We Have Lost Our Way In Economic Development

Ed Burghard

The highest courage is to dare to be yourself in the face of adversity. Choosing right over wrong, ethics over convenience, and truth over popularity.  These are the choices that measure your life. Travel the path of integrity. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.

Source: Successories

I don’t know if you have seen this newscast on the debate over filling a Director vacancy in the Green Bay economic development department. The Mayor and the City Council President argue over 1) the importance of the role in today’s environment versus 10 – 20 years ago, and 2) what the job description of the role actually is.

“Sparks Fly Over City’s Vacant Economic Development Post”

This discourse is disconcerting (I wanted to start my day with an alliteration) on a number of levels.

  1. Politics are playing too big a role in impeding the economic development profession. I highly doubt Green Bay is the only community where this is the case. Partisan politics and self interest are barriers to progress economic developers have to find a way to work around daily.
  2. The impact on community residents is completely absent from the conversation. The focus is on business and supply chain interests. Yet, in my opinion the real “boss” is the residents of Green Bay. Attracting, retaining and expanding jobs is simply a means to an end. But, it isn’t the only consideration in economic development.
  3. The conversation reflects that economic development is practiced in a silo as opposed to being an important driver of Green Bay’s 20-year strategic plan. If it was seen as a mission critical activity, the focus would be on back filling the position with the best candidate as quickly as possible so Green Bay doesn’t fall behind on the agreed-to tactics to deliver the strategic plan.
  4. The purpose of economic development is not clear. This is probably the worst of the four observations. Unless the profession does a better job of defining the value it provides, this conversation is destined to be discussed ad nauseum. I advocate that the purpose is to better enable residents to achieve their American Dream. It is the singular mission that all organizations within a community can rally around and it puts the needs of residents at the center of all decisions regarding asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy/program development.

I hope Green Bay gets its act together soon. The residents deserve a viable and comprehensive economic development effort. It is a great city, but at risk of becoming non-competitive if it can’t resolve an issue as simple as the need to backfill an open Director position for its economic development department.

My guess is each of us can see aspects of this Green Bay debate in our own communities. I urge you to shift the focus to enabling residents to better achieve their American Dream and begin working against what really matters.

Just my 2 cents.  What is yours?

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15 Comments so far

  1. Mike Milkovich

    November 5, 2014

    “Enabling residents to better achieve their American dream…” pretty much says it all.

    The most powerful weapon we have in America is our social studies curriculum. Our country’s foundation is like no other ever constructed. How is that curriculum doing? Terrible. Under used, underappreciated, taken for granted, and people still don’t get it. This curriculum should be producing more entrepreneurs, better character and less social problems, but by it’s current design, it focuses on our foibles, social maladies and slavery. It’s all about political correctness. It creates an attitude of apathy, mistrust, a belief in more government is better, and entitlement. It creates a mindset where “someone else has to do something” or “someone else has to create a job.”
    I am amazed at how many people don’t understand the significance and importance of social studies curriculum. Garbage in, garbage out.

  2. Edward

    November 5, 2014

    Mike – You are so right. Most kids are not taught Civics anymore and as a result have no clue how a democracy works. Is it any wonder only a small percent of Americans actually vote in elections?

  3. Randy Starbuck

    November 5, 2014

    I concur that politics is derailing economic development efforts. I would put forward that there are some communities where the economic development function CANNOT be housed in the City for this very reason. The investments that are necessary for community improvements (and American Dream achievement) are such that the “payoff” happens far beyond one’s term of office. These investments are often are not made or worse deferred in favor of a more expedient but less effective option. Communities will continue to suffer if this short term political mentality is allowed to over-rule the improvements needed to promote achievement of the Dream. Sadly as the nature of our politics becomes more combative, I don’t see any choice other than moving the economic development out of city halls.

    As a profession, we need to expand this discussion to include are EDC’s the best model for these highly political communities or is some new structure required.

  4. Joy Dugan

    November 6, 2014

    Community growth & economic development encompass so much about American life, and can spring from unexpected places. The vastness of how to build attractive communities leaves a struggle with the powerful who wish to put their hurried stamp on a project that can be labeled as their achievement or brokered deal versus a process orientation that brings true economic strength. The fight to be the “winner” in being the most powerful person who can “get things done” often overcomes a better laid plan that would seek to promote the community as a whole.

  5. Edward

    November 6, 2014

    Joy – Great observation. I think it highlights the importance of having a strong public/private leadership collaboration. Private sector leaders will think beyond political terms and as primary funders of community development initiatives can help guard against decisions made for political self-interest.

  6. Jim Walton

    November 6, 2014

    Hi, Ed,

    I’ve seen such a lack of civility in public meetings that I’m often left wondering just how things get done. I’ve witnessed name calling, swearing, political stonewalling, and about anything else you might imagine. What concerns me more than any of these is that the real work often does not get done.

    On the other hand, I love it when people put aside their differences and work together to serve the needs of their community. When community stakeholders work together to grow jobs, investment, and lives, working in the economic development industry is a real joy.

