Thoughts on Economic Development
and Ensuring a Bright Future for Small Cities
By Tim Jacobson
What should smaller communities seek from the process of economic development?
Generally, people want good jobs to be able to live comfortably. They want quality schools, either for their own children to get a good start in life or to ensure that young people grow to become productive members of society. They desire a community where they can obtain quality goods and services. They look for amenities that make living in a particular place enjoyable. People want to be healthy and safe. And they want to have pride in their town.
Economic vitality, by definition, is not stagnant. Change and growth are necessarily. But change can bring uncertainty and discomfort. Sometimes, the reaction is resistance.
If a community stands still and fails to adapt to changing economic conditions, the inevitable result is economic decline. I like how C. S. Lewis characterized the need for change:
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
One could say that, at a minimum, economic development for a community is the process through which a city changes and adapts to avoid going bad. But, hopefully, we accomplish much more than merely avoiding decline. With persistence, cooperation, and vision, we can soar.
Recognizing that change is not only inevitable but also desirable for us to experience a strong local economy, we must search for the most effective ways for a small city to achieve growth in a world in which many rural communities decline. Part of that equation is determining where good jobs come from.
In a 2014 article he wrote for Forbes, Steve Denning, author of the book Leader's Guide to Radical Management, said, “over the last twenty five years, almost all of the private sector jobs have been created by businesses less than five years old.” This suggests that fostering the creation of new businesses is an important goal for communities. But that is not necessarily where the emphasis gets placed in economic development.
Joe A. Sumners, Ph.D., who serves as Director of the Economic & Community Development Institute at Auburn University, points out, "Leaders in struggling rural communities and small towns often pin their hopes for economic prosperity on the recruitment of a large manufacturing plant to ‘save’ their town." Dr. Sumners argues that an unfortunate consequence of relying on strategies that focus exclusively on industrial recruitment is that "many communities undervalue, or don’t understand, the importance of other determinants of a strong local economy." He points to business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, tourism and retiree attraction as deserving of attention, not just industrial recruitment. "More significantly," Sumner claims, local leaders in many communities "pay too little attention to building community and civic infrastructure."
The idea of focusing attention on community and civic infrastructure is echoed by Roger Brooks, an expert in the fields of tourism, community branding, downtown development, and destination marketing. Brooks asserts that tourism is the front door to non-tourism economic development. He contends that the downtown is the litmus test for site selectors. “They will judge us by our community’s cover,” he says in a webinar. Industrial site selectors and commercial real estate investors look at tourism as a key indicator of the vitality of a community. Would they themselves want to visit the community? Would they enjoy a night out on the town or a weekend perusing its amenities? If not, they’re not likely to recommend investing in the community.
Assess what is being done to move your community forward
A community should inventory its positive attributes. Does the city have a nice mix of retail businesses (including hospitality businesses and others that serve both locals and visitors) and a solid industrial base? Is there a local hospital, school, retail and service businesses, and an adequate number of jobs? Does the community have an attractive downtown? Are there historic buildings, and are they in good shape? Are there cultural and arts experiences to be had? Does the community hold interesting festivals or events? What about the surrounding natural landscape? Does it have scenic beauty? Are there places for people to explore and recreate outdoors?
Take a fresh look at the community’s branding and marketing. If your community doesn’t already have a marketing plan, create and implement one to celebrate the community’s strengths and be inviting to visitors. You need to let the larger world know what your area has to offer.
Positive change can occur as a result of multiple forces and multiple dedicated people working toward a brighter future for your families and community institutions. Figure out the good things being done in your community, and then celebrate the accomplishments and the people responsible.
Your economic development staff, if any, can serve as a catalyst for change and renewal, by striving to bring new ideas and encourage others, providing technical assistance and connecting people with resources for business. Grants can be applied for to leverage local funds. Also, make sure that someone from the community is involved with regional economic development organizations to provide linkages to trends occurring in the larger region that may affect the local economy and to seek out opportunities for collaboration. In addition, be a cheerleader and celebrate all your city or village has to offer. Be an ambassador to people who want to make the community home for their business or family.
It’s the collection of entrepreneurs and community leaders who really make positive change happen. Local business owners invest and create jobs. Local civic leaders organize community events and celebrations. The schools teach the next generation and help them grow to become good citizens. Churches care for people’s spiritual wellbeing and help those in need through volunteerism and charity. Local hospitals and clinics provide healing and wellness. And local government leaders keep many systems and services running smoothly.
Cooperation. Thoughtful planning and strategy. Caring for the common good. Spreading a positive message and image to locals and to visitors. These are tools you possess to be successful in building your community up and making it stronger for the benefit of people today and for your children and grandchildren.
Tim Jacobson is CEO of Visjonær Consulting and also does economic development work through Community and Economic Development Associates. He is the economic development director for Boscobel, Wisconsin, and serves as president of the Grant County Economic Development Corporation, Vice President of the Grant County Tourism Council, and president of Sustainable Driftless, Inc. He’s an Emmy Award-winning executive producer of the documentary film Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured countless times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational and economic development consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.
This article is copyright (c) 2017, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved