Community Strategy in a Post-COVID World

Alex Pearlstein
Apr 1, 2020 · 8 min read

We are living through a historic moment in time — one that will occupy entire shelves at bookstores and be analyzed ceaselessly for our correct steps, missteps, and the societal and economic shocks during and after the contagion.

Though we’re still in the early pandemic stage of the new coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19), projections are that the crisis could cost millions of jobs and many thousands of lives across the U.S. A record 3.3 million Americans filed for initial unemployment benefits for the week ending March 21; the previous record was 695,000.

Numbers released on Thursday, April 2 were even more catastrophic, as 6.6 MILLION Americans filed for benefits. This is epochal, unimaginable data.

The new normal (Shutterstock)

Forced closures of “non-essential” local businesses and state directives for residents to shelter at home to reduce the disease’s spread will cause both short and long-term hardship in every community in the country and world. No place will be immune.

While it’s impossible to predict the cumulative and lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is little doubt among experts that our lives for the foreseeable future will be immeasurably changed by the coronavirus’ economic and demographic toll. These effects will last months and potentially even years.

Experts have already begun thinking about what COVID-19 means for society and our communities. Politico has aggregated perspectives from a number of thought-leaders into an interesting collection of essays, while urban theorists Richard Florida and Steven Pedigo wrote a piece for Brookings on how cities can “reopen” after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To make sense of the dizzying array of support efforts being offered for small businesses, our friends at CO.STARTERS, one of the nation’s top entrepreneurial-support firms, have curated a Recovery Guide of indexed programs and resources for small companies fighting to stay alive during the coronavirus outbreak. They’re also customizing their core product into a Road to Recovery program for businesses moving from survival to sustainability.

But what of strategy? What of communities that have been implementing economic development plans — or are creating them — based on what are now likely outdated assumptions and tactical strategies?

Strategy is more important than ever (Shutterstock)

What of Alchemy clients working on placemaking projects dependent on local government investment, private contributions, and state and federal grants? Not to mention the task forces and action committees advancing projects in a time of social distancing.

The short answer is: I don’t know; I don’t think anyone does with certainty. What am I confident of, however, is that strategy will be more important than ever when the pandemic eases and life approaches normalcy.

Right now, communities — just like individuals, families, and businesses — are in survival mode, prescribing and implementing social distancing and stay-at-home orders, identifying and disbursing emergency relief monies, supporting hospitals and caregivers, figuring out how school can be taught online, trying to save small businesses, and ensuring that public servants are healthy enough to keep the city safe and secure, among many other responsibilities.

In the coming months, after cities have been triaged and leaders can begin considering the new normal of a post-COVID-19 world, it is paramount that planning and recovery processes reflect both the daunting reality of a new competitive landscape and the understanding that the best strategic plans engage the full breadth of local voices and actors. More than ever, progress will require a coordinated all-hands-on-deck approach to strategic design and implementation.

So, how are we going to do it? Here are a few steps to think about as we ride out the storm and plan for calmer seas.

Who will call the plays and run the offense? Who will direct other players effectively so the game plan can be properly executed? In the parlance of strategic implementation, the quarterback is the entity (rarely an individual) that oversees the activation of tactical strategies so that everything runs smoothly and efficiently. Someone has to be in charge — call the meetings and manage communications and resource flows. Someone has to keep score, report results to key partners, and — most importantly — coordinate in-game strategic adjustment so that the end goal is achieved.

The quarterback can be a public entity or a private one, but experience has shown that the best candidate is a public-private hybrid like a chamber of commerce, economic development corporation, community foundation, United Way, or similar entity with influential, inclusive leadership and broad local support.

For rural areas, the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group calls these quarterbacks “Rural Development Hubs.” They transcend issue and place to identify components in local systems that perpetuate economic, equity, and health outcomes and identify gaps that can be filled.

As with football, the quarterback is only as good as the team around him/her, so all community players must step up and execute the game plan.

I’m a big Bob Ross fan. Bob mentions in just about every show how the painter should be cognizant of the “lay of the land” when determining how to orient a landscape in space. If your perspective is skewed it can ruin the whole artwork. Allow me to make the tenuous yet (admit it) applicable connection between Bob Ross paintings and communities: if you don’t know the lay of the land, your final product won’t sell.

