To Dither, or Not to Dither, That is the Question (for Economic Developers interested in staying employed)

Economic development, or at least the publicly-funded practice of economic development, is a policy intervention, and therefore, by nature, political. But no matter how hard you try it’s nearly impossible to avoid the Political.

Two interesting, contrasting responses from economic developers last week on social policy. First, in the red corner, from Oklahoma:

Chamber of Commerce officials from Oklahoma’s two largest cities told lawmakers Wednesday focusing on social issues can harm economic development in the state. Tulsa Regional Chamber Senior Vice President of Economic Development Brien Thorstenberg told House and Senate members who gathered for a joint interim study that his organization constantly receives phone calls from businesses about Oklahoma’s stance on issues like North Carolina’s bathroom bill and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “This is a workforce talent attraction aspect, and being able to attract talent,” Thorstenberg said. “They want diversity, and they want inclusion. And that is almost in all major companies’ core values.” State Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, asked Greater Oklahoma City Chamber vice president Kurt Foreman if events like State Rep. John Bennett’s interim study about radical Islam on Tuesday harms the state’s business recruiting. “Absolutely. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have a variety of opinions about things, but I don’t think we should be fearful of differences,” Foreman said. “I was very disappointed to see that. To call Oklahomans terrorists and stuff is a pretty harsh path.” Foreman also said he has an openly gay daughter who thought twice about staying in Oklahoma after college because of some of the rhetoric she’s heard.

Next, in the blue(ish) corner, from North Carolina:

What is the specific impact you’re seeing from House Bill 2?
There hasn’t been a presentation like this in the past six months where the question hasn’t come up. We’re a nonpartisan, apolitical organization. We’re restricted from lobbying and commenting on public policy. What I can talk about is the facts of what we see in our very narrow corner of the world. Where we see an impact for something like a House Bill 2 — of course, you would expect it on something like tourism and business recruitment because something like House Bill 2 will affect certain customers’ perceptions of North Carolina’s desirability, whether they’re thinking of visiting here or they’re thinking of investing and locating jobs here. It’s not a situation where it has no impact and it’s not a situation where every single deal is impacted. The real truth is that it’s somewhere in between. If I were looking at our deal flow right now, what I’ve told different audiences is that, for probably 75% or 80% of our audience we’re chasing at any given time, House Bill 2 has not come up as an issue. I’m sure companies are aware of it. I’m sure companies have an opinion on it. But for whatever reason, it’s not relevant to their particular decision — manufacturing, food processing, logistics, those are some of the companies where maybe it’s not being brought up. Then there’s another 20% or 25% where they’ve said, “Hey, this could be one of those factors that we ultimately look at, just like workforce, airport access, quality of life, energy cost, tax rate.” No single company is the same with respect of how it approaches as important of a decision of where it relocates and expands. You would expect that diversity of viewpoints is going to weigh something like a House Bill 2 very differently, depending on industry sector and the company that we’re dealing with at that particular time. What our board, investors and the legislature want me to focus on is … the 240 deals we’re competing for at this moment. These are 240 companies that are interested in North Carolina and that we have a legitimate chance to get them to locate here. That’s where I’m going to be focusing my time on. I’m not a politician or elected official. I’ll let other people smarter than me figure out long-term prognostication or how to resolve it. My focus is on the deals we are competing for right now and winning as many of those deals as we can.

Both corners should get some credit for weighing in at all publicly. It would be far easier and safer to dodge the questions. But as somebody who has spent the last five years teaching economic development and trying to persuade young people to get interested in working in the field, it’s clear to me which approach and style of leadership helps the cause.