How Cities Can Create an Economic Base to Springboard Growth

“Vitality is the underpinning from which economic development emerges.”

That’s the mantra.

In one short meeting with Tallahassee, Florida, business guru Steve Evans, I came to discover one key to sustainable economic development. The funny thing is, the word we’re looking for here is not development; it’s vitality. Economic vitality.

According to the former IBM executive in our interview at the Florida Tax Research office where he currently serves, some people make the mistake of saying economic development is what cities should strive for. That leads them to believe that development always equates to growth.

“What you end up having is someone buying a lot of land, building a complex, filling it up with eight to ten tenants, and saying: ‘There’s economic development.’ That’s not development, that’s someone making an investment,” he says.

New building projects are one definition of development, he says, but a more important measure is how well connected the city is. Whether that’s local businesses, government, nonprofits or schools — how plugged in are we to each other?

Connection creates collaboration, which is the true value of the elusive startup ecosystem so many communities strive to achieve. Once you have that network of support and different sectors of the economy are able to feed into each other, sustainable economic growth can emerge.

“All of a sudden you’ll have people coming from the outside knocking on your door saying, ‘We’ve been looking to move our company and we’ve been reading about the ecosystem that you have down there… and we want to come.’”

In a place like Tallahassee, where the economy is at risk of being propped up by the public sector and universities, getting different players plugged in with each other is essential. Talent shortage — one of the main gripes among local business owners — could be solved easily by creating a more effective bridge between the schools and local industry.

In a well-connected city, access to capital is also more plentiful. When investors know what’s happening around town and entrepreneurs know the right people to speak with, there are more opportunities for valuable partnerships. Mentorship, as well, is easier to find when your city isn’t “working out of silos.”

“What we’ve got to do moving forward is to identify talent, grow it, build it and develop it. But we need to make sure that we continue leveraging each other,” he says.

So the next time you’re talking about how to accelerate growth in your city, instead of trying to figure out how you can bring in the next big corporation to open a branch there or how you can bring in new business, it might be good to slow down and discover how you can maximize leverage on assets you already have.

“When you have a community that starts focusing on results, in the form of jobs, skills, new companies, growth, then all of a sudden you’ve an ecosystem that’s focused on vitality,” Evans says.

By making sure that the local population is connected with jobs, education and opportunity, you build a base of sustained economic activity that can grow without the help of outside companies. Then, it will be startups and businesses that began in your town that expand and move to new cities, feeding even more business back home, rather than the other way around.

Globalization and outsourcing can be seen as a threat to local workers, but by building an economic community that can better sustain itself, real vitality can be achieved.

Want more startup and city-building advice? View the rest of the Startup Capital interviews and more at

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