of my presentations — basically the Notes page in Powerpoint with a description of what I said. (or what I should have said if I’d been more clever at that moment — hey, it’s my notes, let me pretend…)

When I gave two presentations at the American Planning Association conference last week — one as part of a panel on Commercial District Revitalization and Redevelopment, and one on Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement — I promised to post annotated versions for the people who came to download and use as notes.  And I figure some of the rest of you might find them useful, or at least amusing, too.

These links will take you to PDF versions with my annotations, which you should be able to download.

Feel free to share.  If you’re interested in a presentation like one of these for your organization or event, send me a note.  I talks real goodly. 🙂

Secrets of Retail Revitalization: Presentation at APA 2012

Web 2.0 Tools for Public Participation APA 2012








Links from Northeast Ohio American Planning Association workshop, November 18, 2011

For those of you who attended my session on public participation at the workshop,  I promised to post the links to the various online public participation and planning tools that I mentioned in the presentation.  So, in order of presentation, here they are:


Mindmixer.  This is the site that is designed to facilitate broad public idea-generation and idea-vetting, with a little game theory thrown in.  The main web site is here and the example community is here.

EngagingPlans.  This is the site that is strong on project management and public feedback, including the public into the process in a variety of ways.  Here is the explanation of the approach and here is the sample community I showed.

Delib.   This is the app -based tool from the UK, which I don’t know much about yet (but I am hoping to correct that soon).  Here’s their site.

Revitaliz.  This is the platform that is set up to enable crowdsourced funding.  It’s kind of hard to get a feel from the web site as to how exactly it works, but it appears to be very robust.


Placepulse: This is the developing database of how thousands of people across the world respond to a variety of photos of places.  It’s kind of like a mass visual preference survey.  This isn’t so much a direct public participation tool as it is a way to supplement or test the results you get from a public participation initiative.  Plus, it’s awesome.

SizeUp: this is a new tools from the wizards at GIS Planning, and its connection to public participation is a little less direct, but still important.  First, it’s a tool that can be used on the fly to test statements or assumptions about economic and business issues, so it’s a means of injecting more rational fact into public discussions.  Second, it’s an empowerer — with a little training, community members can use it to fact-check themselves.

EMSI: in some respects, this is the Godzilla version of SizeUp.  It requires a paid membership, but in exchange for that you get incredibly robust information sets and analysis tools on everything from business types to workforce strengths.  Want to do your own economic impact studies on demand?  For less than the cost of most consultants, here ya go.

That should keep you busy for a while!

As I mentioned during the session, I am continually finding new tools like these, so keep an eye out for updates.  I will start publishing a quarterly white paper soon….as soon as I finish goofing around online…..

Slides from APA Ohio, National Trust and Downtown Colorado presentations (also known as the Dry Throat Tour)

 For those of you that attended sessions with me at conferences in September or October, I am glad to say that I finally got the slides posted to Slideshare so that you can download them whenever you want.  As a gentle reminder, I am available for your conference, workshop, training, Little League 7th inning stretch…. maybe I should reconsider that last one….


Here’s the link to the session I did with Peter Mallow on economic evaluation methods.  I owe you all some examples, I am still trying to round up some good ones.  We also do have video of that session, which needs some editing… we’ll get that posted as soon as I figure it out.  🙂


 Here’s the session with Mark Barbash and Jim Kinnett on National Trends in Economic Development.  I also need to find some illustrative examples of a couple of things from that session, which I will work on.  We do have video of most of that session, but it’s mostly the backs of people’s heads, which is what happens when you have three vertically-challenged presenters.   As an FYI, this session for us was a proof of concept for a broader training program that we are developing, so if you think some help with Economic Development for Non Economic Developers might be something your organization would find useful, please let me know.   


 Here’s the session on Public Participation.  I don’t have video or audio of this session, but I am doing a reprise at the Northeast Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop on November 18, so we’ll try to rectify that.  Stay tuned. 


After my stint in Dayton, I made a mad dash to Buffalo to present on You Can Do the Math: methods for demonstrating the economic benefits of historic preservation policies.  Here are those slides — both the slides and an audio recording will be available from the Trust.  I’ll post the links here as soon as I get them. 


 Finally, I realized that I never posted the slides from the Downtown Colorado Inc. plenary session I did in September in lovely Durango.  This presentation is a macro-scale overview of what I am thinking about lately, and what I think we need to do to reboot planning and economic development so that our communities are vibrant and resilient for the long term.  Again, I am  available for your annual conference, initiative kickoff or five year old’s birthday party.  Scary clowns and balloons not included. 


If anything does not work, or if you have any questions, please feel free to ping me.  And remember, I supply my own batting helmet.

You’re an old horse and wagon on Mulberry Street, and that’s fine.

I am not sure what it says about me that my blog posts are more likely to quote either Shakespeare or Dr. Seuss than anyone else….

The story “An Old Horse and Wagon on Mulberry Street” was one of my kids’ favorites when they were younger (I can hear them now: “Mooooomm!”), and oddly enough, it’s one of his oldest.  In the story, a young boy anticipates that when he gets home from school, his dad will want him to describe what he saw on that walk.  The boy, of course, has an urge to embroider the story, to make it more interesting, but he knows that will not go over well.  So, as he thinks about what to tell his father, he agonizes over the fact that the only thing he saw on the way home was the aforementioned horse and wagon.  Not interesting enough.  So he starts embellishing… just a little, and then a little more, until what he’s going to describe goes from something the boy thinks is pretty boring to this:

(to be honest, I find the stereotype Chinese person creepy enough to almost have not written this blog post, but there’s an important element in here that I’ll talk about below…)

And of course, when the kid gets home with this wild story, he catches himself and tells the truth. 

But here’s the funny part: my kids loved the way the story goes wildly out of control, but they could never figure out why a horse pulling a wagon on a city street wasn’t interesting enough to report by itself.  They had a different context: if _they_ saw a horse pulling a wagon on a street on the way home, that would of course be a big deal.   On the other hand, they have watched their mother and father “eat with sticks” since they were tiny, so they never understood why that was in the parade. 

Here’s the point: what was unique and exotic to Dr. Seuss and his character was utterly blase to my kids, and what was exotic to my kids was a routine part of life for the author when he wrote the book.  In this case, that’s a factor of the time difference between the writing and the reading, but what I want you to notice is how differently different people perceived the same environment. 

Last week I pulled out an old trick of mine: the comparison of a certain location’s native flower to one that’s much more exotic.  In that case, it was an apple tree blossom and a hibiscus.  The point in that comparison is that the native flower is much easier to grow in that environment – if the point is to produce blossoms as efficiently as possible, with as little special treatment or fussing as possible, the native plant will beat the exotic almost all the time (when it doesn’t, we have a kudzu-weed type problem, but that’s another metaphor for another day). 

The horse and wagon on Mulberry Street story puts another twist on the native/exotic issue: what is routine from one perspective is a crazy exotic for another. A person eating with chopsticks is not anything I would give a second glance.  But a horse and wagon trundling down the street in front of my window would definitely get my attention. 

I have written previously about one of the core tenants of a Wise Economy:  the understanding that what makes you unique is what makes you valuable.  The auxiliary of that point is that your community will not be unique, and therefore more valuable, to everyone.  If I am not interested in horse and wagons, or blue elephants or low water rates or mountain climbing, and that is what makes your community unique, I am not going to consider your community more valuable than anywhere else.  But someone else, someone who wants those amenities, will.  And since that someone else will regard your community as having more value, as being worth more, there’s no point in wasting the limited resources you have chasing me, when you could be putting your effort into chasing him or her. 

That means that we have to do three things well:

1.  We need to understand very clearly what makes our community unique.  That’s not just something we can pull out of the air, out of our usual assumptions and our portfolio of past ad campaigns.  That’s something that we need to analyze, put together data about, and make sure that we are seeing the community the way an outsider without our baggage will.   You can do it, but it requires a very strong emphasis on the outside perspective.  And most importantly, it _must_ be true. 

2.  We need to articulate what makes us unique — and articulate it not just once, not just through the channels that we are used to, but as broadly and consistently as possible.  Once isn’t enough –once is an anomaly to the reader or listener — a novelty, not a compelling argument.  That doesn’t mean that we have to flog the same story, the same three talking points, over and over.  It does mean that our understanding of what makes us unique must include a variety of threads that together create a compelling image.  It’s our job to weave those threads together for the reader or listener, and that will take a sustained effort, not just a weeklong push. 

3.  We need to target what we do and what we offer.  Current thinking in economic development is that the glossy ad in Business Week with the aerial view of your industrial park has long since outlived its usefulness, if it was ever effective to begin with.  Instead, we need to find ways to get our message to the people that are most likely to value what makes us unique.  That might mean ads, but in the evolving environment in which people access and consume information, it’s more likely to mean web-enabled tools that open up communication with people who are likely to care.  That’s a long-winded way to say “social media” (which is fast climbing my despised terms list).    Regardless of how you feel about Twitter or how much you worry about privacy on Facebook, the opportunity that we have today is to talk directly to the people who are already looking for what we have to offer.  It’s not difficult and it’s not costly.  But it does take time and concerted effort. 

I don’t usually plug products on this blog — I mostly view this as a place to throw some of the ideas that I am thinking about out into the universe for feedback — but, given the practical turn this essay has taken, let me point to one tool, one initiative that I think can help anyone grappling with this situation.  There’s an outfit called Journeys Into that has been producing podcasts about community stories for several years.  Some of these are history, some are current events, some are about the junction of the two, but they all give you a sense of a community that you have never seen before as a unique place with a unique identity.  They’re compelling, entertaining stories, and they’re professionally produced, which means that they don’t have the sound quality issues that can be so distracting on an amateur podcast.  I am starting to work with Journeys Into to more concretely demonstrate the economic development value of these podcasts — I don’t have solid data yet, but the case studies are pretty interesting.  If you’re interested, send me a note or check out http://conversationsontheroad.podbus.com/




The Long Road to Recovery is probably longer than we think.

I put a post on my Google+ profile this morning calling attention to an article Richard Florida did for the Atlantic.   Florida does a nice job here of summarizing the thesis of his most recent book, and the way be ties together current and past pundits resonates to this former public historian. I’m grateful to him for being one of few mass media voices out there today who both understand U.S. history and can articulate its relevance clearly.  If more politicians and business leaders understood the economic and industrial history of the last quarter of the 19th century, we might all be a lot better off.

I don’t think there’s any question that we are in a reset, not a typical blip in the economic cycle.  A lot of people have written a lot about this lately, and the only mercy I see is that the debate between the “economy is structurally changing” advocates and the “no, it’s just a dip” voices is starting to be over.

As I have argued here and others have argued elsewhere, I think what we are experiencing today is the subsequent chapter, the continuation of  the sea change that we in the Midwest started going through back in the 1970s.  As anyone reading the Cleveland Press could have told you back then, it was pretty clear that the bedrock of manufacturing was disintegrating.  People argued violently about who was at fault and what should be done and how, but that didn’t end the plant closings and the layoffs and the loss of savings, economic security and optimism.  Today’s structurally unemployed and under-employed, the thousands of acres of wasted space and underused infrastructure that saddle the upper Midwest, all trace their roots directly to the unresolved issues resulting from that sea change.  Perhaps it’s just that now it’s catching up to the rest of us who never ran a stamping machine.

The world changed as it always does, and when it started to change, instead of figuring out how to deal with it at the deep level necessary to make a successful transition, we duct-taped the old machine together and did a lot of singing and dancing to hide the fact that the old system was gradually coming apart.  Which, of course, it eventually did.

We can’t undo the past, but we are losing the surplus capacity that allowed us to get away with not learning from it.  When I talk about Wise Economies, I mean using the critical evaluation and decision management tools that have been developed in education and business to make the best effort we can at trying to anticipate the long-term impacts of community decisions – and as a result, make the right choices more often.  I know that I beat that drum I beat because I live in the midst of a universe of over-simplistic decisions and unintended consequences that has defined too much of the world in which I live — not just in the past couple of years, but for most of my lifetime.  The deepest legacy of the post-Baby Booms generations like mine is going to be how we deal with the fallout of a few decades’ worth of failing to think ahead and make the tough choices necessary to deal with the sea change.  Changes happen over time whether we want to or not. But we should know by now that not dealing with them does not make them go away.


So how do we start building Wise Economies? Grow Your Native Species

Q: What is this  flower?

A: An apple blossom.  It’s also the state flower of Michigan.


Q:  What’s this second flower?

A: A Hibiscus.  It’s also the state flower of Hawaii


Have you ever tried to grow these things in the Midwest?  I have. When I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin (about the same latitude as Traverse City, Michigan), I had one scraggly apple tree in my backyard that an old-timer estimated to be about 50 years old.  The thing was uuuuugly… gnarled branches, sort of bent over to one side, very unsymmetrical.  And we did nothing to take care of it.  But every spring, that tree put out a drift of blossoms over its scraggly branches, and every fall it produced apples…which tasted awful, but they were apples, nonetheless.  On a recent return visit, we drove by the old house and peeked in the backyard, and there was that same old ugly tree, laden down with fruit.

I don’t have an apple tree when I live today in Cincinnati, but I do have a hibiscus tree.  It’s actually our second hibiscus– my husband keeps bought a second after the first one finally limped to its demise.   We have to keep it in a pot because it can’t survive the winters, we have to stake it up in the pot because it doesn’t have a deep enough root system to keep it upright in even a little bit of wind when we do put it outside in the summer.  It goes through random periods where it drops leaves all over the place, and when it’s inside it attracts swarms of little white bugs.  It’s got lovely blossoms, when it blossoms, but the rest of the time it’s a pain in the neck.

To grow an apple tree in this region takes very little effort.  To grow a hibiscus in this region takes a huge amount of effort.  If the goal of your gardening is to produce flowers (ignoring the fruit for a moment), growing an apple tree is going to be a more efficient, less labor-intensive way to meet that goal where I live than growing a hibiscus.  They don’t look the same, and the one that isn’t from here is always going to look more exotic and enticing.  But they are both flowers, and one produces the results we want in this location much more easily than the other.

Conventional approaches to economic development put a huge amount of emphasis on trying to grow exotics in places where they do not naturally grow.  We send economic development professionals on trade missions all over the world, we bleed ourselves to be able to announce that we have the lowest tax rates, and we pour millions of dollars into incentives to recruit businesses – or retain them after they are here.  But unless a business needs what we uniquely have to offer, we will never have confidence that they won’t just pull up and move to the next cheaper place when this load of tax incentives run out.  Recent stories about even as midwestern a stalwart as Sears are driving that point home.

There are two truths of economic development that we don’t often talk about.    The first is that very, very, very few businesses relocate in a year, and fewer now than in years past.  All of the chasing after site selectors that economic developers often do, all of the money and effort and travel spent trying to land that big businesses, is going after  a big payoff with extremely long odds.  Much of that money will see little, if any, return.  To a great extent, big business recruitment is a bet on the Powerball: fantastic if you hit it, but hardly what you want as your retirement savings strategy.

The other truth of the matter is that most businesses do not primarily choose a location on the basis of tax incentives.  When most businesses do go in search of a new location, they choose based on their business’s needs – regional location, workforce skills, access to transportation, ability to recruit key talent, etc.  They will ask for tax incentives because that’s part of the dance, and they will threaten to go somewhere else that has better tax breaks because it’s in their best interest to get a little more if they can.  But communities seldom win business that they would not otherwise get through tax breaks. Most business’s needs are much more complex than that.

Given that betting on the exotic requires so much additional effort for such long odds, I argue that the communities and regions that focus on cultivating and fertilizing the businesses and economic opportunities that grow naturally in their area have a much better chance of long-term economic health and resilience.  Your native businesses are the ones that are adapted to your social, cultural and economic environment from the start, and they are the ones who are in the best position to anticipate and adapt to changes in the world surrounding them.  They may be humble, even boring, compared to the unusual and flashy from Somewhere Else, but they are your safest bet for long-term growth.

What’s so great about local businesses?  This topic gets a lot of play lately, with debates over which types of small businesses are creating the most jobs and how to get them growing .   All important , but let me give you a different argument in their favor, and a long-term Wise Economy-type perspective.

Once upon a time, nearly 200 years ago, a couple of men started making candles in a little shop in Cincinnati.   Places with lots of pigs being good places to get cheap candle-making equipment, so this was a business that was a natural outgrowth of the primary industry in the town known as Porkopolis.   The company later added soap (also made from pork by-products), and gradually, gradually expanded production – employing more people, building bigger buildings, and adding additional products.  Today, that company is one of the largest in the world, and their products include Tide, Crest, Pampers and Swiffer.  And despite the fact that Procter & Gamble does not have factories in Cincinnati anymore, they are one of the largest employers, a major local taxpayer and a key funder of everything from youth summer programs to the United Way and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

P&G started in Cincinnati because of what Cincinnati uniquely had to offer at the time, and it stayed as it grew because of the business and personal connections.  Today it is helping create a new economy in the region – Greater Cincinnati was recently named a center of Consumer Marketing expertise, which includes disciplines ranging from package design to surveying and social media.

