By way of introduction as a new member of the McClure Placemaking team, I have tried to synthesize into one article my philosophy on economic development gleaned from 63 strategic projects managed for 49 communities of all sizes in 23 U.S. states and one Canadian province.
First, some background. If you had told a 16-year-old me that I would choose a career in economic development, I would have first looked it up in the dictionary (for you Millennials, “Googled” it) and then given you an incredulous stare. “How is that supposed to make me rich and famous?” Still a relevant question, but fame and fortune have fallen by the wayside as life goals.
It’s true that I’ve pursued a winding road to arrive at my vocation, one that’s seen stops at waystations in newspaper reporting, sales management, research document retrieval (pre-internet), screenwriting, and a few others. My bachelor’s degree in Communications taught me a lot about “global hegemony” but less about gainful employment.
What I didn’t realize in my first post-collegiate decade was that I was a closet city planner, woefully unaware it was even a profession. I took two cross-country drives and multiple long-weekend fly-ins to cities that interested me, relishing the process of loading up on AAA guidebooks and rest stop promotional literature to prep myself for self-guided tours upon arrival.
I’d walk downtowns, historic districts, and quaint neighborhood retail blocks picturing myself living in loft housing and reading the paper at my morning coffee spot. “The usual?,” the waitress would ask with a smile. “You know it, Maude.” (This was before hipster baristas.)
In a sense I have always — and still kind of do — longed for that perfect community, the one that “speaks” to me like you see in every House Hunters series. In lucid moments, I can acknowledge that there’s probably no such place. But like any courting, the fun is in the pursuit — so I continue to pursue. Luckily, I now do it for a living.
Going from clueless wanderer to economic development consultant required a few steps that I won’t bore you with. But suffice to say the game SimCity, a master’s degree in city planning from Georgia Tech, a class in Economic Development Methods, and a fortuitous opening at an Atlanta-based strategic development firm played key parts.
In the 16-plus years I’ve been working with communities of all sizes to develop holistic economic development strategies, I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot about why cities improve, why they decline, and why they languish. A dirty little secret though — just when you think you know what makes places succeed, you find one with those attributes that’s still struggling.
This is tough stuff, for many of the same reasons any attempt to nurture a complicated organism is difficult. There are no easy answers, no one-size-fits-all solutions or magic bullets to make communities thrive. Regardless of size, they have so many moving parts and interconnected functions that you can’t focus on just a handful and hope to affect lasting change. Priorities exist for sure, but a butterfly effect can often scuttle a strategy when a key issue is bypassed or ignored.
Without question, the greatest threat to all communities is complacency. Doing nothing. A feeling that things are going well and will continue along this path regardless of strategic initiative. Economic development history is replete with cautionary tales like The Story of Detroit, a city that rested on its laurels and tried to protect its monopoly instead of continuously striving to diversify its economy and enhance its community product.
“Huh?,” you say suspiciously. “Did you just call my city a ‘product?’” Yes, hypothetical question-asker, I did.
My personal belief is that thinking of communities as products is an effective way to conceptualize strategic economic planning and development. The sum total of a community’s assets and attributes is what defines its market competitiveness for existing companies looking to expand, outside firms exploring new locations, entrepreneurial and innovation investment, local talent considering whether to stay, and talent prospects thinking about moving. If they don’t like the product you’re selling, they’ll choose elsewhere.
Because economic development success depends on a competitive community product, economic development strategy is thus an exercise in product development. The strategic process enables you to identify your product’s strengths to capitalize on, weaknesses to improve, as well as short- and long-term priorities. Potential product components include education and workforce, infrastructure, housing, business climate, quality of place, diversity, inclusiveness, arts and culture, recreation, research and innovation, entrepreneurship, public safety, equity, civility, resiliency, regional cohesion, health and wellness, and many others.
Like designing a car or any complicated product, determining the optimal configuration of features, functions, bells, and whistles to prioritize and promote is particular to that community.
Creating a vision for your product and how to achieve it is just the first step. Operationalizing the plan through structured and coordinated implementation is essential to realizing your community’s vision. This is systems-level change; as such, an organization (often called a “quarterback” or “backbone”) must be identified and charged with managing implementation to insure the community’s “product teams” are communicating effectively, coordinating their actions, sharing information and resources, measuring progress based on established metrics, and adjusting strategic efforts as necessary.
At the end of every year, implementation teams — led by the backbone organization — must review the previous year’s activities and set priorities for the 12 months ahead. Every few years in perpetuity, the strategic vision and game plan must be refreshed to ensure it reflects current challenges and opportunities. The reality is that economic development never ends.
Even if spurred by economic and demographic urgency, community change is a gradual process — often generational — though stakeholders and politicians tend to want quick-fix solutions. Staying the course strategically is one of the most difficult hurdles to effective city-building. Sustaining strategic investment and effort always comes down to leadership capacity — individuals with the vision to aim high, the persistence to stay focused, and the wisdom to mentor the young men and women who will one take their places.
If you pay attention, there’s a beauty and satisfaction to incremental progress. Books have talked of constructing buildings “brick by brick” or writing novels “bird by bird.” I once heard a community leader describe his city’s strategic process as “rapid incrementalism.” These gradual improvements add up and before you know it you’re the “next place to be.”
Greater Des Moines, one of the most dynamic regions in the country, has been a 30-year overnight success story. Artificial intelligence research in Alberta, Canada was described to me the same way. Major investments made in the province’s AI research infrastructure and talent decades ago are only now bearing fruit.
That said, there’s absolutely a benefit to securing “early wins” and front-loading catalytic short-term projects.
What intrigued me about the possibility of joining the Creative Placemaking group at McClure was the innovative way Zack Mannheimer and the team are reimagining the role of place-based strategies to foster economic development and talent retention/attraction in smaller communities. These plans are not shelf-dwellers; we give you day-one blueprints for your new restaurant or theater or revolving loan fund.
Rather than waving the white flag, it is encouraging to see rural America embracing the challenge of today’s talent-driven competitive reality by committing time, effort, and resources to preparing for the new normal in economic development. “Elephant hunting” for major employment prospects is no longer a viable primary solution to rural job creation. While not abandoning targeted efforts to market available sites to high-value companies, nuanced strategies must be pursued that support existing employers and entrepreneurs already committed to the community.
Without a steady pipeline of talent accommodating the growth of existing and future companies, no economic development strategy in the world will succeed in sustaining a community’s fortunes. That’s why amenity-driven placemaking projects will be so impactful for rural places seeking to compete for workers in demand.
I’m excited to help advance the team’s mission to synthesize placemaking and economic development into an innovative new model for community growth. As coastal cities continue pricing out most talent and second-tier destinations also face escalating cost pressures, small communities must be poised to complement their existing assets — slower pace of life, affordability, small-town charm, lack of traffic, quality schools, safety, sense of belonging, etc. — with new offerings to retain and attract singles, couples, and families looking for more fulfilling destinations.
As my AARP card suggests, I’m no longer the spring chicken pecking at the seeds of youthful discovery. But I’m still learning new things every day and every project. I’m excited to join the McClure Placemaking team as we explore what’s next for the communities that bind this country together and will define its next chapter.