Changing the Narrative of Economic Development it’s not just job creation
We all know the world is rapidly changing. So much so that it’s difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible to keep up with its dizzying pace. Rapid advancements in technology and access to information and other resources are major change agents. There are others that often get overlooked such as our current younger generation those forty and below. It is these younger generations that grew up with the advent of the new information age with the computers and the internet as part of their routine. They and future generations of leaders have an adopted mindset of change and by and large are advocates for true social innovation. They know it is risky and takes commitment but that this is what many of them thrive on. The new information age brought about many new inventions and innovations that now are necessities of modern life. Advancements in communications such as texting, email and social media developed and shape our world daily. Simply put the world has not been the same since. These changes enabled people to access more information, communicate more easily throughout the world, and translate languages, share ideas and culture. In the next several years, we will need strong leaders that think outside the box and challenge traditional streams of thought.
We will need to invest in the people and enterprises that are the engines at the forefront of our country’s economy and communities. We also need to pay close attention to all that is around us as our world rapidly continues to transform. When strategically planning for growth and economic development we must consider those that are traditionally being left behind. If we do not we surely run a great risk in driving down already struggling areas into deeper poverty and alienation. This only serves to further divide our country decrease our productivity and increase social welfare costs. The very rural areas continue to be at high risk. While we must maintain the safety, growth and viability of our urban areas we cannot continue to leave behind our rural areas. America’s strength and true core is deeply rooted in the countless small Towns that dot her landscape.
Along with the enduring issues of racism, poverty and inequality there stands a new challenge that can either further divide us or unite us as a country. That issue is the availability of high speed internet. One could successfully argue in contemplating future needs that there is no single greater issue in rural America then access to high speed internet. Such is critical and fundamental for economic growth and well-being in a global economy. Without it communities will suffer and lag further and further behind. While it may not be a completely new concept it must be remembered that comprehensive economic development is obligated to address socio-economic matters. In modern society connection to the internet is analogous to what having running water and electricity was fifty years ago it is that central to human welfare and economic well-being.
Over the past few decades, the concept behind what constitutes economic development has changed significantly. Economic development is being seen in broader terms. As this blog title states it is not just about job creation. Decades ago the south and particularly North Carolina had become very adept at what was termed smokestack chasing or the great buffalo hunt. While it is certainly true that there are still large scale manufacturing jobs and they are and should be highly sought after it is even more evident that low skill, labor intensive jobs are increasingly either being outsourced to other cheaper markets generally overseas or even more commonplace is automation. These changes are part of a natural process to increase efficiency, output while lowering cost.
Economic development leaders need to step back and ask, what does economic development look like in their Town or community? Most communities have traditionally viewed economic development in terms of job creation. However, now communities need to take a more holistic comprehensive approach to economic development that requires more collaboration and coordination with outside partners and agencies. While that is on important element of economic development there is a far bigger picture that many communities are now embracing as part of their economic development strategy. That strategy addresses far more than jobs but also items such as housing availability, workforce education and development, quality of life, healthcare and a host of other factors. Today’s workers are far different both from a cultural and motivational standpoint. There is also more flexibility and greater mobility in the workplace. Therefore, workers have more choice as to where they live and work. Consequently, increased mobility and flexibility means that individual workers can increasingly choose where they want to live. Increasingly they are choosing areas that are destination locations with broad amenities, quality education, excellent healthcare and favorable climate. Regions that succeed in economic development understand this and realize that to make themselves more attractive they need to work together and strengthen each other.
A significant component of economic development is community development. In the nineteen seventies the Federal Government made a big push to revitalize urban cores and launched the Community Development Block Grant Program. A program that is still in place now almost 45 years later. At that time this type of activity was in no way thought of as economic development and was simply referred to as Community Development as can be seen even in its title. In a very real sense under the more holistic approach to economic development community revitalization and housing are central to strong economic development programs. Economic Developers now see the positive correlation between economic expansion and community appearance and livability. These quality of life factors are a pivotal measure of a community’s desire and compassion to maintain and or improve their standard of living. It is not a stretch to say communities are judged by their appearance and site selectors will tell you that it makes a big difference all things being otherwise equal.