Look at the stories of the Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll find lots of stories that follow a similar outline.  Very few corporate headquarters relocate out of their home region (unless they merge or get bought by someone else).  If you want to create a stable long-term economy, if you want to build an orchard that will last,  you need to be growing your P&Gs today.

So how do we start building Wise Economies? Economies = Communities =Ecosystems

Based on my house, I think I live in the "litter" zone.

First, we need to change how we think about communities, businesses, organizations and governments.  We need to understand that economic vitality depends on the health of a community, and that a community is not a set of separate, unrelated systems – a business district, a school system, a park system, a street system — but an ecosystem.  How our businesses do, what happens to our downtowns, what our parks look like, where we spend our money, how we talk about our communities, doesn’t just affect that one thing – it affects everything.  We create a lot of those unintended consequences for our communities simply by not thinking beyond our own pet interests or our own department walls.

Take, for example, the profession of economic development.  Economic Development isn’t _really_ about just increasing the number of businesses.  We all know that.  The reason why communities do economic development, why they invest time and resources in it, is to make sure that the local economy has what it needs and is doing what it needs to be doing to support the health of the overall system.  The purpose of economic development, at its core, is to help the community become stronger by making sure that the economic part of the ecosystem is doing its part well.      

Here’s the hard truth, though: it’s a whole lot easier to define your economic development job, and measure your achievements, if you cast it in terms of “winning new businesses” instead of “facilitating the health of the local economy.”  It’s a lot easier to count new jobs, or new employers, or hits on the web site, or hands shaken at the International Shopping Centers Conference, than it is to evaluate whether you are actually creating a healthier local economy.  That is, unless you have a clear plan and are measuring the right kinds of improvements.  A clear plan and accurate measurements can be done, but they take more honest thought and stronger leadership than just chasing anything that moves.  So more often than not, we count the web site hits and handshakes, shoot what flies and claim what falls, and assume (or take on faith) that those activities are somehow supporting the community’s ecosystem.  Economic developers are starting to figure out that “quality of life” has something important to do with the ability to grow a local economy, but there’s still a good deal of scrabbling in the dark to figure out how to tie those elements together.  And until that understanding of the interdependence of the economy on the rest of the community ecosystem takes root, it’s going to be far too easy to default to old measures that often hide whether our efforts are helping the larger community or hurting it. 

I have been picking on economic developers, but the truth is that there is more than enough blame to spread around.  We are almost all guilty of not seeing outside our silos, and assuming nice simple ipso-facto relationships between our favorite topics and Everything Else.  When urban planners fall into the trap of assuming that a single physical strategy, such as Complete Streets or New Urbanism or Urban Renewal or any of the other catch phrases through the years, will have a “catalytic” effect on the local economy, we are oversimplifying because we are not fully thinking about the entire ecosystem (people who do not have good economic prospects or are insecure about their jobs may use the bike lanes out of necessity, but may not shop in the stores by the bike lane like you anticipated).  When business owners and residents assume that the less taxes I pay, the better, we often fail to fully account for the value of the services that the public sector provides us, whether garbage pickup or maintaining streets or keeping us from being robbed or managing the externalities that other businesses and people create – and their potential deep negative effect on our ability to function.    

 We oversimplify the ecosystem, we stay in our silos and stick to our simple solutions, because it’s intellectually easier.  It’s easier to say “My stuff is important, yours isn’t” than to try to look rationally at the whole range of issues and understand how My Stuff fits into the whole system.  And if we assume that our communities are nice simple frontier towns, with lots of empty land to absorb those externalities and a small homogeneous group of people to accommodate, then perhaps that’s fine, at least until we run out of that land or those people get more complicated.  But that’s where we are today. 

If we are honest about the complexities of our communities, then we have to be honest about the fact that there are few, if any, simple solutions.  Things don’t fit easily within the silos anymore, and when we don’t see these related impacts, we will certainly feel their effects.  There are no one-shot solutions – if we want to facilitate the health of the ecosystem, we have to work on a wide range of elements in concert. 

Ideally, this is what planning of any stripe should do, whether organizational strategic plans or community comprehensive plans or any other variant on the theme.  It’s part of why it becomes increasingly important to plan for multiple possible futures – with this many moving parts, a certain level of uncertainty is inescapable.  But too often we only plan for My Stuff, not for the role our bailiwick plays in building the ecosystem.   And as I’ve said about other challenging issues that require more from us than our common sense and grasp of basic Play Nice With Others rules, there are specific processes and methods that have been developed to help us deal with these issues.  But too often, we don’t know about or make the effort to seek out the tools that are available. 

We are increasingly learning that natural ecosystems are amazing things.  All those interconnections and interdependencies between the plants, the bugs, the animals and all that give a strong ecosystem the same traits that we desire in our communities: long-term growth, healthy organisms, the ability to bounce back from disasters (visit the site of a forest fire three years ago to see what I mean).  And the biologists and botanists and other –ologists tell us that ecosystems that lose key members, like an animal who is part of the food chain, are bound for trouble or collapse. The whole reinforces the parts. 

If we are serious about building Wise Economies – economies that are robust, resilient, flexible and don’t leave us up a creek in the future – we need to think of our communities as economics-driven ecosystems, systems where the silo walls have broken down and where the leaves of one aspect of the community shades the roots and feed the animals that make up the rest of the system.

What’s wise about a Wise Economy? Making conscious and proactive choices

Wise people and Wise communities make conscious choices, rather than letting circumstances make the choices for them.  As people, we all allow some decisions to get made by default — last week I could not decide whether it was worth my time to attend an event, and I was frankly relieved when I discovered that the deadline to register had passed.  Circumstances made the decision for me.  For little things with marginal benefits, the occasional decision-that-I-don’t-have-to-make-because-life-made-it-for-me can be a welcome break from the constant load of responsibility. 

But what happens when we do this with regard to an important decision? What happens to most people who drift through their careers or their relationships without making conscious choices about where to invest their time, or which responsibilities to put first?  Most of us know, at least intellectually, that there are important points in our lives where we have to make a conscious choice, and where if we don’t make a conscious choice, chances are we will regret it later.

But in our communities, our organizations and our political bodies, we allow circumstances to make decisions for us more often than any of us want to admit.  We don’t come to agreement over whether a proposed development is a good idea (probably because we don’t have a shared vision of what our community should look like), and we secretly hope that the developer will give up, because then it will be Not My Fault.  Or we know that our community is facing some big issues down the road – aging populations, aging buildings, aging roads – and we know in our guts that if we don’t do something, we will be in deep trouble sooner or later.  But the tradeoffs are unpleasant, we don’t automatically agree on what we need to do, we have to find the money to do whatever needs to be done.  Too many times, we let it go… until Next Year, the Next Budget, the Next Administration.  Which easily turns into the Next and the Next and the Next.  That’s a short-term benefit to us because it makes today easier, and it keeps us from having to change the way we do things today, and who knows, maybe some sugar daddy will come along while we are procrastinating and solve it all for us.  But probably not. 

In failing to act, we have abdicated the opportunity to take control of our future – to do what is in our power to position ourselves for future success.  We have also lost the opportunity to define for ourselves how our community should be, rather than letting the winds of fate blow us into something we didn’t want.  A few communities take this initiative, but too many communities drift through their big decisions – at least until drifting, not thinking ahead and not anticipating unintended consequences puts the community into crisis. 

Here is the deep challenge in this: we cannot assume that we can just snap our fingers and transform our communities from drifters into Destiny Commanders.  As I say ad nauseum¸ if it were easy, you would have done it already. 

In my writings here, I often speak of communities as though they were one person, and as though a “community” had one completely shared set of goals and objectives.  We all know that’s not really the case.  Because communities are complex, and in most cases more complex today than ever, our ability to develop a community-wide shared vision of the future and a shared understanding of the community’s needs and priorities has far outstripped our intuitive or common sense ability to do that.  When we had much smaller and simpler communities – and when we only cared what a tiny fraction of the community’s residents thought – it was a relatively easy proposition to make democratic, or at least supposedly democratic, decisions.  That’s why we have public deliberation processes based on the idea of the classical debate – if everyone shares the same fundamental perspective, then you have a shared base of understanding and mutual respect that enables rational debate and evaluation of potential alternatives. If you are all fundamentally the same, then you have a shared language in place to work from.

You don’t have to watch CNN, or your local cable broadcast of a public hearing, for very long to see that this isn’t the case anymore.  People who come to the podium, or write the letters, or protest on the street, come from more fundamentally different backgrounds, perspectives, and priorities than we have ever had before.  Obviously that’s essential and necessary – a government that only listens to a quarter or less of its residents is no democracy at all. 

But regardless of your spot on the political spectrum, it’s clear that this process isn’t working well, either at many local levels or higher up the chain. And this dysfunctional process leaves us drifting… it robs us of the capacity we need to make the important decisions, and it does so at a time when the decisions are probably as critical as they have been in generations. 

The aggravating piece is that there is most definitely a way to fix this.  Larger businesses with diverse workforces and complex product issues figured out more than 20 years ago that they could not simply rely on common sense, seat-of-the-pants assumptions and whatever social skills people learned in elementary school to enable them to do the increasingly complex work that the companies needed.  If you are in a cutting-edge car factory or a leading pharmaceutical firm today, managers and staff receive training in specific, step-by-step methods for enabling constructive conversations, managing teams of diverse people, setting priorities and making group decisions. Debates happen, disagreements occur, some people do better than others, but the overall process is designed to make it possible to make complex decisions involving a large number of people and move the company’s objectives forward.  And it’s not rocket science — an hour grazing on www.hbr.com will give you a good taste of how this generally works. 

But how ridiculously little of this knowledge has found its way into our government and community decision-making processes?  It’s no wonder that so many communities are drifting…. We are using 19th century tools to deal with a 21st century world, hanging onto our ball-peen hammer when the nail gun is sitting in an open box across the room.   With the complexity and increasing urgency of the big challenges facing our communities today, we have to start using the tools that will work and make the conscious decisions that will help us build our communities’ futures.

What’s wise about a Wise Economy? Anticipating and managing unintended consequences.

A wise person doesn’t only think ahead, he or she also anticipates and prepares to deal proactively with the unintended consequences of a decision.  That sounds like an oxymoron – how do you anticipate your unintended consequences?  This is why thinking ahead becomes so important — if we think rigorously and systematically about the things we decide to do, we can often anticipate that there are possible consequences to our decisions that we didn’t intend.

The easiest unintended consequences to figure out are those that will impact me directly – the ones that will come back to bite me in the butt.  If I am thinking about putting an addition on my house that I really can’t afford, and doing so will put me at risk of being unable to pay all my other bills, then the potential unintended consequences of my choice to add onto my house are pretty obvious. Since I will have to deal directly and immediately with those unintended consequences, they are part of my system – that means that these consequences should be relatively easy to see, if I am honest with myself about what all might happen.

The hardest, and potentially most troubling, types of unintended consequences fall into a group that traditional invisible-hand economics call “externalities.”   These are the impacts of a decision that accrue to someone or something else — the impacts are external to the person or organization that made the decision.  Traditional economic theory placed externalities outside of the economy – the externality was experienced by someone other than the economic actors, so it was not part of the economic activity.  Terming something an “externality” was a way to exclude it from the equasion. 

Of course, it’s not that simple.  My father and grandfather ran a small paint company in the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days, there were few rules regulating hazardous materials, and most of the compounds in paint hadn’t been officially recognized as hazardous anyways.  Like most paint factories, they had garbage – batches of paint that didn’t come out right, test pots, empty containers, broken equipment, etc.  The company was located on the edge of a steep gorge that ran through town … and standard operating procedure was to toss the cans, pots and other garbage over the hillside.  This wasn’t uncommon – people used to use that gorge to discard a lot of types of refuse.  The company closed in the early 1980s, and as far as I know all of the officers and major stockholders are dead.  But the old paint cans on the side of the gorge are probably still leaking – my brothers, who still live in the area, have heard friends talk about seeing chemical scum on the creek downstream from the site. 

When the day comes when that site gets cleaned up, it won’t be my dad’s company doing it.  Instead, it will probably be the state EPA.  Which means that, even though I didn’t do the polluting, as a taxpayer, I and all of my neighbors across the state will pick up the tab. 

The problem with externalities, from a strictly local government and local economy point of view, is that those impacts aren’t really external to us at all.  One way or another, they end up affecting us as individuals, and us as a community.  Most of the time it falls to a public agency, like the EPA, to go on the front line of dealing with externalities, whether it’s environmental cleanup or sheltering people who cannot survive in the modern economy on their own.  And if no one deals with the externality, it will create its own set of consequences and impacts to us or to others, who will in turn impact us.  And as we continuously challenge our local governments and state agencies to deal with more and more externalities with less and less abundant resources, our capacity to manage unexpected consequences continues to erode.    

At the end of the day, all of this means that the externality isn’t external to us as a community at all.  There really are no externalities, because none of us live in isolation, entirely separated from the impacts created by others.  There is actually little or nothing that can be excluded from the economic equasion – we live in a complex, interdependent system, not Adam Smith’s series of simple, separate transactions. 

 People who are trying to build a Wise Economy use the best thinking and decision-making tools available to them to systematically avoid or manage externalities.  They work to identify the potential unintended consequences of decisions, they use all of the tools available to prevent or manage externalities, and they keep a close eye out for new unanticipated consequences that need to be addressed.

From the Planning Commissioner’s Journal: Welcome to the Tightrope Act

A few months ago, I received a wonderful invitation from the publisher of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal to start writing a regular column.  The first one appears in the Spring Issue, #82.  I’m posting the article as it appears below.  If you want to read more, or get a good handle on the nuts and bolts issues facing the people who have to balance economic development and planning issues, be sure to check out Planning Commissioner’s Jounal at www.pcj.typepad.com, on Twitter at @PlanningJournal, or on Facebook.  There’s a lot more good stuff in this issue, and much more to come. 


Welcome to the Tightrope Act

by Della Rucker


Editor’s Note: We’re pleased that planner and economic development consultant Della Rucker will be joining the Planning Commissioners Journal as a contributing writer. For more about Rucker and what she’ll be covering in future columns, see our interview — posted on the PlannersWeb.[1]

Find Your Balancing Pole

“You planning commissioners should stop getting in the way of business.”

“You know, you people on the planning commission can’t really make anything happen anyways. You all just react.”

If you’re reading this journal, I bet you have heard one or both of these lines before — probably after a decision someone didn’t like. My 8-year old, with his exhaustive knowledge of “How to Spot a Bully in the Making,” would understand what’s going on here. When the economy isn’t where we all want it to be, hitting the planning commission’s ability, or lack of ability, to foster economic improvement is a bit of a sucker punch. And it reflects the over-simplified assumptions that many people have about how local economies (and planning commissions) work.

Anyone saying either of those lines has it wrong. What you do as a planning commissioner has a huge impact on your local economy, and your community needs you to make those tough decisions.

Your impact is critical because you are the ones who are thinking about the future, not just about today’s demands. Healthy economies depend on a complex interplay between the power of the market and the often quiet, sometimes vocal, needs of the community.  It’s not a linear equation. It’s a dynamic, constantly-changing interplay between market forces and community needs. And as a planning commissioner, you are standing in center ring. So go find your balancing pole — the tightrope isn’t getting any thicker.

Planning & Local Economies

There is a reason it’s vital that we bring an economic perspective to planning, and vice-versa. As our local economies become increasingly unable to depend on financial support from state and federal agencies, and as we continue to deal with the unintended consequences of past planning decisions, it becomes more and more important for us to proactively safeguard our communities’ local and regional economic health.

More than ever, we need to have planning decision-making that builds economic robustness and fiscal sustainability, and we need to make economic decisions that create growth and improve quality of life for the community as a whole. Places and their economies are not separate islands — one is entirely dependent on the other. We know that today more than ever before.

As a result, it’s critical that planning decisions anticipate and address the community’s long-term economic needs. I think that decisions made explicitly to protect a community’s economic health are also becoming more justifiable than ever, both because of that eroding support from higher-up agencies and those costs of old decisions that are coming due now.

This is why planning commissioners and their staff are so critical. You are where planning and economic development come together. Your role is tougher than either planning or economic development alone. You are responsible for making decisions that bolster the long-term health, vitality, and resilience of the community to which you give your time and effort.

On the High Wire

 Planning Commissions don’t always get the idea tools to work with, either.  The planning documents that you are required to base your decisions on are too often disconnected from the economic realities that you know in your lives.  How much of the new commercial development shown on the future land use map does your community actually need?  How much can the community support?  What is new development going to do to the older commercial areas?

