The Changing World of Economic Development

The Changing World of Economic Development

By Bert Cook, Executive Director of the Greater La Porte Economic Development Corporation

Economic development is a field that has always been difficult to define and is ever-changing. That is never truer than in today’s world. The phrase means something different to every community, and many of these locations are finding traditional strategies are no longer effective. There is no doubt this is challenging to any practitioner. That said, it is also a major opportunity for anyone willing to embrace a new philosophy.

When I began my career in economic development, the pillar of our strategy was “create good paying jobs and everything else will take care of itself.” We knew people graduated, looked for work, found a job, and then moved in proximity to that job. From that point forward, they became part of that community—buying a house, shopping at local stores, sending their children to school, paying taxes, etc. All of this impacts the community as a whole and ultimately grows our local economies. The strategy was simple—focus on the jobs and the rest will follow.

Today’s world is far different. The jobs are no longer the only deciding factor. This generation decides where they want to live and then looks for work accordingly. It is a simple change but one with far-reaching implications. Quality of life or place making has become an industry all its own. Understanding what people want in their communities is a difficult task, and it is often something different in each locale. This has begun to shape economic development efforts around the world. Community leadership has to examine their strategies with a different set of glasses and often employ new strategies altogether.

So, what is it people want from their community? The simplest answer I can give is they want to live in a “cool” place. It is really that simple. What cool means is a little different to each person, but many of these characteristics span age, race, and income bracket. For some “cool” means many options for dining out: both franchise and independent. For others it may mean recreational amenities: lakes, trails, a movie theatre. Others focus on residential options: downtown loft living, new single family residential, historic homes, or eco-friendly housing. Possessing some of these characteristics is important, but often times it only works if you also find success in the other more-traditional evaluation criteria as well. Do you have a good school corporation, low taxes, a good geographic location? These factors are no less important; it is just that we expect more from our community today than we did in the past.

As communities have realized these changes, some have been quick to adapt: deploying or re-deploying resources to address areas of need, spreading focus to new areas, or embracing new ways of doing business. These adaptable communities have experienced great success and have led the way for others to follow in their footsteps. It is no easy task however, as change involves risk. One of my favorite quotes from Elon Musk is “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” I believe this perfectly sums up the new world of economic development. Our people expect more from their communities and the only way to meet these expectations is through innovation. The goal is achievable, but in order to get there, we must be willing to move beyond “the way it has always been done.”

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Category Features, Last Word