  7. Edward

    November 6, 2014

    Jim – You described perfectly the aspect of politics that drives me crazy. I worked with 3 Governors (2Rs and 1D) and the process for getting things done was equally frustrating. In part, I found it is because the public sector is often measured on initiatives approved versus the private sector which lives or dies on results achieved. My observation is the good scenario you love is a direct result of a clear, simple and compelling vision that realized will help residents better achieve some aspect of their American Dream. That is why I am so evangelistic about every community adopting better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream as an overarching strategic objective. The unique combination of assets, infrastructure and public policies/programs in place to achieve that objective is how communities should compete with each other for both talent and capital investment. With a clear vision, more of the important work will get done and initiatives will be more sustainable. And the great news is you will feel the joy of stakeholders collaborating successfully more often.

  8. Michael Gallerani

    November 6, 2014

    Economic development for many communities has become an extension of “high school sports”. The political leadership is competing with one another to be the big man or woman on campus while the ED boards and committees are looking to add another trophy to their “trophy case”. Meanwhile the ED professionals are left to defend the loss of XYZ Company to another city or town just like the football coach has to face the boosters club after a Friday Night loss.

    Combine that with the media frenzy that surrounds everything public, and you have a devolution of economic development.

    The smart communities are those hat have an understanding of who they are, their decision makers have a real plan for what the community should become, and investors are provided a clear message so they can understand why it is beneficial to be part of the community. At the center of it all is the ED professional. He or she must navigate between the public officials and the business owners and developers all the while promoting the community message and resisting the call to entertain development that is not a good fit for the community. Economic development is the foundation on all that is the community. A foundation can be made of bricks, concrete, stone or whatever. It cannot do its job if it is thrown together using whatever is available.

    So what we need is an effort among the profession (of economic development) to get back to the basics. Each and every one of us needs to be the voice that says what is good for the community and be ready with the tried and true methods of delivering the message. Knowing how XYZ would impact the workforce, traffic, quality of life, housing prices/values, schools, infrastructure, tax base, and community image is just the start. Knowing what the community (not just elected officials) wants is vital. And being able to keep your head on straight while the “fans” are clamoring for a win is most important.

  9. Ed Burghard

    November 6, 2014

    Michael – Great insight and analogy. Also, great counsel.

  10. Larry Burkhardt

    November 7, 2014

    Unfortunately nothing new here, except for the fact that due to demographic and economic realities, the mandate for aggressive economic development is more critical than ever before. It is not only extremely disappointing to observe the lack of understanding that is exhibited by policy makers, but disturbing to recognize that there are areas of the country that do understand… and they will emerge the ultimate winners.

  11. Edward

    November 7, 2014

    Larry – The fact that it is commonplace is simply further reason that we need to address the lack of understanding on the value our profession delivers. I tend to believe using job growth as a performance measure contributes to that lack of understanding. For residents who are not interested in the newly created jobs (because they are either non-relevant or because the residents are happy with their current employment), the measure is meaningless therefore our work feels unconnected to their lives. Measuring performance by evaluating impact on the ability of residents to achieve their American Dream makes our work relevant to all residents. Demonstrating success through improved American Dream Composite Index scores confirms the value our profession delivers. It helps enable the back to basics approach Michael advocates.

  12. Fred D. Burkhardt

    November 10, 2014

    Larry is right, nothing new here. I have worked in the economic development profession for well over 30 years, I have worked for lage cities (500M+) and smaller communities (25M+/-) I have found that local elected officials and economic development policy fall into one of 3 groups:
    Group 1: We’re Here to Win- The community has a clear picture of who they are, their strengths, an accurate assessment of their assets, a realistic and , outcome based plan to move forward and sustainable funding.
    Group 2: What’s the right direction- Local government elected and appointed officials have a limited grasp of their community’s strengths and assets. An economic/community development department is in place used as “utility infielders” to handle other duties that may be assigned from time to time. They want to do better, but in many cases don’t know how to get there from here. They tend to be risk adverse.
    Group 3: Checklist- Yes, we need economic development, yes, we need to brand and market. So, let’s do a new brochure, join a regional organization, attend a conference or two and check the whole process off the list of “to dos.”
    Group 4: Lots of study, no implementation- The shelves are sagging with studies that pretty much say the same thing. Implementation is based on “when we have the funds” but there is never planning to identify and set funding aside to implement the recommendations. This is an annual topic of discussion and realization that something must be done but that it needs more study.

    My firm provides consulting services to smaller and mid-sized communities. We have, by choice, opted to not works with groups 3 and 4. The workload is too great, handholding too time consuming and compensation too little.

  13. JD Milburn

    November 11, 2014

    I believe and will always that Economic Development is the creation of local wealth and upward mobility of the area, along with Quality of life.

    That is central and when it happens the economy improves. Don’t forget economic development is to create and improve the economic environment, through connections both internal and external. Incentives and other things are just a part of the equation. More ED happens from connections than handing out $.

    And lastly economy is in the heading so measuring it and enhancing it is key or its all just hot air and expended $!

  14. Edward

    November 11, 2014

    JD – Xavier University has done some seminal work in quantifying the American Dream. They have identified 35 unique dimensions. These dimensions include economic progress, social mobility and other aspects that most people would label as “quality of life”. Measuring performance based on better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream holds the profession accountable for delivering what you define as the objective of economic development. You can find a summary of their findings here – http://strengtheningbrandamerica.com/blog/2014/02/new-2013-american-dream-state-ranking-report-published/

  15. JD Milburn

    March 12, 2016

    Great stuff Edward

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