Similarly, economic development can too easily fall into the penny wise-pound foolish category. If you permit that development, how much is it going to cost the community to provide water, police, snowplowing, etc.?  Is it going to generate enough income to cover those costs, or are we just adding to future city budget shortfalls?

For many communities, the planning commission is the last line of defense against bad ideas,no matter where they come from. It is your diligence, and sometimes your willingness to go out on the high wire without a net, that sets the stage for your community’s future.

What you do is about more than setbacks and landscaping.  Your unique role is to connect the dots between the physical and functional environment we create today, and the economy that you and your neighbors will live in tomorrow.

Della Rucker is the Principal of the Wise Economy Workshop, a consulting firm that assists local governments and nonprofit organizations with the information and processes for making wise planning and economic development decisions.

What does it mean to have a Wise Economy, and what does it matter to you?

The home town, back in the day

One of the items that I have been struggling to define over the last few months is what I mean by a Wise Economy, and how that approach fundamentally differs from what our typical approach to our communities.  Explaining this is both easy – because I believe it – and tough because it’s not a simple one-note samba (I’m a little jealous of pundits who have Magic Solution to offer!). 

First, some background: as I have said elsewhere, I have had a pretty decent front row seat for the collapse of the Rust Belt economy.  I grew up in a small town outside of Cleveland, where my father and grandfather ran a small paint factory.  As a result of being where I was when I was, I got see the first convulsions of the collapse of the traditional manufacturing economy.  By the time I was in middle school, the market for a jack-of-all-trades paint manufacturer had collapsed, and my father was out of work for most of three years.

From my perspective, much of what we see going on in the local and regional economies today, whether it’s overbuilt housing and retail sectors that are losing value, or declining wages, or public sector expenses that outstrip public sector revenues, comes fundamentally from the fact that our economy has changed – it started changing 30 years ago – and we haven’t fully adapted.  The economist Umair Hacque writes that much of our economic activity in the recent past has created false value – activity that created a profit on someone’s spreadsheet but didn’t actually make anything needed or expand the local economy.  This includes building buildings for which there is no demand, inventing new financial vehicles that don’t increase access to capital, adding widgets to a product in the name of “innovation” that don’t actually make anything better. Here’s the surprising part: Hacque’s research demonstrates that the actual long-term return on investment across a wide range of the economy has plummeted — and the amount of risk to the owners and everyone touched by the owners has skyrocketed.  There are no shortage of examples, but “Housing Market” will probably suffice.  

I tend to be a pretty pragmatic person, and one whose primary focus for a long time has been on local places. For me, the experience of the Rust Belt and the work of Hacque and others leads me to a pretty simple question:  How can we build or facilitate the growth of robust, healthy communities that thrive for the long term and aren’t setting us up for another crash?

I’ve had a relatively large number of careers – I have written for newspapers, taught middle school, run a historic preservation consultancy and provided economic development and planning expertise.  In my guts, I am probably more a planner than anything else, because that’s the discipline that still seems to have the best potential for finding answers to my Big Question.  But the way we typically do planning, like the way we typically do economic development and the way we manage other parts of community life, hasn’t provided the answers I have been looking for.  Instead, across the whole spectrum of community management, we lurch along most of the time from one sure-fire, answer-to-your-dreams solution to another.  Then we fail to recognize where we’ve been down a similar path before, we react in surprise and bewilderment when it doesn’t work or creates new sets of problems, and we start over again. 

The Wise Economy, then, is about making communities work, truly work, on multiple dimensions and for the long run.  For that reason, building a Wise Economy is not just a job for planners, or economic developers, or any other single community – building specialization.  The fundamental challenge of the Wise Economy is to make better decisions that will build the kinds of communities where we all want to be, and that means that it has to involve all of the people who make a community what it is.  That means elected officials, infrastructure managers, business leadership and the residents of the community.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride. 

What’s “Wise” about it?

I’d like to say that the premise behind the “Wise” part of the Wise Economy was exhaustively researched and analytically founded…but it’s not.  It’s mostly a thinking-in-the-shower kind of analysis, running through popular images of characters from books and movies and thinking about what made the “wise” characters wise.  For some reason Pat Morita in the original Karate Kid kept coming to the surface… but that probably says more about me than I should admit. 

We associate wisdom in people with certain characteristics, certain core actions.  And we know inherently that the “wise” people are the ones who usually turn out to have made the right decisions, even if they looked foolish in the moment.  Since communities are collections of people with shared characteristics, the more we can build the characteristics of wisdom into our community’s organizations, institutions, governance, and the basic ways that we work together, the more our communities will exhibit wisdom.  

So what separates the wise from the rest of us?  More to come.

True Community Grit

The lesson for today, girls and boys, is that you’re most likely to find the insights you’re looking for in the place where you aren’t looking. 

I have struggled for years with a key question, one that I have never been able to find an answer for: why do some communities succeed in the face of adversity, while others sort of scuffle along and never seem to take control of their destinies?  As a consultant, I have often said,

“If there’s a spark of initiative, a glimmer of can-do, I know how to fan that.  But what do you do about a place where that spark doesn’t seem to exist?” 

 (Like most things involving communities, you can say the same thing about people.  But let’s leave that for another day — the ink on my mail-order psychiatry degree hasn’t dried yet…)

I think I found a piece of the answer… in a movie I haven’t seen.  Actually, it’s in an article that references a movie that I haven’t seen.  One of my favorite magazines is Fast Company, an eclectic publication that ranges across technology, design, entrepreneurship, and other assorted interesting stuff.  One of their regular columns is written by Dan and Chip Heath, brother entrepreneurs who have authored a couple of popular business books.  Interesting, often relevant to my life as an entrepreneur, but not usually a fount of insight for building Wise Economies. 

This month’s column riffs off of the movie True Grit, but the real story is about the 20-year effort to reduce smoking in North Carolina.  The column focuses on the long, slow, incremental process of changing the smoking environment — first in a few schools, then in a few hospitals, then a few more schools,  so on and so on — until most indoor spaces in North Carolina today are smoke free.  Dan and Chip describe this process in terms of an unusually old-fashioned word: the program leader’s “willingness to withstand such a slog…is an undeniable showcase of ‘grit.'”  They continue:

In fact, new psychological research suggests that grit — defined as endurance in the pursuit of long-term-goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity — is a key part of what makes people successful.  In a culture that values quick results — this quarter’s numbers, this week’s weight loss, this month’s click-throughs– grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon….

Grit is tough because you don’t get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction.  You rarely get big wins to celebrate.  In fact, you may never truly win.   All you is … persuade a few more rural school districts to join your campaign.  And that slow, inch-by-inch progress?  It’s called winning.

How different a perspective is this from how we usually think about our communities?   Whether we deal in planning or policy or economic development, how much of our attention do we give to some ideal future state, and how little of our attention do we give to setting in motion and maintaining the slow, inch-by-inch progress that we know it will take to get us there?  That’s not the fun part (drawing the colored circles on the map or launching the cool branding campaign is), but it’s the necessary part if we are serious about real improvement. 

We have to demonstrate grit. both to make the necessary deep changes happen and to build the community’s capacity for grit.  It’s easy to blame the lack of community grit on the political cycle, the fact that elected leadership changes so often and so often fails to live up to our expectations.  But the truth of the matter is that effective Wise Economy communities build and leverage a community of leadership – not every resident, but a critical mass of people who take ownership of their community, or at least some aspect of it.  That’s where the grit will come from — from the determination of a body of people who are committed to the pursuit of long-range goals for the good of the community.  Where they exist, they create a force that lasts long past political cycles.  They create a rock-solid foundation of grit.  And that community of grit can be cultivated through training and through meaningful public involvement.

All fine and well, you say.  But my job is to create plans/administer zoning/land new business/write grants/do what my clients say/serve on the board or commission.  My job description doesn’t say anything about building community grit. 

Ah, but look closer… it does. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that outlined how the practice of planning needs to change to make a dent in the kind of economic change our communities need (Don’t feel left out….I have a version for economic developers in the works).  And one of the things I pointed out is that, since job security in the field seems to be going by the wayside, planners might as well stand up for good planning .  I can’t think of a better way to really make a difference in our communities than to use our planning and management skills to build our communities’ capacity to show grit… by making plans that involve people, and that intelligently and clearly work out the steps to get there. 

Like tunneling out of prison with a spoon, or protecting people from secondhand smoke, the most significant victories we can win are seldom won in one grand measure –just like we know that one flashy construction project alone isn’t going to reformulate our economies.  If we are going to build Wise Economies, we as communities need to build and display the determination, the long-term focus — the grit — to make real change happen.

2011 Michigan Small Town and Rural Development conference – whad’ya want to talk about?

I am getting excited about the prospect of meeting you all at the Michigan Small Town and Rural Development Conference at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville April 18-20! As I said elsewhere on my web site, the last time I was in that area my first son was doing barrel rolls inside my innards.  That bugger is taller than I am now.  So it’s been a while!

We will be talking about an approach to building communities that I call a Wise Economy.  You can read an overview of the Wise Economy principles here and here, but the basic idea is that we need to be thinking ahead and anticipating how the choices we make today, in terms of our development, our business recruitment, our local governments and our community involvement, will impact the future economy and resilience of our communities.  Because of that, I think a Wise Economy needs to focus on planning for scenarios, home-grown businesses, managing our communities’ fiscal health and empowering our residents to be engaged and well informed members of our communities.  So… there’s a lot of room for discussion in there.
I’ll be speaking at lunch on Tuesday the 19th, and then leading a breakout session directly after that.  As I told the organizers, though, I am not entirely sure what that breakout session should be about.  That’s why I posted this message.  I have a few questions to try to get a better sense of your needs before April — please feel free to give me your thoughts in the comment box below, or you can send me a direct message at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

  • What economic issues is your community facing?
  • What is working well in your community economically?
  • Why do people want to be in your town?
  • What kind of planning does your community do? (that’s a small “p” — I mean any kind of plans, not just the ones that have land use maps attached to them)
  • Who are your best partners in your efforts to improve your community?

Anything you have to share on any of these questions will be a big help.  Thank you, and I’ll look forward to seeing you in lovely Thompsonville!

What can planners do to help your community’s economy?

We all know that most of our local economies are in some form or another of mess.  Draw the border around your town, your county, your region, your state, doesn’t matter – our news stories and discussions are full of closing stores and vacant boxes, houses and 401k’s whose value has plummeted, massive holes in government budgets and previously unthinkable choices about promised future payments and services.

If you’re a planner, just try going to a party at your neighbors’ house.  What do you get asked, sooner or later?

“What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

We know that our agency or firm couldn’t fix it all in a million years, and we know, at least intellectually, that we aren’t solely responsible.

But the question is a nagging one:  “What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

Planners have no magic wand, and we can’t make businesses appear out of thin air.  But if we take our responsibilities for our communities seriously – if we embrace our training and deeply believe that good planning matters– then we have an important contribution to make: a contribution to solving the long-term, structural problems that have played a big role in landing our communities in this mess.  To do that, we need to approach our plans and our planning with wisdom.  We need to think ahead, anticipate the consequences of different choices, accept and work with the limits of our knowledge and try to see our blind spots so that we are not sideswiped by a future that we did not see coming.

Tall order, right?  We can do this.  In some ways, it is getting back to the ideals of the planning process that get lost in the scuffles of politics and self-preservation.  In other ways, it’s about learning from other disciplines – not just the business world, which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, but from psychology and sociology and history.  The disciplines that study how people think and work together.  To make wise decisions for the futures of our communities, we need to lay the right groundwork by doing wise planning.

What does wise planning mean?

  • Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that.  What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals.  We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward.  If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.

Regional initiatives like Agenda 360 in Greater Cincinnati, and similar regional action plans that have developed in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, draw their power and their potency from their goals.   They set a high bar for the whole region to meet, and they set it in measurable terms so that it is real to the people who read it and the people across the region who are in a position to do something about it.  One of Agenda 360’s main goals is the creation of 200,000 net new jobs in the region by the year 2020.  Now everybody knows what the goal is, and a little research makes clear where we are on the road to getting there.  Could the region miss it?  Sure… but now we know what we are going after and have something to measure against.

How much more effective, how much more of a catalytic force for change is putting that stake in the ground, rather than what professionally-written plans usually include?  How catalytic would “Encourage the creation of new jobs” have been?

I think the word “Encourage” should never, ever appear in a plan’s goals or objectives.  Never.   If I encourage my son to study his math assignments, my primary goal is not to “encourage” him.  It’s to push and prod him to do what he has to do to pass the test.  “Pass the test” is the goal, not “encouraging” him.

And what is “encouraging,” anyways?  Sharing information, establishing expectations, outlining the consequences of not meeting the goal, monitoring his progress…. That’s the actual work that “encourage” means.  So say that.  In plans, “Encourage” is nothing more than a cop out.  It means….nothing.  Zip.  Which is why elected officials sometimes like that word for things that they don’t want to actively support.  If you cannot get leadership to go beyond “encourage” as the verb in a goal statement in a plan, go back and define what exactly all the parties involved can  support, or cut it out.  You’ll probably do more good by leaving it out than by giving it lip service.

  • Don’t assume that the future will be a direct extrapolation of the past. It won’t be.  How many 20-year population projections have you seen?  How many plan decisions do we base on those numbers?  How often do they turn out to be right, or at least close to right?  Not often.  And yet we create plans that designate broad new swaths of development because that’s what the population projection indicates.  Never mind the fact that socioeconomic changes may drive that growth elsewhere.  And never mind the fact that if you don’t house all those new paper people, they will just go somewhere else.  They’re not going to create a tent city in your vacant lots.

The future almost never works out the way we thought it would, or I would have a hovercar in my garage by now and a jet pack in my closet. Our projections of the future need to accommodate multiple scenarios, and deal with those scenarios, not just average them out to make it easy to do the math.

Even more important, we need to not treat those projections as a fait accompli.  What matters is not the numbers, but the influences and factors that will drive how the community evolves, and how we monitor, influence or adapt to those changes.

  • Don’t assume that projected population growth automatically requires new housing, or that new residents automatically mean new commercial development.  You probably have a number of vacant or underused houses, and probably no end of vacant retail spaces.  Why plan for more?

Most communities (with a few special-circumstances exceptions) should stop assuming that we need anything new at all.  Either the economics don’t work or we don’t really need it.

When I did a comprehensive plan for the village in which I live a few years ago, all of the surveys and public feedback said that people wanted an Applebee’s-type restaurant in town.  The numbers don’t work for this village alone – it’s not big enough to generate enough customers to support that business model.  But because this is a metro area, this village isn’t the only source of customers.  There’s are four restaurants in that price point within a five-minute drive of most residents, and if someone opens another, one of the five would probably go out of business, leaving us with another vacant space.  ‘

In a sense, it’s a little like dealing with my kids – they don’t “need” another Nerf gun, although they tell me they do when they see the ads.  It’s my job to guide them to the realization that the six they have are more than enough.

  • Be conscious and explicit about fiscal impacts. You may not like tax laws or tax calculations, but your community needs them to survive.  You know that. It’s a necessary part of the system, and we have more than enough evidence now to demonstrate that if our development patterns cost more than they generate in taxes, we have a problem.   If you can’t pay someone to calculate the fiscal impacts, pull out your college textbook and figure it out. Your best attempt will be better than wild guesses or permitting officials to keep their head in the sand.  And if you do pay someone to do it, don’t take them at their word- make sure you understand exactly what they did and why.  If the root problem is with the tax structure, say that loud and clear.  You may not be able to change that alone, but you can issue the clarion call so that it can’t be ignored.
  • Model your public participation after the best teachers.  Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes. The public has to be part of the solution, too, and they need to both more deeply understand the issues that we are grappling with, and lend their expertise to the search for solutions.  If you give them a real chance, they’ll do it.  And if we don’t give them a real chance, we will stay in the morass.
  • Recognize and admit that putting colors on a map and writing a description of what it’ll be like in the future isn’t doing enough.  Even laying out zoning revisions isn’t good enough.  If we are serious about making our communities better, we need to plan for the whole social and political ecosystem, not just what the planning department, or even the government, can do for you.  Who else — what other organizations or agencies– are part of the solution?  What can they do?  Who should they (or you, oh City) be working with?  How do we really move the needle, and how do we know if the needle has moved?

Your colored map isn’t going to tell you that.  Making a difference in the future of the community requires much more.

  • Think critically – about everything. We haven’t been rigorous enough in our thinking.  We have had a tendency to buy the new gadget, whether it’s Urban Renewal or New Urbanism, without taking it apart, examining the assumptions, and understanding that every idea has limits, exceptions, and unexamined consequences.  That’s a natural limitation of human thought processes- cognitive psychologists document how much we cut corners in our thinking.

But if we don’t understand the limits of an idea, we cannot use the tool correctly. If you do not know that a claw hammer cannot drive a rivet into a piece of sheet metal, you will do a whole lot of banging and make a real mess of the job before you figure that out.  One can argue that the repercussions of the urban renewal initiatives of the 1960s should have taught us that by now.