Planners and planning programs need to focus more on economic development and understand that the two are inextricably linked. The reality is that the norm still is for Economic Development in many of our regions to be a separate department. The downside of that it does not lead to economic development collaboration and coordination with those groups or disciplines closely aligned with modern economic development under the holistic approach such as marketing, travel and Tourism and Planning and Community Development. Successful approaches to Economic development are tailored to meet the needs of the community and existing industry. That said a holistic economic development strategy strengthens your approach by leveraging more resources and ideas and incorporating more into the process. It is not easier but it is far more effective in the long run. That more holistic approach to economic development is needed in eastern North Carolina and the communities that recognize that are the ones that are more likely to succeed. More attention should be paid to existing and small industry because that is your growth sector rather than an inordinate amount of time courting large industry and chasing jobs. We need to start by asking questions such as: Here in eastern North Carolina what are our biggest challenges? What does modern economic development look like in eastern North Carolina? Access to high speed internet is crucial and will become even more so and the need for processing digital data and having access increases. However, another great challenge is workforce development and or retention. In speaking with workforce developers and employers the main struggle with workforce is along the lines of training and retention. This blog talks about change which is a main focal point but it is ironic in some ways because as the saying goes the more things change the more they stay the same. For eastern North Carolina that is the challenge of training and keeping its workforce who have historically migrated to the states larger urban areas generally in pursuit of greater opportunities. While it some ways it may seem counter-intuitive the more holistic approach to economic development requires collaboration with multiple stakeholders. One of the major transformative themes in economic development is how markets have shifted away from a regional or national footprint to a global outlook.
In closing today’s economic development landscape is changing greatly and looks nothing like it did thirty to forty years ago. We can expect rapid change to continue and we must embrace this change and stay abreast of it. Our economic livelihood will require that. Economic Development practices and procedures need to incorporate more holistic approaches that utilize other disciplines such as marketing, planning and travel and tourism. The new holistic approach to economic development requires that we think and act regionally. This means that we need to work more closely together in a collaborative fashion and leverage all of our resources. Other regions in the country do this and are very successful in addressing their regional initiatives and improving the quality of life for all.
~Matthew Livingston, Executive Director
I recently attended one of the League’s Regional Round-table discussions regarding municipal affairs and innovations. I recommend that you go to one of these meeting(s) if you can as they are very informative and the NCLM does what to hear from you. I think local leaders in government are too often sharply criticized and not given the credit due for many thankless hours of meeting(s) work sessions and time they put in while serving their community. That, however, is the subject of perhaps a future blog. Local officials, government leaders and institutions do increasingly rely on each other in the regions we are in and this is actually a good thing! I was pleased to hear comments from one local elected official when asked about some of the innovative things they did she spoke about innovative partnerships and doing business such as economic development from a regional perspective. Regionalism is certainly not new, however, it is becoming the norm. Twenty or more years ago the enduring mentality was more to each his own. While we frequently share Information and resources we still do not act as collaboratively as we should. The ever growing importance of regionalism can be seen as services such as water and sewer are merged together and local officials frequently join together to plan, discuss and lobby for large infrastructure projects.
I chose this topic because as a former Town Manager I have seen changes in local government most of which have been very good for us all. I do believe local government in North Carolina is generally responsive and efficient and as citizens we can be proud of the communities we live in and the government officials that serve us. However, dedicated the majority of these government leaders are it is clear to me that they need more assistance. More and more I see that assistance coming from other governments in the form of regionalism. I think we are seeing this because of one overarching reason and that is in the majority of cases it just works and leads to better results. So that said, just what is regionalism and why should it matter to you? In very simple terms regionalism can be defined in two words…working together. In reality, working together to achieve common goal(s) and improve quality of life is what regionalism is all about. I like to think of the analogy that a rising tide lifts all boats. As resources grow scarcer it becomes even more important and I would argue a necessity that we work together but sometimes ironically we do the exact opposite. Regionalism is important to you because it has been proven to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of local governments. More efficient government helps keep taxes and fees lower. Lastly not every issue is better solved through a regional approach and in fact there are many instances where it just cannot work. However, that is where you can still get benefit from regional collaboration. A simple but good example of this I have seen is people sharing ideas on a listserv. A key objectives at ECC is to bring people in our region. Our meeting(s) are collaborative and designed to be informative. However, to be successful we have to get participation from others in our region and this continues to be one of the greatest challenges we face. In closing, I would encourage those that have ever wondered about getting involved with their community to get off the sideline and get involved. You can make a difference in your community.
~Matt Livingston, Executive Director