11 Things I’ve Learned about Economic Development
During my still active career in economic and community development, I’ve learned quite a few things. Some, but not all, are listed below. These are just the first ones that came to mind.
1. Economic development is all about jobs.Even though the textbook definition of the term is, “… the process of increasing the economic wealth of a community,” almost all economic developers see their role as doing that by creating, increasing and retaining jobs. The press releases and the websites tout number of jobs created more than just about anything else. That’s because jobs, especially good paying jobs drive most economies. A job not only brings money to a community, but it also provides self-worth and security to individuals.
2. Communities and organizations are perfectly structured for the outcomes they are getting. Many community leaders seem to be waiting for something to happen to their communities before making adjustments. For example, they hope that the state will bring a project or that some company will discover them. If that’s true, then nothing is going to change unless the structures are changed. That could mean a change in leadership, procedure or organization. Something that is very difficult to do because it often means that someone has to give up something.
3. Leadership really matters.Indeed, it seems to be the one thing that differentiates the communities that thrive versus those that do not.
4. Accountability is one of the keys to economic development success. I have facilitated dozens of strategic planning retreats. Often, I go back to the organization six months or a year later and ask about the outcomes. What I usually found is that almost all the goals were achieved or very few or none were achieved. Why such a big difference? What I discovered is that the goals that were most often achieved were the ones where someone was held accountable.
5. Measuring things is very important.The six Total Quality Management concepts are customer focus, leadership, teamwork, continuous improvement, measurement and benchmarking. Although each is important, it begins with measurement. If economic development is the process of increasing the wealth of a community then wealth should be measured. But which wealth metrics? Employment statistics, sales tax collections and property values are just three things that should be measured. Assessed valuation of real property can be tricky to measure if there’s a lot of off-the-books property such as government and other exempt real estate. I recommend the model used by the Commission on the future of Northeast Mississippi. Each year the 17 counties in the region meet to share a variety of measurements. “These findings are used to produce the annual State of the Region report and to set annual goals to measure our successes,” states their purpose.
6. Successful economic developers know that it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. Have you noticed that at those groundbreaking ceremonies it is the economic developers who are in the background? Good economic developers know that they are facilitators of the process and that others, usually elected officials, who have a critical role.
7. Partnerships and collaboration are essential.Just take a look at any successful economic development project.
8. Economic development is long-term and incremental. There are no magic bullets.
9. It’s a lot about location, location, location.Did you know that over half of all jobs in Mississippi are in only 11 counties? According to the October 2018 Mississippi Department of Employment Security Labor Market Report, there were 1,219,300 persons employed in the state. Divide that by two and the result is 609,650. If one then adds the number of jobs in each county beginning with the county with the most jobs (Hinds – 105,990, when the 11th county (Lafayette – 26,820) is added the result is 611,840. By the way, some of my heroes in economic development are those who work in poor, lowly populated counties that have very little chance of ever landing a big project. In one sense, they do more with what they have than others in urban areas where interstate highways intersect.
10. Connections are important. Successful economic developers go to conferences and events. They know each other, they know site selectors and they stay up-to-date on everything related to their profession.
11. Successful communities visit other cities and regions to see how it can be done. Taking a group of business and community leaders to a successful city or region can be inspirational and provide a good roadmap for the future. Unfortunately, one mistake that some make is to attempt to recreate the other city instead of using their own unique asset.