  • Stop allowing bad planning. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us.  Professional planners have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client.   Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector planners, is a myth.  Public sector planners get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security.  And we all know that, in one way or another, that promised security is turning out to have been a mirage.

Private sector planners don’t do much better: they deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend their nights and weekends writing more proposals on their “own time.”   And then they get laid off when the big firm that swallowed the planning firm decides that planning isn’t part of their new strategic direction.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters?

What have we really got to lose?


One more thing: I say all of this because I am a planner and I have done all of these things.  I have allowed communities to get away with meaningless goals, drawn maps that could not make anything happen, overlooked fiscal impacts and treated population projections like statements of fact.  I did that because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.”  I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did.  In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether the plan I wrote did any good at all.   As I evolve and move forward personally, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphic art in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach planning in this generation – not in terms of building styles or transportation modes, but in terms of how we think about the job and in terms of how we think about communities and their futures.  There’s two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

 Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

 Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?

It’s OK to sound like a sick goose while not eating the ice cream.

This is a follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago about community goal-setting (what should I make of the fact that the post with “ice cream” in the title got more hits than the one about sustainability?). 

I am currently listening to my 12-year-old son practice the trumpet downstairs. He’s only been playing for 6 months, so good notes with clear tone are occasionally interspersed with something that sounds like a sick goose. For example, I think he just played the theme from the New World Symphony, but there was about 15 seconds of non-musical honking in the middle as he hit a tough spot.  The cool thing as a parent is that, despite the occasional non-musical sounds, I can tell that he is getting better week to week.  He is a long way from Carnegie Hall, but he’s improving. 
In that blog post I laid out my perspective on how public participation should be done, but I admitted that I struggle with the idea of whether truly honest, inclusive goal-setting processes were reasonable to expect in the real world life of planning and economic development.  In most of our communities, we simply don’t have much experience.   Much our experience with planning and community goal-setting has not been ideal —  either the opportunities for public participation have been limited, or participants have tried to out-shout each other, or solutions were over-simplified or not sufficiently tied to the hard work of making it happen.  Or it was simply a matter of going through the motions. 

Frankly, those of us that work with communities on a professional or leadership basis know too many situations where things have gone wrong.  Why risk a transparent and deeply collaborative process when there are so many ways it can blow up in our faces?

Perhaps what we are really doing is assuming that our communities should be ready to play Rachmaninoff, instead of accepting that we might still be taking our lessons out of Learn to Work Together, Book 1.  After all, we are mostly mature adults, not 12-year-old kids who just got handed the instruments, right? 

In our guts, though, we know that our communities aren’t ready to perform at that high level.  We have too much distrust, too much resistance to change, too many impediments to making the hard decisions and taking control of our future.  So we limit our public participation to the bare minimum we can get away with, we produce plans with a lot of vague talk and no connection to action, we go through the motions and let everything stay the same instead of using the planning opportunity to make the changes that we know need to be made.  Whether it’s a comprehensive plan or an economic development strategy or any other variation on the theme, the result is the same.  We are fundamentally in the same mess we were before.

The fact of the matter is, although we as communities were handed the instruments  of good planning a long time ago, we haven’t been practicing.  We often haven’t built up the experience in working together that would be necessary to make proactive, strategic decisions about the future of the community, to allow us to be able to set course proactively and make good decisions when we need it. 

But as global and regional competition increases, we find that we start trailing behind if our community is still focused on infighting or chasing the wrong solutions.  We know that, if our community is to thrive, we need to be able to play at a higher level, but we haven’t yet developed the skills within our community and community leadership to do that. 

Instead of assuming that we should be able to play the concerto today, maybe we need to regard our communities as learners.  Maybe we need to expect that we will have honks and blatts along the way, and that sometimes our results will only bear a passing resemblance to the song we were trying to play.   From my perspective, that would be OK, as long as we can admit that we are growing and changing and work on getting better.  That would be, of course, a sea change in our civic lives: instead of being focused on accusations and rejecting less-than-perfect efforts, we would have to accept good intentions and imperfect delivery, with the patient realization that we as communities are learning to do it a little better every time.  And by “we as communities,” I don’t just mean local government staff and leadership.  I mean the residents, too.  

Tall order, I know.  But I have seen communities do it. 

I would propose that the best way to tackle this issue might be to take a page from the folks who design web software:  Get something going, get it out there, crowdsource feedback, improve product, repeat ad infinitum.  Communities that need and want to learn to proactively address their futures, and do not have a successful track record in effective public engagement, often have more real success focusing on smaller areas and concrete projects, such as public site designs, downtown revitalization planning, neighborhood strategic planning, etc.  The One Big Plan vs. Lots of Little Plans debate has been going on in both planning and economic development circles for generations, but for communities struggling to build a constructive community discourse, a Lots of Little Plans strategy has some significant advantages.  In most cases, the stakes in a smaller-focus plan will be a little lower, so flubs along the way are more likely to go unnoticed by the larger public while they are being remedied.  Second, a tighter focus should make it easier for the public participants to come to a mutual understanding about the issues that they need to address (a city is a largely abstract concept to most residents, but a neighborhood isn’t).  And that mutual understanding of the different points of view relating to a place is absolutely critical to setting sound goals and making sound decisions.  Best of all, a successful small-area planning process should create a new asset for the community: a body of persons who understand the importance of working together collaboratively, and have the experience and skills needed to do that.  Drawn into larger planning contexts, those people will be like yeast in bread dough: they can help transform that planning by changing those conversations as well. 

One final caution: My son has gotten as far as he has with the trumpet because he has a teacher who is teaching him how to play.  Without that — if we had just handed him the instrument and said “here, figure it out,”  he probably wouldn’t get much beyond the sick goose phase.   Maybe he would have turned out to be some prodigy and figured out how to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on his own…. but I think the more likely result is that he would have honked for a few weeks and then quit.  

 If we are serious about building the capacity in our communities to plan the way we need to plan, we can’t just turn our citizens loose in a town hall meeting or an economic development strategy session and hope they figure it out.  If we want those results — if we want proactive, intelligent planning with community support, whatever the flavor, it falls to the professionals and leaders to find good teachers.  There are excellent methods for channelling and focusing citizens and creating opportunities for them to honestly explore their opportunities, but our communities need to be taught how.   

We can do it, but if we aren’t taught and we don’t practice, we won’t get it done.

Real sustainability includes economic sustainability

This post breaks all the Blogging 101 rules by actually having two purposes (ooh….don’t tell on me…).  The first purpose is to encourage you to read this blog entry by one of my favorite urban thinkers, Aaron Renn (who blogs under the title The Urbanophile).    This essay does an excellent job of analyzing one of my biggest irritations with current approaches to the urban sustainability movement: the almost overwhelming tendency of urban supporters to focus on greenhouse gas emissions as the reason why people *should* change their behavior in terms of how they travel, the food they buy, etc.  Leaving aside the debate over whether the greenhouse effect is occurring, there is a very pragmatic issue that a lot of the rhetoric overlooks: most of the choices we claim as “sustainable” have real economic benefits in terms of short- and long-term money savings.  There is an almost Puritan streak to the lectures about how everyone should sacrifice to do their part, but the simple fact of the matter is that a positive presentation of the economic benefits of making those choices is more likely to change more behavior than trying to guilt people into it.  That’s maybe not high-minded, but it’s a basic premise of dealing with humans.  Aaron says and illustrates it better than my summary, so check him out here:


I’d like to go beyond Aaron’s point, though.  I think we are actually defining sustainability too narrowly.  In its pre-environmental days, we understood that to “sustain” something meant to carry, to keep it going for a long time.  You sustain a membership if you renew it on time; you sustain a grudge if you don’t forget what happened.  Similarly, a sustainable system is one that can keep going over time, and sustainability is a characteristic of an effort that can be maintained.  It’s obvious that this idea could be applied to an ecological system, but it can also be applied to anything that requires some energy to keep it going. 

Our communities are in dire need of sustainability, and green roofs and busses are not enough to sustain them.  We need to have sustainable habitats for the people who live in our communities — economies and jobs that allow them not just to thrive for today, but to have well-informed confidence in the community’s ability to provide that habitat into the future.  Without that confidence, any citizen that has the ability to leave for a better habitat, will, and what is left will become weaker and less able to support itself. 

My own Wise Economy Manifesto relies on environmental and horticulture imagery, as have the presentations that I have been doing around the country over the past couple of years.  And certainly the Economic Gardening approach to economic development taps into that same idea.  But if environmental sustainability efforts are going to facilitate deep and abiding change in how we tread on this planet, we must realize, acknowledge and accept that our communities and our people are part of that environment, and in need of being sustained as well.  That does not mean that we have a very good track record in building economically sustainable systems yet; Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns  has been doing an exceptional job of unravelling how our communities’ approaches to trying to grow local economies have created more Ponzi schemes than sustainable communities.  But our failure to build sustainable communities to date has only made that need more urgent.

One more point: a “sustainable” economy is not necessarily the same as “an economy where a lot of people get their income from building wind turbines or recycling.”  In many places, “green” industries also represent long-term sustainable growth industries, and in those cases, those businesses and jobs are certainly critical to building a sustainable local economy.  A small but growing number of communities in my own state of Ohio, for example, have been finding that their skill sets and old manufacturing infrastructure are giving them a chance to grow a more sustainable economy.  That’s a Wise Economy in action.  But again, a “sustainable” economic sector may do something entirely different.

We need to manage our communities as sustainable ecosystems: places whose internal interactions, as well as the way they interact with the rest of the world, give them a unique ability to support a richness of life over the long term.  And while a healthy ecological environment is certainly a big part of that equation, it’s not the only one.  As Aaron  illustrated, demonstrating the practical, everyday benefits of environmentally-responsible choices is going to be critical to making the Big Changes that environmentalists seek. Broadening that definition of sustainability to include us and our communities, not only as the problem, but as a system that needs care and sustaining, could lead to solutions even bigger.

How to keep your community from eating the ice cream

It’s that time of year when even the most laissez-faire of us get hit with the Set  Goals bug.  We all resolve (myself included) to lose more weight, eat better, spend more time with our family, yadda yadda.   And we all swear that This Year Is Going To Be Different… although we know in the backs of our heads that chances are we will be on the couch eating out of the ice cream pint by February.   Even though we know that setting those goals are the first step to success, we also know that setting those goals is only the first step, unlikely to catalyze any long-term changes unless we do a lot more.   

Since our communities and governments are creations of people, it’s no surprise that they do the same thing.  Every strategic plan and comprehensive plan has a laundry list of goals and objectives, and the really good ones might even give a game plan for getting there.  But we all know the old saw about plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust. 

Despite that cynicism, we know that there are communities out there that get it together, that enact positive change, and that maintain that positive momentum for multiple years — sometimes, decades.  So what makes the difference between the communities that keep their New Years Resolutions and those that end up on the couch eating ice cream?

After working with communities for a couple of decades, and getting a front-row seat for both great successes and some pretty spectacular failures, I think it comes down to a pretty simple principle:

The long-term successful communities are the ones that not only set goals, but remain consistently conscious of and actively use their goals.    That means that they:

  • Maintain a clearly-articulated, shared public commitment to those goals.
  • Refer and review those goals frequently (and tweak them if they have to).
  • Use their goals as a primary criteria for selecting among the choices that they face.
  • Use their goals as a yardstick to measure their progress over time.

Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way, right?  So why are the success stories so rare?  

Part of it stems from the  same reasons why our New Years resolutions fall apart.:  we don’t make it A Priority, we get distracted by other issues, we make short-term choices that satisfy immediate desires but go against long-term goals… Oversimplify a community and  pretend that its political and economic decisions were made by one person, and it will sound like the first 15 minutes of every How I Lost Weight/Found My Dream Job/Became a Triathlete TV show you have ever seen.

But our communities aren’t one person — they are made up of many people, and even the most homogenous community will include many more differences of opinion than we tell in our February good-intentions-bad-follow-through self-improvement stories.  We want our communities to move in a coordinated fashion toward common goals, like an ant colony, but most of our members, and almost all of our leadership, would make lousy ants.   Our brains, our opinions, our traditions of independence and democracy, means that most analogies comparing communities to a person or an ant colony don’t hold up for long.

A lot of the time, Our Community’s Goals are not the community’s goals — they are a person’s goals,  or a group’s goals.   Because we fear conflict, because we don’t want to take the time or spend the money, because we shy away from disagreement, because we who were invested first don’t want to consider that others might have valid ideas, we often fail to have real, meaningful community discussions about what our goals should be.  Then we act surprised when we discover that people, whether in leadership or in the community, will not support the actions we need to take to meet those goals.  They were never the community’s goals to begin with. 

Of course, if we _do_ deeply and meaningfully engage all the people for whom an issue matters (and believe it or not, there are ways to do that), we will discover that there are some issues where we cannot find agreement.  Whether it’s political or philosophical differences or simple practical disagreements, we will not be able to agree on some issues.   Because we fear that we will not agree on some issues, we do not attempt to agree on anything . 

 But here is the part we often overlook: if we did engage  all the people for whom an issue matters, we would find a lot of agreement.  We live in the same place, we see the same situations. we have, or can have with a little additional effort, the same base of information.  Because of that, we will find areas of agreement — they may not be the Exciting Ones or the Big Ones, but we will find some.  And if we focus on those points where we can agree, if we make those our goals, and they are truly shared goals, then we _will_ make progress.  Goals that don’t solve everything but allow us to make progress are, at then end of the day, more effective than goals that cover everything but do nothing.  An empty placeholder in the Goals for Everything structure simply means that that one needs more work. 

As we make progress, two things will happen:

  • We will build our community’s capacity for planning and working together.   If we fear that distrust or disagreement will derail us, what better way to convince both sides that the other is not evil than to find and work on the things that they can agree about? 
  • That experience will allow us to learn and discuss and find consensus on those issues that we couldn’t deal with at first.  

 Making this work, of course, also requires leadership that understands this reality and is self-assured enough to lead this way — an issue I hope to talk about more in the future.

Sounds Pollyannaish, I know.  And maybe it is.  So here’s a challenge for you: look at communities you know that have been successful over the long term.  They can be local governments, neighborhoods, business districts — whatever works.  And let’s share your thoughts here.  

In the meantime, if you are trying to choose the salad over the Lardburger on the lunch menu from now on, or setting the alarm for the 5 AM Boot Camp class at the gym, good luck…. and be glad there is only one of you!

Retail incubators — hm?

 The article on retail incubators at the bottom of this blog entry is not new, but it’s in the file of “interesting stuff to write a blog about when it feels right.”  Given that we’re nearing the pinnacle of the retail calendar, and many of us are spending way  more time in stores than we’re used to, now seems like a good idea to explore the idea of whether we should be trying to grow more retailers. 

 Much of my recent project research has been about demonstrating to political decision makers that their communities have far more retail space than their population (as well as any other live body they can grab from somewhere else) can support.  That’s become a fact of life for communities and regions in the early 21st century: from downtowns to old commercial strips to new lifestyle and power centers, the amount of space that was originally designed and used (and often zoned) for retail uses far exceeds our populations’ capacity to buy stuff.  For that reason, a relatively high percentage is vacant.  It’s pretty simple math. 

As anyone who has been reading this knows, I am a big fan of entrepreneurship — it’s a central element of the Wise Economy Manifesto (sometimes I have been known to call them cockroaches, but it’s a term of endearment, really it is.)  And I would personally have us buying more of our goods and services from local businesses, for no other reason than the documented higher return on investment to the local community. 

How much do we need?


As a matter of public policy, should we really be encouraging more retailers?   If the funds we have available to spend in a trade area aren’t infinite, and we already have more retail space than we can support, what benefit do we provide to the community as a whole by incubating more retailers?  Aren’t we theoretically setting ourselves up for more vacant spaces?  Unless the amount of money to spend expands, we are simply shifting market share…. is that a benefit to the community, or just a new form of cannibalization?

To be sure, the catalysts for the retail incubators in this article are the property owners, who are borrowing a page from the economic gardening playbook to try to grow their own tenants.  Probably a good idea for their enlightened self-interest.   And growing entrepreneurs is an emerging central strategy for downtown revitalization programs like Heritage Ohio, which recently hosted a training to help downtown programs support entrepreneurship

On the other hand, a publication that I quote a lot — the ULI’s Ten Principles for Reinventing America’s Commercial Strips specfically asserts that communities should change their zoning to prune back the amount of retail space that they provide — both to create space for new types of businesses and to create increased demand for retail goods and services in that area. 

Here’s my germ of a theory: whether or not retail incubators make sense from a public policy standpoint depends on the explicitly-articulated goals of the community.  If the goal is to keep as much of the trade area’s money as possible circulating within the trade area, then a retail incubator may be a good strategy.  If the goal is to fill storefronts in a specific area, like a downtown, so that the area is perceived as being desirable, then a retail incubator may be a good strategy.  But if the purpose is to meet a goal such as these, then it’s critical that the program be clearly set up to meet those goals.  Incubating retailers so that they can populate downtown storefronts, but then permitting them to relocate anywhere, or not managing the rent equasion so that they can afford to be downtown, would be a waste of effort from a public policy standpoint. 