In the context of places, “lay of the land” equates to your competitive position — where you stand relative to peer communities and what assets you have to compete for jobs and talent. In a post-COVID world, your community’s lay of the land will be greatly distorted from only a few weeks ago. So start with a blank canvas (final painting metaphor, I promise) and rethink your economic structure, workforce availability, small business capacity, public systems, and fiscal resources through the prism of regeneration as opposed to growth mode. The latter will come, but let’s learn to walk again before we run.

The challenge will be knowing exactly what the external competitive landscape looks like. What conditions and assets will position communities for success in a new world order? Again, hard to say; but I’d be willing to bet that having a skilled workforce, distinctive quality of place, compelling quality of life, business-friendly regulatory systems, quality schools, effective public services, etc., will be a good place to start.

In other words, I don’t envision the dynamics of HOW communities compete changing post-coronavirus, but the specifics of WHAT that competition entails. That’s why having a clear picture of your competitive position and a complete inventory of the public and private entities making your community work puts you ahead of the game when you begin to…

In order to better understand the playing field and what the competition is doing, stay abreast of national and community trends. Do your homework — see how peers are adapting and progressing. Identify best practices and model communities that can inform your planning; this doesn’t mean become them, just learn from them. Tune into to subject-matter experts. Heck, hire professional firms who can help advise and guide you through this process.

But it’s critical to apply the assessment of your community’s position to an aspirational vision of achievement based in reality. Short term and long-term perspective is needed. As mentioned, short term goals may be just to stay above water economically; long-term is where your community can restore earlier, albeit recalibrated, strategic ambitions.

Existing plans, programs, and projects across the breadth of your community are the base ingredients for your strategic recipe. Don’t reinvent the wheel if a current effort can be leveraged, adjusted, or enhanced to meet short- and long-term goals. But don’t assume that pre-pandemic tactical directives will still be applicable in recovery mode; resources will be scarcer, institutions hobbled, companies weakened, and governments leaner.

Establish or re-establish strategic priorities based on your community assessment, peer analysis, carryover strategic activities, and implementation capacity. Bring partners together to confirm assumptions, endorse goals and tactical priorities, and determine how success will be tracked and measured.

Then it’s time to…

Yikes — the hard part, right?

This one’s all about the team and the quarterback. Your community may have been implementing a strategic plan or components of it before COVID-19 struck. Heck, it’s probably been your established partnerships and networks that are getting you through this mess. Well, now they’ll be needed more than ever because there’s more to do and less to do it with.

Executing a game plan involves all players (Shutterstock)

Working together as a community to advance strategic activities in a coordinated, collaborative, and sustainable way is simple in theory and extremely hard in practice. I personally believe that the collective impact model of strategic implementation has a lot of merit and a strong track record. But not every community is the same and many places struggle to align stakeholders and resources, manage internecine conflict, and look through the windshield and not the rear view.

So do what makes sense for your area — hunt and peck if you need to before you land on a system that works. At the end of the day, your community will only be as strong as its leadership, so challenge the folks with influence to focus on the greater good and not individual agendas. You’ll never make it back from COVID-19 if everyone’s running around nine ways to Sunday.

Use lessons and technologies from your crisis management to work smarter and better when normalcy returns. Maybe a video meeting IS the best way to get stakeholders together even if you can gather in person. Maybe there’s money to be saved working from home one day a week. Maybe a 30-minute walk every day will help clear your mind and improve your productivity.

One recovery asset is beyond doubt: there will be trillions of federal dollars flowing to communities to support recovery efforts. Billions more will be offered from corporate, philanthropic, and non-profit sources. A lot of these dollars are time-limited and competition will be great, so understand that the window to build consensus around your local priorities is tight. Don’t move so fast that you cut corners, but don’t dawdle either.

One day, we’ll look back on 2020 and wonder how we made it through.

The places where we live will be forever changed by this crisis, but we have the power to make our tomorrows brighter for the darkness we’ve endured.

Atlas Community Studios

Small communities + big ideas. On the road or online. New adventures in creative placemaking.

Atlas Community Studios

Atlas is a small but mighty team of creative problem-solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs working to advance the economic prosperity of communities across the country. We believe in catalytic change. Big things can and will happen, but it takes a different approach.

Alex Pearlstein

Written by

Atlas Community Studios

Atlas is a small but mighty team of creative problem-solvers, innovators, and entrepreneurs working to advance the economic prosperity of communities across the country. We believe in catalytic change. Big things can and will happen, but it takes a different approach.

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