Originally published in Municipal World, February 2016
(Copyright © 2017 13 Ways Inc. All Rights Reserved )
I wish I’d written this but I didn’t …
(They) have travelled all across this great country of ours, from community to community, and one thing has always stood out . . . everyone wants economic success. Why wouldn’t they? Economic success helps our communities grow and become stronger. The challenge most communities face, however, is they forget that developing their economy is virtually a fruitless effort unless they focus on building a strong community first.
Communities often work on building a business-friendly mantra and reputation. Their singular goal is to attract new business and industries, and retain current ones, through a regime of low taxes, reduced regulations, and shop-local initiatives. Those are great undertakings, but they are rarely enough to ensure enduring prosperity if that is where all the community’s efforts go.
Such singular focus is like deciding that only one feature is needed to attract someone of the opposite sex, such as just having a nice smile, or just having lots of money, or just being smart at puzzles. Sure, any one of those things might get you a lot of dates, but they don’t necessarily ensure building anything meaningful and enduring. That requires more of a complete package. If your community wants to grow an enduring economy it should focus on creating a complete package that attracts business and industry for a myriad of reasons, not just one.
A community looking to explore opportunities for growth should always look first to establish an understanding of itself. I have called them community personality assessments, or values assessments, or two-lists assessments. Really, the name isn’t as consequential as how deeply you want to understand your community. Once you understand who and what you are, you will see how your community can become better, and where its opportunities lie.
I watched in horror as a wonderful community, thriving and successful, destroyed itself because it never stopped to consider or understand what made it great. It was a bustling community with a vibrant downtown core of mom-and-pop stores, appreciating home values, and lots of visitors that dropped a lot of money in town. It was quaint. It was picturesque. It was almost a fairy tale community. Then they decided they needed an economic development plan just like everyone else. They hired an economic development officer, handed him a generic economic development plan, and set him to work. He worked hard and managed to attract a lot of businesses to town. They were mostly those big box stores that say to everyone, “We are successful now.” They put them between the town and the highway to lure the traffic in, just as those economic development strategies suggest.
It destroyed the town. It lost all the reasons that made it great. It was no longer the quaint picturesque place everyone wanted to visit and live in. It lost its charm. One resident said to me as he was filling up his moving truck on the way out of town, “If I wanted to live in the city, I would have stayed in the city.” Not establishing an understanding of what makes your community strong, not realizing what it values, not consciously thinking about what it can be, and what you want it to be can spell death for you community. Attracting big box stores isn’t a bad thing but it was for this one, because they lost what made them great and what was already making them successful. Without deep understanding of who your community is, you risk trading away what you want most, for what you want now.
If you don’t know who you are, what makes you strong, what makes you weak, and what you want your community to become than it makes it difficult to market yourself. You will not be able to identify your brand, and your brand is what is so critical in making you attractive to prospective businesses, industries, and citizens. A business or industry may find a low tax regime and few regulations appealing, but to successfully move to a community they also need to attract employees. Employees don’t get excited about living in a community whose brand is low taxes. In fact, that isn’t a brand at all. Employees . . . people, want to live in a community that has a good quality of life for their family. When people buy a house they look for one they feel can be a home for them. When people look at communities they view it as an extension of the home they want to be in. Is your community branding itself to feel like home?
Branding yourself appropriately to feel like home and to be a great community people want to be a part of is very important. Actually, becoming a community that feels like home and that people want to be a part of is even more important, and is even more critical to your economic success. In fact, becoming that type of community is often an economic driver in itself. We often put these initiatives off to the side as ‘nice-to-haves’, but in reality, economic success requires investing in beautification, developing a vibrant arts community, celebrating cultural diversity, encouraging youth to return some day, and addressing the needs of the seniors in your community. Economic success often comes to communities that put those issues front and center.
Imagine the business opportunities that could arise from providing services to seniors in your community. I have seen communities attract seniors because there is an entire base of business services within the community to serve them. The existence of those businesses draws more seniors, which in turn draws more businesses. I watched communities grow because they have created what I call ‘boomerang programs’ that encourage youth to return after they are done school. They come home and bring their education with them, often starting businesses of their own. I know of communities that have developed an entire thriving niche economy that is all based around a thriving arts district. I have witnessed communities grow because they are beautiful places to be, and still others become tourism meccas because of their cultural or historic celebrations. What we think are often costs, with the right plan and a little work, often become economic drivers for our communities.
Finally, I can often judge the state of a community over one lunch meeting with their economic development officer. For many communities, the notion of economic development focuses only on attracting businesses. When that is the case, the economic development officer is often a lonely, frustrated person whose work is sabotaged by policy, isolated from the rest of the community, and limited to simply trying to get industries and businesses to move. Economic development is not about one particular hire, or simply taxes and regulations, or just about business. Economic development efforts don’t make a community great, a great community makes economic development efforts succeed.