And of course (excuse me while I find my broken record), retail incubation won’t work as a one-shot solution.  If real estate costs aren’t managed, if the environment where all these great new shops are stinks, if new entrepreneurs can’t find ways to work with and support each other, then an incubator strategy will, at best, result in one or two new niche destinations that succeed against the odds surrounded by evidence of good intentions gone sour. 

The neat thing to me about this blog is that I know that you cover the spectrum — economic developers, planners, downtown types, rural types, real estate mavens — and at least one random banker(Sorry, Ron!).  What do you all think?  Are there other benefits to incubating small retailers?  What would you do to make sure it’s done right? 


Is our community’s financial future being undermined by changing demographics?

This post is NOT mine…. I get no credit except maybe a little editing.  My friend Bill Lutz, the Community Development Director for Piqua, Ohio, has a tendency to raise well-written and thoughtful questions on Facebook notes.  This one was so insightful that I thought it deserved a broader audience.  So I am glad to hand over the page to him (which also gives me an easy way out this time, I suppose!)  
For sake of context for those of you who are not familiar with Ohio government structure, Ohio cities typically rely on earnings taxes for the lion’s share of their income.  Earnings taxes are just what they sound like — taxes on earnings.  If you receive an entitlement-type income, such as a pension or Social Security, and you live in a city or village, you don’t pay a local earnings tax.  You do pay property tax if you own property, and sales tax, but only a tiny proportion of those funds go to the local government. 
Bill, the floor is yours.  I am looking forward to what all of you have to say — and I’ll make sure Bill hears it too. 
by William Lutz on Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 5:07pm

One of the many facets of my job is to use statistics to paint a picture of the community.  Usually the picture that is painted is not pretty, and this is out of necessity.  Those that hand out money tend not to focus on the well to do communities; rather, they like to help those communities that can demonstrate a real need.  So, every now and again, I hit up the latest figures from either decennial Census or the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to paint a not so rosy picture of the community.  The usual suspects end up being figures such as poverty rates, annual median income, unemployment rates.  Sometimes I dig up more obscure figures such as percentage of households headed by a female (a likely sign of poverty).

This particular day I was interested in one statistic.  In 2007, 49% of households in Piqua were receiving some sort of retirement income; either Social Security or a pension.  In 2008, our community hit an imaginary tipping point: 51% of all household received some sort of retirement income.  I immediately was taken back by the finding — over half of the households in this town are receiving income that the city can’t tax.  Yet, the residents of the community still have needs that are to be met through tax dollars.  It’s an interesting system we have created for ourselves. 

 I immediately wondered if other local communities that were similar to Piqua had gone through the same type of transformation.  I looked at three other communities for which American Community Survey data was available: Troy, Sidney and Xenia [comparably-sized Ohio cities within less than an hour’s drive from Piqua – dgr].  In both Sidney’s and Xenia’s case, the percentage of retirement income households actually dropped between 2007 and 2008, from 48% to 47%.  Troy’s percentage rose from 42% to 45%, but was still the lowest of the four communities in this unscientific example.

 I then flipped the question.  I wondered what percentage of households reported wages from employment.  Of the four communities in the sample, you guessed it, Piqua was the lowest at 73.9%.  Xenia was at 78.6%, Troy 79.2% and Sidney at 82.6%.  In fact, all these percentages showed growth (or in Piqua’s case remained even) between 2007 and 2008.

 So, what does all this mean?  Well, these numbers could probably be interpreted a number of ways.  In my work in economic development, we are always told we need to do more to create more jobs.  Given these numbers, it appears that the number of retired workers in our community has actually grown.  Which leads to two thoughts.  First, if there were no job losses, we would have a job surplus, wouldn’t we?  Where would we get the extra workers to fill the positions from the recently retired?  However, in this economy, we know that isn’t the case.   So, the second throught is, if we are getting to the point of having more retired people, what is the right number of jobs to have or the right kind of jobs we need?

 I can’t see our 51% number going down.  Remember, these are 2008 numbers and things really didn’t get bad until 2009.  If this number continues to grow, it shows that a lot of people left the labor force and maybe they are gone for good; it’s hard to say.  Second, there are a lot of households with income from both retirement and wages.  I think this shows that maybe that the new employment opportunities that are being going to be wanted in the future aren’t necessarily 40 hour a week jobs, but more like part time work to supplement retirement incomes. 

 However, the greatest impact is on our local government’s bottom line.  While we still have a large percentage of households bringing in a wage (73.9%), our rates are lower than our neighbors, and as stated earlier, more than half our households (51%) have income we can’t touch.  As we look at our community’s fiscal condition, I am afraid that these means continued declining revenue for the community.  Not good news.  Especially since the amount of work we are expected to do in the local government hasn’t gone down. 

Either way, something is going to have to give.  The local government may have to look at new avenues to raise tax revenues (possibly by taxing retirement benefits) or severely cutting service. 


Part of what so caught my eye about Bill’s thoughts was that I think this issue is going to become more and more critical far beyond Piqua and Xenia and the like.  Certainly any government that relies on earnings taxes will probably hit this issue.  Is this a case for a shift to other types of taxes? 

What do you all think?

What parenting teaches you about economic development and planning

After my last post, I have been thinking a lot about how being a parent relates to planning and economic development and vice versa. For either amusement or edification (you tell me), here’s what I have come up with so far:

  • both can exhaust you with their constant demands.
  • both need you but won’t always admit it.
  • both often have problems based on unmet transportation needs or inadequate transportation options.
  • both sometimes want things that would taste good/look good/be fun, but would not be good for them in the long run.
  • both will point out to you very quickly when you are wrong – and they won’t let you forget it.
  • both eventually have to stop believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
  • You really can’t control either of them (or the world around them) most of the time. About all you can do is try to set the right structure, teach them the right information, help them understand the long-term impacts of their choices, guide them in the directions that will give them the best shot at a valuable place in the world and hope for the best. At the end of the day, you cannot control everything.

Downtown revitalization: Small is beautiful.

Last week, the Sacramento Bee took the city council to task for turning down a “more ambitious proposal with greater potential to transform downtown” in favor of a more modest proposal that promised its own notable change but required less public subsidy.  The accepted proposal is projected to create 250 housing units and associated retail, while the rejected proposal centered around a live music venue and a farmer’s market.  The Bee concludes that as a result of this choice, “what developers may take away is that the council does not share a vision for downtown, and is unwilling to think big. That is an unfortunate message.”

There’s a problem here.  “Vision” and “think big” have a history of being damaging words.  Those two ideas gave us the urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s, the demolish-downtown-and-build-a-mall-projects of the 1980s, and a number of the other urban planning debacles that have given “planning” a bad name in many communities.  Big plans may have the power to move men’s souls, but they can also make bad assumptions, create massive unintended consequences, disrupt lives and livelihoods and often fail to generate the transformative benefits they promised.  We have been down this path in this country so many times… why do we keep returning to the idea that there is some kind of one-shot solution out there that will magically solve our problems?

There’s a couple of interesting details in the Sacramento K Street story:  first, the area to be “transformed” is a downtown pedestrian mall — one of those big-plans responses to the challenge of the suburban mall that did more damage than good — “If we just remove the cars, our downtown will be just like the mall, and all the people will come back.”  Yep, that worked well.  Second, the more “modest” proposal was one that was chosen by a broad city selection committee made up of “experts, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, labor unions and historic preservationists.”  Hm. 

Truly effective downtown revitalization, like any kind of economic development, isn’t accomplished with a one-shot magic bullet.  It never has been.  Economic revitalization happens when a series of consistent efforts, big and small, create an interesting, attractive, human-scaled place filled with human energy and activity.  Downtowns already have the raw materials for that – people-scaled buildings, public spaces that are truly public, spaces where businesses and services of all types can get started, be successful and reinforce each other. 

If we want to have healthy downtowns, we will be most effective when we focus our efforts on removing the barriers to letting downtowns be successful.  We don’t need to over-engineer it; we need to find what’s working and let more of it happen. 


How a strong town and a wise economy depend on where you put your money

I’ve said here many times that a wise economy requires building on your assets, finding and capitalizing on the things that make your community unique, and using the precious resources available very strategically to grow those assets. Strong  Towns blog (my long-lost twin, apparently!) recently posted a very insightful analysis of a small town in Minnesota that is not only grasping for a magic bullet solution to the loss of their major historic industry, but also  overlooking the opportunity to make a more efficient investment by building on what they already have.  As the blog very articulately points out,

the tragedy here is not the fact that this project is a bad public investment. The real tragedy is how the beautifully-designed town of Tower has been left to decay while the politicians and professionals focus everyone on the next big idea.

That is, time and again, the real cost of the Magic Bullet.  Regardless of the era or the economy, we only have so much money, not to mention the critical capital supply of human leadership and vision.  Whether the magic bullet is the downtown malls of the 60s and 70s, the festival marketplaces of the 80s, or throwing massive incentives to try to attract footloose industries today, perhaps the biggest tragedy of these approaches is the way that they suck energy and resources away from the very practical, not always exciting investments in things that build on our best assets, instead of trying to create something from scratch. 

If you want to see the inverse of the Tower scenario at work, visit any midsize midwestern town that didn’t swallow the pill of 1960s urban renewal , and instead put their energy and money into broad-based revitalization in the 1980s.  Green Bay, Wisconsin, for example, will actually give you both — a largely vacant mall on one side of the river, and a vibrant, exciting, heavily-used commercial district on the other.  Guess which one got the magic bullet?

Green Bay's On Broadway district in full gear. Credit: OBI Inc.


E-town meetings: are we ready for this?

This article highlights two counties in Florida that have found a way to continue their traditional public input systems, using chat and video streaming, in a way that not only increased the number of participants, but actually saved the local government money.  I am looking forward to learning more about how exactly they did it — the article is a little short on details. 

One of the great challenges I have encountered in using methods like these for public participation is that the range of what people know how to do and are comfortable with is unbelievably wide.  I have one community committee I am working with now where a few of the participants would be perfectly happy to do everything digitally, and a couple do not even have email.  The challenge for people who want to engage the entire cross section of the community (and that’s critical to the kind of change needed to help a Wise Economy develop) is, how to leverage social media and digital tools, with all their benefits, while still enabling real involvement from those on the other side of the digital divide?

What do you think?  What have you seen done to help bridge that divide?  Or do you think that is a barrier to using more effective and less costly public participation methods?


The Power of Corridors and community identity (Planning Commissioners Journal)

Planning Commissioner’s Journal usually finds something interesting and relevant to say, and this 2006 article by Hannah Twadell that was recently reposted remains relevant:

Corridors link communities. And sometimes the corridor itself becomes home to a community of travelers. From the 19th century riverboat world of the Mississippi to the great Appalachian Trail conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, corridors are places in their own right, with their own cultures, infrastructure, and issues.

Today, the transportation corridors connecting communities are primarily arterial roadways, stretching out over increasing distances. Our corridors set the stage for much of our development pattern, whether we plan it or not. …

I would argue that corridors today have an even more powerful impact: they are often the single biggest influence on how an entire community is perceived.  As the amount of land we cover in our daily lives has increased, our experience of most communities is lineal: we drive the main corridors through many communities repeatedly, without ever turning off of the main route.  As a result our perceptions of many communities (sometimes even including the one where we live) is deeply colored by what we see and experience on that corridor.  When we are insiders to a community, we often forget about what a first impression those corridors can make, but our visitors and residents don’t.

One publication that I think should be required reading for every urban planner and economic developer is a thin booklet from the Urban Land Institute called Ten Principles for Reinventing America’s Suburban Strips. We have used this as a template for corridor planning for years, and it’s effectiveness comes from its comprehensiveness. Here’s the Ten:

From the ULI's Ten Tools for Remaking American's Suburban Strips
  • Ignite Leadership and Nurture Partnership
  • Anticipate Evolution
  • Know the Market
  • Prune Back Retail-Zoned Land
  • Establish Pulse Nodes of Development
  • Tame the Traffic
  • Create the Place
  • Diversify the Character
  • Eradicate the Ugliness
  • Put Your Money (and Regulations) Where Your Policy Is

Good stuff!

I’d be interested in hearing what you think about the role of corridors in community planning and economic development, and what you think we should be doing differently as professions to make our corridors part of our community’s Wise Economy.

Just a little extra effort makes you stand out – Michigan Main Street

Joe Borgstrom of Michigan Main Street Center is one of the people that I increasingly look to for insight into what makes communities economically successful. In this blog post, Joe notes that what differentiates exceptional service providers (from receptionists to businesses) from the run of the mill is making a little bit of extra effort to be creative and stand out from the crowd. He gives a great example:

We’re very fortunate here at MSHDA to have receptionists that take the charge of turning the ordinary into an experience seriously, though they don’t think of it that way. They saw a problem. When people turned in items found in the parking lot, state cars, and things left in rooms that people just plain forgot, they would send an “All MSHDA” email. The problem was no one would claim anything because the emails generally went unread. Their solution: Make them worth reading. Just this morning we received this email:

This week’s parking lot find is a black, fuzzy ladies glove. This classic, only run over once, hand warming device can be yours for the low, low introductory price of just $49.95. Checks may be made payable to ’MSHDA Receptionists’ and left at the front desk. In 4-6 weeks, your barely dirty black glove will be mailed to the destination of your choice (postage and handling extra). Thank you for choosing ‘MSHDA Receptionists’ as your ONLY used glove outlet.

Their emails have resulted in many more items being claimed and have brightened the days of numerous employees. I, for one, make sure I open every email labeled “FOUND” not because I’ve lost anything, but because I want to see what they’re going to say about what they’ve found.


He goes on to note:

What can your district or business do? Plenty. Look for the little things that everyone takes for granted and make them special. Old Town Lansing’s October Moon gift wraps every purchase and garnishes it with a fresh flower. The Ideal Kitchen in Manistee does cooking and product demonstrations….

Every day we have opportunities to make the ordinary into an experience. Downtowns businesses need every advantage to compete for customers, providing a unique experience in one of the biggest advantages they can have.

Joe is right — not just about businesses, but about communities and their economies as a whole. As we have said here before, every community has opportunities, and the most powerful and most impactful opportunities are those that come from the community’s inherent assets. Those assets may not always look very exciting at first blush – a festival, a business cluster, housing stock, a park — but they can be potential opportunities waiting to happen.

Here’s the amazing part: the amount of effort needed to elevate an asset from functional to an experience– a source of real uniqueness– is not a whole lot more that what is needed to make the thing work in the first place! I have had this conversation with my 7 year old a lot lately: he can slide by with OK grades if he doesn’t study, but with only 10 extra minutes of work each night, he can really do what he is capable of doing. The difference, as I have pointed out to him, is less than one Sponge Bob episode.

the difference between ordinary and an experience

The same holds for our communities: a small amount of extra effort to be creative, a well-placed, incremental increase in the amount of time and assets invested, can make all the difference between being Just Another Place and A Place Where People Want To Be.

I’d love to hear of anyone with examples of communities that put a little extra effort into their assets and used that to make a difference in their economic health!

Looking for your feedback on What is a Wise Economy?

I took a couple of weeks off from the blog (and from work) to enjoy the family, spend a lot of time in the car and catch up on reading.  I’ve been continuing to think about how to explain this concept of a Wise Economy and what characteristics a Wise Economy has.  As before, the big question I want to ask of you reading this is, what am I missing?

One thing that I didn’t do before to my satisfaction was to define what a community that has a Wise Economy looks like.  In nearly 20 years of working with small communities of all stripes and across the country, I have come to the conclusion that the characteristics of a Wise Economy community are actually pretty easy to identify – and the sum of these elements results in a community that is pretty easy to distinguish from others.   Of course, this is really more of a continuum than a binary issue — most places will fall into shades of grey on these elements.

So here is what, based on my experience, a Wise Economy Community looks like:

  • A Wise Economy community exhibits sustainable long-term positive growth rates. For a Wise Economy Community, the definition of success isn’t one or two years of double-digit increase in building starts or population.  We all know too well now that a lot of times, those growth rates can’t be sustained, and if our communities come to depend on that growth, there will be a reckoning coming that will not be easy to swallow.  A Wise Economy community grows at a pace that allows it to keep all its systems in balance — from services to residents to roadway capacity.  Growth for the sake of growth can often cost more than it was worth.
  • A Wise Economy community maintains a diversified economic base.  It’s not overly dependent on any one sector or industry, and it doesn’t face risk of collapse if the big gorilla goes away.  A diversified economic base also allows opportunities for upward mobility – for people to be able to move from lower-paying service positions into more lucrative opportunities without taking their experience and their investment out of the community.
  • A Wise Economy community changes over time. There are a small but growing number of communities who have developed enough self-awareness of their own history to realize that their current economic composition has not been thus since Time Immemorial.  Most cities today started out doing something other than what they are known for today — New Berlin, Wisconsin made leather goods , Wapakoneta, Ohio was known for its butter churns…take a look at the history of your community, and you will see that you were probably once known for making or doing something that does not exist anymore.  That’s OK — we all know that businesses have cycles, and that products like whips and butter churns aren’t needed anymore.  But here’s the ticket: instead of fighting to keep the whip factory in business, or throwing money at them to stay a couple more years, these communities moved on to something else, re-purposing the factories, the sites, the people to other types of businesses.   The underlying assets allowed them to find a new role in the region’s or world’s economies.  Change is part of how economies happen.  A Wise Economy community knows that, and manages its change proactively.
  • A Wise Economy community values those features that make it unique. Unique doesn’t have to be splashy, but it needs to be authentic.  In a world of intense competition, both for new investment and to keep what you have, Wise Economy communities know that that which makes you distinctive makes you valuable.
  • A Wise Economy community focuses its efforts on maintaining its ability to be a community of choice. A Wise Economy community is one where people who have the ability to choose where they live, choose to live — not just when the houses are new, but for the long term.  A successful economy depends on people, today now more than ever, and a community’s ability to keep and retain talent will play a larger role than ever in creating economic opportunities.

So… it appears to me that these are the key characteristics of a Wise Economy community.  Interestingly, I don’t think that this model precludes any type of community, whether a historic market town or a city suburb.  The steps  that help create a Wise Economy, which I outlined here and which I’ll be revising in an upcoming post, are designed to move a community toward becoming  a Wise Economy community.

Again, what is this missing?  what am I overlooking here? I am looking forward to your comments!

Tell your Story, share your Journey to build your capacity.. and your Wise Economy.

Sometimes the universe just seems to be on the same page for once.  This post from the Michigan Main Street Center has been circulating the Twittersphere the last couple of days, an indication of how much this post resonated with people in community economic development.  Here’s the main point:

A related theme that has come up across the board with all our Main Street communities is that they are not telling their story often and to enough people.Many of our communities are doing great things from retaining and recruiting business to holding special events and festivals or retail events that get the cash registers ringing to making sure the downtown looks great from a physical standpoint. But, the one big thing communities often forget is telling their story about all the things that are happening in their community.

How true.

In the Wise Economy discussions, one of the points that I have emphasized is that the aspects of your community that make it unique are what makes it economically valuable.  That uniqueness doesn’t have to be specifically about industrial sectors, or business services or any of the typical economic stuff.  Your uniqueness is whatever makes your place stand out from the crowd. If it’s a business, or a natural feature, or a festival, or an original stretch of the Lincoln Highway… whatever it is, that which makes you distinct makes you valuable.  It makes you stand out from the Great Sea of Dullness, and it sets you apart as a place that has, not just something interesting, but a place that has vitality, that has something to offer.

I recently came across a resource that I think could help communities trumpet their uniqueness in a very powerful way.  I recently met the creator of a series of podcasts and SIRIUS-XM broadcasts called Journeys Into.  There are a variety of Journeys Into — American places, beer and hockey, among others.  But the overriding goal is to create a multi-venue source for telling the stories of the people and events that make a place distinct — that make a place truly and honestly unique.  The founder of the Journeys Into initiative is also the creator of the Hidden America web site/travel database,  so he has spent his time in the trenches learning about the kaleidoscope of what makes places unique.

The Journeys Into emphasis is on creating audio recordings — some of which are aired on SIRIUS radio’s Left Jab show.  These are basically conversation-style interviews– think Charles Kuralt kind of pacing.  But the resulting interviews with community people are enjoyable and much more informative than most typical place marketing approaches.  Here’s a couple of samples:



Think for a second about the potential this kind of venue creates.  Stories like these are showing up on national satellite radio because people are interested in unique and distinctive places — we’ve know that since at least the initial heritage tourism boom of the 1980s, and that’s only getting stronger.  So there’s the national broadcast example.  But if you clicked one, you were listening to a podcast — an mp3 file, just like the music files you download from the internet.  If you want, you can download it and plug it into your Ipod to play later.

What if you could:

  • Play them on local radio stations?
  • Place them on the radio in the nearest big city?
  • Make them available for download on your web site?
  • Combine them with photos or video and send to your 20 top recruitment prospects?
  • Play them at your organization’s public meeting?
  • what else could you do?

We are often told that visual is the way of the future, that you don’t want to have a web site that’s full of text — people won’t pay attention unless there are pictures.  But this approach provides the opportunity to break out of the visual clutter and connect in a different way — and a way that people can access while driving, which isn’t when they can look at your web site.

What do you think?

The OKI Fiscal Impact Model: why it works better than they used to.

After my last post about the OKI Fiscal Impact Model, I received several great comments.  One of them reflected on past experience with a per capita fiscal impact model in the 1990s and on how that approach wouldn’t work very well in his current situation.  I started to write a response to him directly, but it was getting too complicated for the comments section, so I’ll finish it here.

One of the things that makes it possible for fiscal impact modelling to be so much more powerful today than when I first encountered it 10 years ago is that the technology available has made it easier to do a properly nuanced, methodologically sound and harder-to-argue-with model.  It’s possible to do a much more effective model today for several reasons:

  • We have access to more detailed data.  The per-capita allocation mentioned by the comment author is still fundamentally the approach one has to use in creating a fiscal impact model, but we can refine the per-unit costs to a degree that would have been almost impossible in the 90s, let alone earlier.  This is  particularly because of the reams of information that we can access digitally, particularly through GIS systems.  For the OKI Model, we used thousands of items of GIS-derived data, from assessed valuations to building square footage to Average Daily Trips,  and that allowed us to reach a whole new level of understanding of the way different types of land uses impacted different service costs.  We know intellectually that a person living in a house generates a different types and levels of demand for services than a person who comes to town to work in a store.  But without being able to have a deeper understanding of how the characteristics of one land use differ from another,  it’s extremely difficult to come up with reasonable refinements to that generic per-unit cost approach.  Which is why it’s valuable that contemporary technological tools allow….
  • A more rigorous methodology.  As one comment author pointed out, a lot of fiscal impact work –especially models, which are designed to fit more than one jurisdiction — end up not being used because people aren’t sure they can trust the results, or because someone challenged the methodology used to develop it.   I have not proved this yet, but my suspicion is that the degree to which a model will be subject to challenge is directly related to the simplicity of the analysis.  It would be very easy to challenge a basic per-capita impact estimate: “My project is special, our residents will be different from the average you are assuming, because of this factor we will generate less traffic than your model assumes….”  etc.   The OKI Model was able to parse land uses into 14 different categories, which allowed for a much higher level of tailoring to specific situations, as I noted before.  Additionally, the analysis itself is considerably more sophisticated than a more one-size-fits-all approach, which makes that methodology…
  • Harder to argue with.  The OKI Model allocates the costs for different types of land uses on the basis of the statistical correlation between the various factors of each land use that contributed to what we called the “intensity” of the land use (such as the proportion of young and old residents, density of occupants, etc.) and the total demand for related government services.  The correlations are based on a multiple regression analysis of a large number of sample communities — it reflects typical distributions, but when you run the Model for a specific situation, it adjusts those typical distributions based on that community’s specific land use and municipal budget characteristics.  So, intellectually, it’s pretty sound: you are not assuming that all properties are created equal, you are using the most sophisticated data sets available, and you are basing your estimates on a statistical correlation between land use types and service demand that is then adjusted to bring it even closer in line with the actual conditions of the specific community.  And you can demonstrate the correlations and the adjustment factors if you need to.

The comment author’s primary point, though, was one to which I don’t have an answer.  I said in an earlier comment  that a fiscal impact model such as the OKI Model should not be treated as a be-all and end-all — it should be one of the elements that a community considers in deciding whether a proposed land use would be good for the community.  All a fiscal impact model sees are taxes and government expenses; the impacts that a development might have on the environment, people’s quality of life and other items are only indirectly addressed by a fiscal impact model, if at all.  A community might want to support a type of development that doesn’t “cash flow” because it will provide services that residents need, or it will reclaim a contaminated site, or it will improve the community’s reputation and visibility.  In cases like that, the comment author points out,

how do you “ignore” [the fiscal impact results] to achieve other more subjective objectives, like community “perception”?

I think that goes to a fundamental question that people encounter in both real-world and academic settings: how can you logically and rationally combine quantitative [numerical] and qualitative [non-numerical] information to make a sound decision that uses both?  And how do we create a system for doing that that gives us a logical structure without forcing us into a conclusion that goes against what we really want?

I hope you’ll think about this with me and let me know what you are thinking.  Maybe we can figure this one out together!

By the way, OKI has a staff change, which is why I haven’t been able to link you to their site yet.  I hope to be able to do that in January.  I’ll let you know!

Creating a Wise Economy by breaking out of the box

We all live in boxes.  We all operate on the unspoken assumption that the options available to us are constrained, are limited  by something or someone.   And those constraints limit what we think is possible.   As the medieval maps used to say at the edge of the known world, “Beyond Here Be Dragons.”  If we stay in our box, within our constraints, we stay away from the dragons, right?

But what happens when it becomes obvious that the box is breaking apart?

I spoke this morning to an old friend of mine who is comtemplating self-employment instead of the menial jobs for which she is over-qualified (it’s a wrong place at the wrong time kind of situation).  She is struggling.  She has always assumed that she needed to have a “real” job — the voice of her father, a long-dead career corporate attorney, telling her that in her own mind.   But there does not appear to be a “real” job that fits what she, uniquely, brings to the table.  So should she put aside that box and step out into an unknown future, or should she adhere to the voice of conventional wisdom?

That’s what she would say is her struggle, but I think that struggle is over.  At this point, a job that fits her father’s expectations doesn’t seem to exist for her.  Which means that her choice is really something else: to try to rebuild her increasingly tattered box — to try against long odds to get the world to conform its relationship to what she thinks it should be — or to let go of that assumption and move on into the big but unknown world beyond that box.

I think this is a microcosm for what many of our communities are facing today.   We have a communal set of expectations about our  places — we are a bedroom community, we are a blue-collar town, we make cars, we support happy families.  But there are a whole variety of forces that are upending our boxes and threatening our self descriptions.  Maybe it’s sprawl forcing a small town to a first-ring suburb, maybe it’s a closing car factory, maybe it’s aging housing stock and aging residents, maybe it’s closed businesses.   Across the country, I find myself dealing more and more with communities whose formerly comfortable self-definition is falling apart in the face of forces within and forces without.

And a lot of them are wringing their hands and not doing anything, because they don’t know what life outside the box looks like.

Ben and Rosamund Zander, in their book The Art of Possibility, describe an old mental puzzle in which a person is given a square with nine dots and is told to connect all the dots with three straight lines.  Here, try it:

connect all dots with three straight lines?
connect all the dots with three straight lines?

No can do, eh?

Scroll down for the solution.

Here’s the trick: don’t let the grey frame around the dots trick you into thinking that there are impenetrable borders around the dots! No one said you couldn’t go outside the plane of the dots, right?

Now, of course, you can’t not see the solution.  But it sure seemed impossible before, didn’t it?

In my posts on the Wise Economy, I have emphasized the need to look for unexpected possiblities and to be brave in the face of challenging goals. For a community to make the choice to go beyond the accustomed box, and to look for those unexpected possibilities, and to maintain bravery (sometimes we call this focus or commitment), is a whole lot more complicated than my friend looking at her career choices.  There are more people involved, more different ideas, and more possibilities than any one individual will face alone.

But we have to do it.   So many of our communities are struggling because we have allowed them to be defined by what they have been, instead of looking at the assets they offer in the new light outside the old box.

So how do we get out of the box?  Stay tuned.

Cleveland still rocks, especially on Euclid Ave.!


Truth in advertising: even after 20+ years out of the region, I am still a huge Cleveland fan (the city, I mean — I gave up on the Browns when they moved while I was living in Green Bay in the 1990s.  The therapist says we are making progress.)

Regardless, this is a kick-butt story of a  once really down-in-the mouth area transfoming because of a confluence of Wise Economy strategies:

  • the area’s redevelopment builds on its assets.  No one is trying to recreate the department stores that lined Euclid Avenue when I was a kid, or exhaust the funds available trying to put factories back in the old warehouses.  Instead, what’s happening there taps the area’s intrinsic assets — from the presence of the Cleveland Clinic to the presence of old buildings (and a good state investment tax credit).  Granted, the Cleveland Clinic is not exactly your run-of-the-mill kind of asset, but it’s critical to understand that the reason why this could happen is because it was directly relevant to, and strengthened the relevance and economic effectiveness of, several of the community’s major assets.
  • Government played the role it was uniquely suited to play — fixing the street, which I will vouch was a master level of bad, as well as improving the public transit options.  But note: this is the only corridor that got this level of investment.  A lot of other roads are still lousy.  Government had to have the chutzpah to use the lion’s share of the limited resources available to it in one setting.  Euclid Avenue is just one little part of Cleveland, and I am sure there was (and probably still is) a lot of protestations over spending all this money on one street when streets in other neighborhoods need repair.   But if the City had spread the funds available across the whole city — maybe filled the 8 million
    the official Greater Cleveland roadway feature, except on Euclid Avenue.

    potholes that seem to appear every spring– what would that have done to change Cleveland’s economy for the long term?

  • The change  isn’t happening overnight. The amount of investment cited in this  article is actually much higher than I would have expected  — and that’s probably because there’s a sizeable amount of public sector investment in facilities at Cleveland State and elsewhere.  Planning for Euclid Avenue began at least 9 years ago — and it’s been a few months since I have gone down that street, but there were millions of square feet of old brick factories, empty store buildings and vacant lots along that route during this past summer.  Somehow I doubt those have all been fixed up by now.  So far the process has lasted through two or three mayors, and who knows how many City Council members and RTA board of directors members.  This initiative has succeeded to date because the energy behind it has outlasted political turnover, and that will continue to be necessary for many years to come.

What else do you learn from this story?  What am I overlooking?

The Wise Economy: What makes you Unique Makes you Valuable

My biggest difficulty in Christmas shopping (other than trying to remember which Bakugon the 7-year old said was the really wonderful one, and which one was lame),  is trying to find something that will be unique and valuable for the person who will get it.  To be sure, I don’t strive for that for everyone — the gift for Great Aunt Sophie doesn’t always get the same level of thought as others — but to the extent that I can, for the people who really matter to me, I am looking for something that is

A Bakugon unfolded. I want to say this one is called Redguyimon, but I suspect that's wrong.
  • different from what they will get from anyone else,
  • different from what they already have, and
  • something that they will value.

So for my cool sister-in-law, I am looking for a funky necklace made out of natural materials.  For my niece, I am looking for an outfit that captures her free spirit and will look great on her.   For my kids… well, you know, Santa gets a list, most of which is incomprehensible to me anyways.   Nevermind.

But here’s the kicker: I will probably be willing to pay at least a little bit more for the perfect funky necklace or free-spirit outfit than I would for a typical string of beads or a boring t-shirt and pants.  And because that’s what I am looking for,  I am also more likely to stray from the beaten path and go shopping somewhere other than Target.

In the Wise Economy Manifesto, I said that A Wise Economy

Embraces its differentiators and values its assets, understanding that differentiation leads to value and away from the chase to the bottom…

There’s a lot there to unpack, but the germ of the thought is this: That which makes a place unique makes it more valuable to the people who want it.

A lot of times it’s easy to see our communities as commodities, like the plastic toys on a shelf in a big store.  If I can get the same transforming thingamabob at Big Box A vs. Big Box B, then I will probably buy it where it’s cheapest.  That’s the general retail Race to the Bottom — if there is nothing that makes your store different other than price, then you will win or lose based on how cheap you are.  Anything other factors  go out the window.   But if you are the only store that carries the way cool thingamabob, then you not only win the sale, but you don’t have to charge the rock-bottom price, right?

It’s the same with our communities.   If we regard them– and promote them –as commodities, then the only way that we attract new businesses or people — or keep the people and businesses that have the wherewithal to go elsewhere — if if we make ourselves the lowest-price option.   That is what economic development incentives were about in the first place — making the costs of a location lower, or at least even with, the competition.

Think about it:  If my sales pitch is that ” we are within 600 miles of 75% of the United States,” and hundreds of other communities can make the same claim, then what reason does any business have to come to my community — unless I am the cheapest?  And when I am no longer the cheapest, what reason do they have to stay?

When it comes to creating a Wise Economy, our communit

ies’ ability to succeed long-term depends on our ability to

capitalize on and communicate those

features that make our community

You don’t want to be on this

unique. There are a lot of elements of any community that are nice but numbingly common – “we have a great work ethic,”  “we have

rail service,” etc.    But it’s the unique elements — the ones that make your community different, the ones that cannot be replicated by someone else–that will make you more valuable to someone than anything incentive you can offer.  If you are not playing to your uniqueness, then you are joining the Grand Caravan of Commodities on the Race to the Bottom.

There are a couple of important words of warning, though.

  • First, what is unique and valuable to one person is a white elephant to another.  If you establish yourself as something unique, you become like a gourmet cheese — people will either pay more for your one-of-a-kind taste and texture, or they will drop you back on the shelf when they get a whiff of you.   If your downtown is reknown as the Victorian Antiques Capital of Ohio,  a lot of people would consider  that a point in favor of moving there.  I myself, on the other hand, will probably look somewhere else
  • Second, fake uniqueness will hurt you worse in the long run than being a commodity.
  • Third, remember that blog posts almost by their structure have to simplify everything.  One of the other principles of a Wise Economy is Beware of One-Shot Solutions.  Your community has many aspects that make it unique, and it is that entire package, not just one Claim to Fame, that will help you create a Wise Economy.

In the next post on this topic, I’ll talk about the different between generic uniqueness and real uniqueness, and how we are all really in niche businesses anymore, whether we want that to be or not.

Agenda 360 and the Importance of Setting Brave Goals

Agenda 360, the Cincinnati-area initiative to catalyze regional growth, has announced a goal of creating 200,000 net new jobs in the next 10 years.  A description, and a link to Agenda 360, are at


Obviously everyone is scared about jobs right now, and I am already hearing grumblings that this isn’t possible.  But that misses the point of what an initiative like this is really about.  It goes beyond a number, and more importantly here, it goes to the core of one of the necessities of a Wise Economy: bravery.

The current vogue term is BHAG — Big Hairy Audacious Goals — and that’s a term that’s been tossed about a lot within Agenda 360.   The value of a BHAG  is motivational  — since no one agency can do it alone, the 200,000 net new jobs BHAG is  directed at engaging the broad cross section of people, agencies, businesses etc. who do have some influence over the economy of the region.   Most economic development needs, and almost all effective economic development initiatives, are broader than any one agency or government – no Chamber or  agency can do it alone.  If we had that kind of Hercules, who could just do it all for us, it would have been done already.

By setting a small number of BHAGs, and getting a broad cross section of organizations, etc to buy into it deeply, Agenda 360’s expectation is that (1) efforts will be coordinated across a broad cross section of actors around reaching those goals, and (2) all those actors will be energized around meeting those goals — it’s not just business as usual,  plugging along in each entity’s silo and failing to change the region.

If we believe that an extensive change  needs to happen. we aren’t going to get that change unless we exert the fundamental bravery to do the work necessary to try to make it happen.  Even if the BHAGs aren’t perfectly met, the concerted act of trying to get there will certainly lead to big improvements.   I had a client in a very conservative town who once said something very wise:

“We’ve got to reach for the sun, the moon and the stars.   If we only get the sun and the moon and we don’t get the stars, we’ll still be better off than we are now.”

That’s still one of my favorite quotes.

So if you set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and you don’t hit the number, but the needle makes a big swing in that direction, what have you lost?  Why not set the BHAG, be brave and work to make it happen?

Something else big, hairy and audacious. Courtesy of www.thebathtub.net

A Manufacturing Incubator (of sorts) in Milwaukee


An interesting article out of Milwaukee.  Not every community can have a sort of Daddy Warbucks like these three gentlemen, but what I think they have really done goes far beyond a holding company.  By consolidating not only the usual office space amenities, but the equipment and the skilled employees necessary for manufacturing, they are creating a new model for business incubators — one that has the potential to take that idea beyond services and applies  it to the core processes of  manufacturing.

I’m sure some people might argue that it would be better for each company to have its own employees, and perhaps one day they will do that.   But I think it’s better to do this — to not only employ a few people, but to use that opportunity to help three businesses grow and get their legs under them.  Entrepreneurship isn’t exotic, and it’s often just plain old hard work.

Of course, these three companies share a workforce because their bosses told them to.  Could this work in a more conventional incubator structure?  Could a typical incubator convince or coerce its tenants to share core staff?  Or would that lead to a muntiny, perhaps even if the alternative were to close the doors?  More to the point of my recent posts, is this an

oh, if we all had one.

that our governments and agencies — and entrepreneurs — are ready to accept?


The Wise Economy and unexpected opportunities

Last week, in my Wise Economy Manifesto first draft, I wrote that a Wise Economy

  • Looks constantly for new opportunities — and particularly seeks the unexpected ones.
  • This idea probably comes from my father.  My father was a consumate junk-picker… a child of the Depression, he never failed to see the potential in what appears to his jaded 70s children as junk.  Some of my clearest memories are of him in his basement workshop, showing me some new collection of brass castings or paint can lids.  As he described his plans for the incredible creation he would make out of them, he would pull himself up a little taller, raise the hand with the thing in it and declare,

    “I see usability…”

    He didn’t always get the thing made that he wanted to, but I think that was more a factor of always having something else to repair around the house.  When he died about 8 years ago, his workshop area was full of odds and ends that he had clearly collected for a reason – castoffs that were waiting to be resused. 

    Many of our communities have been treated pretty much as castoffs for much of the last 50+ years.  That’s probably nothing new to anyone reading this — planners espouse a lot of rhetoric about infill development and preventing sprawl, historic preservationists have taken to talking about the embodied energy inherest in old buildings..clearly we understand to at least some degree that things, buildings, places that some might see as castoffs do have value. 

    But a lot of the arguments from preservationists and planners and the like approach the issue from this point of view: “you should do this because if you don’t, you’re doing something bad.”  Planners point to the costs of new roads demanded by new exurban residents, or loss of prime farmland, or some such very valid concern, and preservationists will  bemoan the loss of heritage, the impact on the urban fabric.  All very true comments.

    But I don’t think that do-it-or-else is a truly effective way to change how we as a culture view our existing resources.  When I lay into my sons about how they are among the most fortunate kids in the world, so don’t you dare whine about cleaning your room, I may get the clean room I want, but have I really changed their behavior on a deep and sustainable level?  At best, they might do it next time I tell them because they feel guilty, or because they don’t want me to yell at them again.  But what would it take to give them an internal motivation to clean their room?  The prospect of being able to find lost toys?  The smell of clean sheets? 

    Whatever it is, the truly effective way to change their behavior toward their room would be to open their eyes to the opportunities that the choice would open up to them. 

    This is how I think we would begin to achieve a transformation in our local economies: if we change our view of existing places and communities from things we are stuck with to things that have usability, that would fundamentally change how we approach planning, development, preservation, revitalization and economic development.  We expend so much of our effort trying to work around the limitations – finding additional parking for a site, attracting new development to a disadvantaged neighborhood through costly incentives, trying to browbeat elected officials and government agencies into changing their policies to benefit downtowns and first ring suburbs.  

    But what if we changed the discussion?  What if we chose to emphasize, not the things that are lacking, but the opportunities that are embedded in the thing, if we could just shake our old paradigm long enough to see those opportunities?  How much of the resources that we sink into those fights would become available if we changed the discussion from “how do we deal with this thing?” to “what new opportunities become available because this this exists at this time?” 

    I will talk about paradigms and assumptions and their impact on the ability to see opportunties in my next post under this category.  In the meantime, I’d be grateful to know your thoughts. 

    Oh, and if you know of a way to instill internalized motivation into an 11 year old and a 7 year old to clean their rooms without whining, let me know, OK?   I am pretty sure that the smell of clean sheets just ain’t gonna cut it.   

    probably not going to cut it

    Change stinks…how can we do it better?

    cuter than my kid looks right now.

    Just a brief thought: I really hate having my plans disrupted — I have a sick kid right now, and the last 24 hours have been a mad chase to figure out how to keep all the balls in the air and take care of him at the same time.    I figured out that what I really don’t like is the fact that I had a game plan for the next several days, and now that’s out the window.

    Which made me think: local economies are like that, too.  We have a strategy — or, at least, we have a sense of how we think the world works and how we fit into it, and then one day we realize that the world has changed and we have to either adapt or die.  But if what’s going on falls outside of our plan, or our paradigm, then not only are we in a deal-with-it-now-or-else situation, but we are doing so without the strategic framework we trusted.  We end up  at sea.

    I have proposed to several economic development-related clients lately  the idea of using a scenario planning approach — borrowing the methods used by businesses to systematically anticipate a range of possible future situations and prepare to address any of them.  It’s akin to the development of alternative land use maps or designs, as we often do in community planning and landscape architecture, but it’s much more systematic and it runs through the process from beginning to end (as opposed to demonstrating three different possible solutions to the same set of design criteria or key issues).   After today, I am thinking that I should be applying scenario planning to my own life, as well.

    But that gets back to the basic problem: people don’t like uncertainty, and we live in a world where uncertainty is…well, certain.  And that’s doubly a challenge for the people who are responsible for managing a  community’s growth and economy.   No disrespect to businesses, but figuring out the possible sale scenarios for a Swiffer product would appear to have a few less variables than figuring out the long-term future of an entire economy.

    So, what do you think?  Would scenario planning for economic development or land use planning make your plan of action more clear, or would it simply put a name on the uncertainty?  And how would you implement a scenario plan, with its multiple possible outcomes, in a political environment?

    The Wise Economy manifesto, first draft

    As I discussed in this post, I have spent most of my adult life thinking about how to deal with the impacts that economic change has on the health and quality of life of communities.  I firmly believe that economic change is inevitable, but I also believe that change creates opportunities, usually at the same time as it takes away what we knew before.  Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  As a Cleveland native, I had an early front-row seat at the spectacle of the implosion of the 20th century industrial economy, and I can tell you first hand about the pain and harship that causes.  But I don’t believe that there is any point in trying to turn back the clock to some magical Time Before.   Not only is it impossible, but that Time Before wasn’t too great for at least some people, either.

    As a result,  I believe that the best service I can do is to help communities figure out how to thrive — how to find a bright future in the face of  swift and often unnerving change.  Most of our communities aren’t naturally inclined to handle that any better than many of our residents are, but both job hunters and thoughtful community leaders know that if we don’t find a way, we won’t succeed.

    I have previously summarized my theory as Sustainable Economic Development, but I have been moving away from that term because of the potential for confusion with the economics of green construction.   What I am concluding, however, is that what I am really talking about is how to create a Wise Economy – an economy that makes the right decisions not just for today, but for the future.  Here is what a Wise Economy does:

    • Looks constantly for new opportunities — and particularly seeks the unexpected ones.
    • Embraces its differentiators and values its assets, understanding that differentiation leads to value and away from the chase to the bottom, and that liabilities turn into assets depending on how you look at them.
    • Begins with the end firmly in mind, and sticks to a shared plan of action.
    • Understands that the life of a community is a marathon, not a sprint (but celebrates winning the stages as well).
    • Bewares one-shot solutions and magic pills.
    • Maintains bravery in the face of setbacks.
    • Grows by cultivating its native species, rather than investing everything it has in transplanting something exotic, finicky and not interested in the community’s differentiators.
    • Fertilizes the soil.
    • Feeds the cockroaches
    • Supports a healthy local government that can provide the high quality public goods and services that the community needs.
    • Understands not just what is going on in the larger world, but the unique role that it can play in that world.

    Despite my own mostly brown thumb, there is a horticulture thread here that I think lends some valuable insights.  Many of the communities I deal with have been left with exhausted economic soil – the products we are used to making, the ways that we have been used to extracting them – are worn out.  We are left to deal with the leftovers – what economists call “externalities.”  An externality sounds like it should be a non-problem — it’s external, after all — but this is one of the tricks of economics: an externality to one, such as a business, is usually an impact on others.

    But leftovers can also become fertilizer.  The big question is, what new opportunities exist because of our assets? How can what we thought was waste fertilize new opportunties?

    If you’ve ever had a garden, you know that  just throwing leftovers on a field will not give you healthy plants.  Composted leaves make a rich fertilizer, but if you just leave those leaves to cover the ground over the winter, you will have bare dirt when the time comes to grow again.  The investment of time and resources is what turns the leaves to compost.  It doesn’t have to be a very big investment, but we have to see the value of what we thought was waste, and put in some effort to transform it into something new, before we can enjoy that new growth.

    The kind of  growth that we are seeking won’t just drop from the sky – even if it takes the form of a casino, a streetscape, a convention center or the typical incentive – based city program.  Those may have short-term impacts, but their impacts will only last as long as the casino has a monopoly, the streetscape looks clean and new, or the little piece of the economy that they were depending on is holding strong.  When that fails, the benefit of that one-shot solution fades, and we are once again faced with the search for opportunties.

    Just like real change in a person’s lifestyle has to ultimately come from internal motivation, a Wise Economy grows from the investment and the dedication of the people of the community.  These aren’t the Captains of Industry of decades ago – these are the people who have the will, the audacity, to roll up their sleeves and make it happen.  These are small retailers, franchisees, established industries, creative thinkers and technological innovators who are willing to take the risk  –  willing to buck the old conventional wisdom – and make something new.

    Just like you don’t farm with bare hands alone,  however, the community’s new captains need a variety of tools to grow a new economy.   They need safe and clean places, space to work on their opportunities, places to experience being part of the community.  And they need encouragement – they need to know that it can happen, and that their investment will pay off.

    Right now, though, the big question is:  what am I missing?

    I am working these ideas out in detail in blog entries filed here under Wise Economy.    I hope you’ll come along for the ride and share your own ideas of how a local economy can become wise (and if you can see where I am going dumb, please let me know that, too, OK?).

    Why give incentives?

    This editorial from South Carolina’s  News & Observer advocates an idea that isn’t new but is still radical: that financial incentives to recruit businesses aren’t worth it.  The author, Dr. Jesse L. White, Jr., writes:

    The headlines on two consecutive days said it all: Dell Computer closing shop and laying off over 900 workers and Cree Inc. adding almost 600 jobs. The difference: Dell – headquartered in Texas – was lured to North Carolina with the promise of over $300 million in incentives, while Cree – a homegrown business spun out of N.C. State University technology – requested no state incentives (although in fairness Cree did get an incentive a few years back to build an expansion plant).When are we going to halt public expenditures on the “buffalo hunt” for footloose industry and instead focus our resources and efforts on the sector that produces by far most of the jobs – existing industry and homegrown business?

    One of the important  ideas that the author touches, which many discussions on this topic overlook, is the issue of the opportunity costs of incentives.  Economics 101 students learn that an opportunity cost is the value of the other choice that you could have made.  When my 11 year old’s money burns a hole in his pocket (happens a lot) and he buys a new game for his DSi, he is learning that the opportunity cost will become apparently very quickly — usually the next time he sees an ad for a new Lego set or finds out that all his friends are riding skateboards.

    As White points out,

    Imagine if the South in general and North Carolina in particular had put all of the money spent on industrial recruitment into education, training and small business support. We would be watching even more Quintiles, Cree, PPD, Southern Seasons, Performance Bicycle and other homegrown entrepreneurial success stories all across North Carolina. And, although there are no silver bullets in economic development, homegrown businesses are more likely to stay put, invest in the local community, provide stable civic leadership and keep the control and wealth local instead of away at some remote corporate headquarters.

    Two of my principles of sustainable economic development are that one-shot solutions almost never work, and that one of the most important things that any economic developer can do is to grow local businesses – for all the reasons that Dr. White identified.

    Imagine, if we invested in growing what sprouts in our communities instead of exhausting our resources trying to transplant one exotic species, how much more growth would we enjoy?



    The challenges of the Youngstown decline management model

    My last blog post focused on one of several points made in an article at www.newgeography.com that discussed issues around Detroit’s post-industrial environment.

    In addition to an interesting insight into what I recently dubbed the cockroach system for entrepreneurial development (I’m betting I am going to regret that…), the article also provides a great illustration of the loss of building density in Detroit’s neighborhoods over the past 60 years and presents a concept diagram of a future spatial reorganization of the City of Detroit with a central business center orbited at a distance by small, compact villages, connected by transporation corridors and separated by what the diagram calls “opportunity areas.”

    This is the first time that I, at least, have seen a concept that begins to make a little bit of sense out of the newly – popular idea that cities that have lost population could create a quasi-rural environment to enhance the quality of life of those who remain.  From a fiscal point of view, if for no other reason, that idea has not seemed workable to me because a big part of what makes it possible to deliver urban services is  the density of the users.  Ask any suburban county that has been trying to figure out how to pay for a transit system, and you’ll see what I mean.

    If the users are too spread out, there aren’t enough users in the area that can be reasonably served to generate enough income to pay for it.   And that applies whether we are talking about bus lines, garbage pickup, sewer systems or fire services.  Regardless of how you feel about density, it’s pretty clear that density makes higher levels of public service possible.  What the Detroit concept does is create centers of reasonable density, which might overcome the challenges that I think would face a quasi-rural city.

    But here’s where I am still struggling: how do you do this?

    How does a Detroit or a Youngstown create, or at least facilitate, this kind of massive spatial change?  Presumably the scattering of people outside of the “villages” would need to either relocate to the villages or live a more rural type of existence – no bus stops, minimal road maintenance, etc.    But a property that is not in one of the villages would presumably become less valuable than a property that was in one of the designated villages.  So (assuming a massive government-funded buyout was not in the cards, how could the population financially make the shift from dispersed to concentrated?  And is there anything that a Detroit or a Youngstown could do to help people make the private decision to relocate to a place that is better for the City to serve?


    Detroit, the Land of Opportunity

    This article from newgeography.com is more dense with information and ideas than I can cover in a blog post (especially a Friday night blog post!), but — and I say this with full awareness of all of the pain that Detroit’s dysfunctionalism causes — I think this is an interesting object lesson of the cockroach theory of economic development that I proposed yesterday.  In the relative absence of the usual structures of neighborhoods, city services,  jobs, etc., there are at least a subsection of people who will find some opportunity to do something new, even if that new thing is as old as selling what you killed.  As one of the comments on yesterday’s post wrote,

    Entrepreneurs will find, beg, borrow, and do it what it takes to succeed if they feel it is worth it. Groups of entrepreneurs show up where it is least expected because no one will meddle with them.

    I think the key question is, what can communities do to empower more people to find and capitalize on the opportunities available?  Can we really just rely on the subset of people who naturally have the chutzpah to take on the challenges that others find impossible, or should we be trying to grow more entrepreneurs?  Is that even possible?

    btw, my husband says it should be “dysfunctionalocity.”  He’s from Detroit, so he should know, right?


    the cockroaches and economic development

    Last year I chaired a work group focused on urban entrepreneurship for Agenda 360, a Cincinnati-region strategic planning effort.  One of the issues we struggled with was, what urban communties do effectively to really build entrepreneurship. A very bright lady who works with CDCs finally said something like this:

    “Entrepreneurs are like cockroaches… they are very, very good at finding and using what they need.   What we need to do is make a pile of rich food available to them.  If the pile is available, they will find the right food for them,  and they’ll make the best use of it.”
    I have been thinking a lot lately about what communities can do to build their base of entrepreneurs.   I think there is a little more to this — potential entrepreneurs need emotional and social support, and they need to know how the heck to run a business — but her idea is certainly part of the equasion.

    But here’s what I want to know: what kind of rich food do the cockroa…er, our precious entrepreneurs, need?

    Governing at the scale of the region in Kentucky

    Regional government is a touchy subject at best in most places — and one likely to get you chased out of town with sharp implements in others.  In Kentucky, however, regional government consolidation isn’t an abstract — the state’s two largest cities are both metro governments (Lexington-Fayette County for more than 30 years, Louisville since 2003).  And a  growing number of voices in Kentucky are talking about government consolidation, or at least government service consolidation, as a real possibility. 

    Mayor Abramson claims big cost efficiencies in this article, but whether or not that is the case will depend a great deal on how exactly local goverments are structured.  In an analysis I helped prepare a few years ago for an Appalachian city, consolidation appeared unlikely to generate significant efficiencies because of how taxes were collected and services delivered in that particular area.  A Fiscal Impact Model, like the one hosted by the OKI Council of Governments, can be a powerful way to demonstrate whether or not cost efficiencies are possible. 

    Regardless, I think that the argument that Abramson makes for a cohesive approach to economic development and community marketing is a powerful one.  And it’s a powerful impact that most regions appear to overlook.  Focusing on the economic development impacts of consolidated governments might go a long way toward building support for these particularly touchy initiatives  — certainly much sexier than increasing the cost efficiency of routine municipal services, which is often the angle that supporters push.  Yawn!)

    As Bill Miller of the Trumbull County, Ohio, Planning Commission has said for a long time, “We live at the scale of the region.”  And we know that local jurisdiction boundaries don’t much matter to businesses, as long as they don’t get in the way. 

    What do you think?  Would merged goverment services be worth it where you live?  Do you think your region’s economic development would get better?


    Quality of life drives choice of place (I think…)

    This link takes you to an abstract that summarizes (in nothing resembling clear language) a study that indicated a high correlation between a higher level of amenities and choice of place.  Without understanding the author’s methodology, it’s impossible to say whether this is a valid finding, but it certainly fits with much of the practitioner language.   Most interestingly to me, the authors didn’t just look at amenities as though they were free, but they assigned a higher cost to those amenities and still found a positive correlation between amenities and community choice. 

    I have been telling communities for a long time that they need to be places where people choose to live, not just where they have to live.   If people and their ingenuity and their creativity and skills are the raw materials of the information economy, attracting and keeping those people is critical to a local economy’s success. 

    But I am wondering: this paper was written during the halcyon days of 2007.  Do you think that the rules of community choice have permanently changed?


    So what was the Fiscal Impact Analysis Model intended to do?

    As I outlined in the last post on this topic, OKI’s Fiscal Impact Model was designed to provide every community in the OKI region with an off-the-rack option for fiscal impact analysis, instead of requiring everyone have to have that analysis custom-made (and, as a result, most communities not looking at fiscal impacts at all.)  However, for OKI, the challenge was less like designing a series of suits for people of different sizes, and more like designing a series of suits for people whose arms and legs stick out from different places.  If you’re going to develop a first-of-its-kind fiscal impact model, starting out with a region that includes three states, about a dozen different local government structures and more flavors of taxes and services than the local UDF ice cream chain, is not exactly beginning with an easy assignment.

    So why would someone take this on?  OKI is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Greater Cincinnati region, which means that it is reponsible for distributing federal transportation funds, among a lot of other things.  OKI’s leadership realized as far back as the early 2000s that they had to take a more proactive approach to the issues of sprawl and land use because population trends in the region were quickly outstripping the foreseeable supply of transportation funds.  An MPO doesn’t have any power to influence local land use decisions, but the MPO becomes responsible for funding the transportation systems demanded by those new residents.  Some MPOs deal with this challenge by… well, by not dealing with it, but OKI created a strategic plan for influencing land use planning in its region, with the long-term goal of conserving transportation funds. 

    One of the recommendations of that strategic plan was to create a Fiscal Impact Model.  There are  a handful of fiscal impact models available nationally, ranging from a simple web-based estimate to a 6-mb Excel file developed by the Federal Reserve.  But each of these has notable shortcomings, either in terms of the value of the information generated, or in terms of its clarily and its ability to be used in day-to-day decisions.   Given three different states, one of which has a largely different local tax structure from the others, creating that model was understood from the start as a ground-breaking proposition. 

    Next: how a fiscal impact analysis usually works, and how the OKI Model moves the needle.

    The OKI Fiscal Impact Model — Finally ready to roll!

    I spent a huge amount of time over the past year working with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and the University of Cincinnati School of Planning and Center for Economics Education and Research to develop a fiscal impact model that I think we can safely say is the most statistically sophisticated and the most user-friendly  fiscal impact analysis tool that exists, anywhere.  It’s an amazing resource, and the first media coverage of its rollout is here:


    This is not exactly a Pulitzer Prize winner (it would have helped to spell the OKI Regional Planning Manager’s name right), but it does gives a little picture of what the potential impact of this tool is.  Since the article doesn’t really explain what it is, though, I’ll use the blog to give a little more explanation.  This will be the first of several articles designed to introduce people to fiscal impact, fiscal impact models, and how the OKI Model works. 

    What’s fiscal impact?

    A fiscal impact analysis is a process for estimating how a change in land use will cash flow from the local government’s perspective.   A fiscal impact analysis calculates the amount of revenue that would accrue to a local government as a result of a proposed development or plan scenario, and then it estimates the cost of the services that such a land use is likely to require. 

    As you can tell, the first part is usually relatively straightforward (tax rate X units to be taxed, minus any credits or adjustments), and the second part is usually where it gets tricky.  Most governments know how much money they spend on different public services, but they don’t know what their actual per-unit cost is to deliver that service — they don’t know whether services to one type of land use cost more or less than another.  They might come up with an average, like an average cost per police run or average maintenance cost per lane mile, but those are more approximations for budgeting than actual information.   I wrote about this issue in a previous blog that highlighted the opportunties for better service cost management that would be available to local governments if they segmented and analyzed their data better.

    The point of a fiscal impact analysis is to make the best possible estimate based on the information available.  And sometimes the information available is pretty slim.  But think about it: if your elected officials had a clear idea of how much it would cost to serve a new development, versus what revenues it would generate, how would that change land use planning decisions? 

    Most of the time communities that want to know these answers conduct a fiscal impact study or pay a specialist to do the analysis.  They often come out with great information, but there’s two problems.  One, a fiscal impact study of a particular community is necessarily going to be limited by how the local government organizes and details its financial information.  If costs are lumped together, even the most diligent analysts may find that they simply have to make some educated guesses.  The second problem, of course,  is the cost of a one-off analysis. 

    In recent talks I have been comparing a one-community fiscal impact analysis to a custom-made suit, and a fiscal impact model to a suit off the rack.  Both of them work; one fits almost perfectly, and one fits not quite as well (but still pretty darn good).  But the model makes fiscal impact available to local governments that could not afford the custom treatment.  And because the OKI Model draws on more than one community’s information, it can compensate for limitations, or just plain strangeness, in the local data.  Kind of like designing a suit after looking at hundreds of others, instead of trying to invent one from scratch.

    So you could say that OKI wanted to make good suits available to everyone in their region, including communities that couldn’t afford the custom work.   Interested in how the story turns out?  Stay tuned!

    Authentic places make better money

    “It isn’t enough for a shopping center to look pretty — it must look authentic, and make some reference to its location:”  the word from ICSC’s ReCon Latin America, not just from planning wonks.  The article doesn’t indicate why the speakers believe that this is so, but the conclusion is that cookie cutter design is leading to “globalization fatigue” – and creating market advantages for places that provide an “authentic” experience.  

    Of course, what the architects don’t note is that it’s a lot cheaper to give authenticity to a place that’s already authentic than to try to construct something “authentic” from scratch. 


    Home based businesses are 50% of all??

    Wow…. This article claims that more than 50% of businesses are home-based.   Imagine how that changes the game for planning and economic development:

    How do you retain your businesses and help them expand if you can’t see them? 

    What does a home-based business operators need from your ED programs, anyways?

    What do they need in terms of community facilities?  Should you give incentives to coffee shops?  Require wifi hotspots in new subdivisions? 

    Can you give an incentive for expansion to a business that has virtual employees, but is based in your town?


    Funding improvements – another reason to look under every rock.

    From the Downtown Idea Reporter — sorry,  I don’t have the full story, but the following bit  is intriguing.  Who knew that the USDA would help fund a downtown parking lot?  Of course there are a lot of conditions, depending on which USDA grant they used.  But a sign again that there are often more options that we might think at first.   

    BID spearheads parking lot improvement project, cuts
    Borough’s costs by almost 50 percent
    The Washington Business Improvement District (WBID) in
    Washington, NJ, shows a downtown group repositioning itself
    for future growth by taking on new financial activities.

    The WBID received approval for a USDA-backed loan that
    will allow it to begin much-needed improvements to a
    municipal parking lot.

    What’s especially remarkable is how much money the
    WBIDs taking the lead on the project will save taxpayers –
    almost 50 percent of the borough’s original $1.2 million

    Fiscal Impact Analysis 101

    Another presentation today… this one in Indiana for APA (it’s been a very long fall!). Topic du jour was fiscal impact analysis as a tool for sustaining local communities.  I did an intro to the basics, and Larisa Sims, the Regional Planning Manager for OKI, demonstrated the new OKI Fiscal Impact Model.  Here’s the link to my part of the presentation:


    Training on investment tax credit opportunity

    For my Ohio friends — a good training opportunity on one of the very valuable resources available to owners of historic buildings.  One of the single best tools for conserving embodied energy, reinforcing the urban environment and keeping a key raw material needed to build new businesses –> existing, inexpensive business space. 

    If you’re not in Ohio, look for a training like this in your state:


    Seeing past incomplete market knowledge in rural America

    This article from the Center for Rural America demonstrates a key challenge in small city redevelopment — and in any place, urban or rural, that is having trouble attracting redevelopment:  Why isn’t anyone investing in us, and what can we do about it?   

    The standard market analysis tools that site selectors, retail chains and developers use often miss the opportunities that communities can present, especially when those communities don’t fit the perfect mold.  Site selectors, retailer location specialists, etc.,  have to make their first cut when looking at new sites on the basis of information from national databases, such as Claritas.  And for many communities that are not attracting investment, the information they are seeing is probably less than encouraging.  If the trade area they choose shows  them low incomes,  few households, low home values, etc, why should they look further?  They usually cannot see what you in the community see. 

    Chances are, it’s your local entrepreneurs  (or, in these cases, your whole community) that can see that opportunity – not just the need, but the real economic opportunity.   The grocery stores in this articles, just like the entrepreneurs  in your community, aren’t getting big government handouts or being bankrolled by sugar daddies.  Entrepreneurs can succeed where franchises fail to go because they have richer market knowledge – and the ability to flex their business to take advantage of the opportunities.  As my father used to say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

    Thanks also to Jack Schultz of the Boomtown Institute for publicizing this article in his newsletter


    Midwest Govs banking on green jobs

    I am not a very dedicated “greenie” (as evidenced by amount of petroleum tied up in Legos in my house), but I think the Midwest governors might be on to something by looking at how manufacturing workers in declining industries can be retrained for renewable energy industries.  Every community has assets, the key question is how to move those to new uses:


    Seven generations vs. shoot what flies

    I started my professional life as a cultural resources consultant in northern Wisconsin (ok, that wasn’t quite the start, but it’s a long story…).  During that time I had the privilege of working with some of the Native American nations in Wisconsin.  One principle that was a real eye-opener to me came from members of the Oneida Nation was the idea of Seven Generations.  For the Oneida (and for other Native Americans), the appropriate time frame for public policy decisions wasn’t a year, or 5 years, or 20.  The question they asked was: how does this decision impact seven generations into our future? 

    That’s what, 140 years?

    People involved with economic development are often hard pressed to think about five years down the road, let alone 140.    Partly thanks to the short shelf life of many political leaders, not to mention employment contracts and at-will dismissals, many economic developers find that any new jobs or business are better than none.  Which leads to a phrase that is often used to describe economic development strategies:

    Shoot what flies and claim what falls.

    This leads to some situations, like zone changes or incentives for minimum-wage employers, that may have short term benefits (“we landed 300 new jobs this year!”), but come at significant long term costs .   If those new jobs consume land that could have been better used for a business with higher pay levels, if the business creates traffic management or public safety demands on the local government that exceed the taxes it generates, if the jobs don’t build the community’s skills base, there’s a question that the community may wish to ask:

    How will this business help sustain our community, not just for today, but for years into the future? 

    What are we talking about here?

    How can a place like this be fixed? 

    That is the question that has driven my career.  I grew up in a Cleveland suburb watching the rippling impacts of closing factories and shuttered steel mills, and I have spent most of my adult life trying to help local communities figure out how to make opportunities happen in the face of less than ideal situations


    I have a fairly unique perspective: I am both an AICP-certified planner and a CEcD-certified economic developer.  Fundamentally, that means that I am focused on finding economic solutions, but also that the solutions that I am interested in are the ones that will last for decades — and will have broad-reaching effects on the community. 


    My personal philosophy, at its core, has been pretty simple:


    • People jobs, but they need more than just jobs.  They need financially and personally rewarding jobs if they are to have healthy lives and communities.  Jobs that are financially and personally rewarding – you could even use that hackneyed word “meaningful” – are the  kinds of jobs keep people financially and emotionally invested in a community.  And that goes a long way toward solving many problems.  People may stay in a community because of a job, but if it’s an unrewarding job, the inclination to invest emotionally or financially in the community may go out the window.  Without jobs that are rewarding, communities are not building their long-term viability.


    • The free market is at its core the most effective way to generate these kinds of jobs, but the market never has the perfect information that Adam Smith assumed.  And as the market for goods and services splinters, it becomes harder and harder for any one entity, particularly one that isn’t already embedded in the community, to have anything close to perfect market information. 


    • All communities have assets – something that they are particularly qualified to do, provide, support.   And in most cases, those assets provide the best opportunity for growing those healthy jobs and economies.  They represent a niche, a differentiation point, and we have learned from retail that differentiation that is perceived as valuable adds value to the product or service being sold.   All other things being equal, communities and their people will be more successful if they are doing the things that they are uniquely suited to do, rather than trying to swim in the sea of sameness. 


    Therefore, the goal of both planning and economic development should be to help the community capitalize on its assets – capitalize on its differentiators to increase the value it has to offer.  If the assets are valuable, they will generate those meaningful employment opportunities, and they will build an economy that isn’t a bubble- but is the lifeblood of a community and can keep it healthy for decades. 


    So, that’s the broad outline of the ideas that I anticipate exploring with you here.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.