Thank goodness the year is finally coming to an end.!!!! Charles Dickens words are certainly prophetic for 2020. “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times”. In the future, most of us will remember this year being the worst of times.
It reminds me of 1961, another year that we remember that could be considered the worst of times. President Kennedy said that the government would protect every American from a Russian nuclear missile. We spent the year isolating our families in bomb shelters while at home and hiding under our desks in school. I recall praying that my math test would get cancelled if I stayed under my desk long enough. Russian missiles or the Corona virus had nothing over the fear of explaining the Pythagorean theory.
The following year, the crisis ended, and we began a period of innovation. The first modem was invented with a speed of 300 bits per second, industrial robots were introduced to perform repetitive manufacturing tasks, Phil Knight developed the first Nike running shoe, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and Marvel’s Spider Man made his first appearance in a comic.
The worst of times are always followed by the best of times and 2021 will be no different. Community and economic developers can join the scientists and artists and inventors in establishing the new normal that will lead to growth and a new era of health and recovery for our economy that will shape our future. Here are my suggestions to move towards the best of times.
Create better integration between rural and urban area: There is a disconnect between rural and urban communities when it comes to solving problems. This pandemic has shown the importance of how rural communities helped support the urban restaurant industry and also have played an essential role in delivering their agricultural products to food banks. (It’s a good time to donate to local food banks like Northwest Harvest) Urban development is unthinkable in the absence of rural development. Food, water, and raw materials from rural areas meet the basic necessities required for urban areas. It’s time for urban industries to support the basic needs of people in rural areas such as improving access to broadband, reducing out migration through hiring remote rural employees, creating new supply chains, and investing in rural entrepreneurs and rainy-day funds. The success of one lead to the success of the other. Dependency should not be a one-way street or stop with a vaccine.
Conduct a workforce needs assessment: Retraining workers should be targeted towards the skills and jobs that a community requires to achieve strategic goals and support existing businesses. With the number of people going to college decreasing, government and the private sector must consider new hiring habits and career development programs to increase employment for workers without degrees. This includes adopting skill-based hiring for jobs rather than having a college degree requirement, which often is a barrier against minorities.
Promote private local investment: Non-traditional access to capital like Local Investment Opportunity Networks allow individuals to invest in their local economy by funding new and growing businesses in their area. Local investors have billions of savings in stocks, bonds, pension funds, mutual funds, and insurance funds. Encouraging utilizing some of this money to invest in local projects and entrepreneurs will go a long way to supporting a local workforce.
Connect high school educators and businesses with a goal of developing mentorships, apprenticeships, job shadowing and internships, especially in low income and diverse neighborhoods: These types of strategies can make learning more relevant by providing real world experience. Studies have also shown that this will not only reduce brain drain and create a bond for a future existing workforce but also reduce the dropout population and increase the graduation rate. Participation in programs like Global Entrepreneurship Week will provide options for people wanting to start their own business.
Ensure procurement rules give local businesses a consideration at public contracts: Procurement and contracting policies favoring local businesses have proven to be an important means of supporting and growing their economies. However just having a policy in statute is rarely effective. Effective policies include well-defined goals and enforcement procedures. Ask bidders to indicate the minimum percentage of the contract they will spend on local vendors. This will increase money spent locally and boost the multiplier effect on local income and wealth.
Utilize local financial institutions to deposit assets: Big banks devote a sizeable share of their assets to Wall Street, while local banks and credit unions more often invest in local businesses. Local institutions have a personal and financial stake in the community they serve. The more successful those local institutions are, then the more opportunities for local businesses to grow and expand. Local and state governments should also consider depositing federal transfers and taxes in banks that support communities especially minority institutions.
Develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem for small businesses and startups: New businesses are starting across the United States at a faster rate in more than a decade. There have been 3.2 million new startups in this year so far. Therefore, it makes sense to prioritize incentives, resources and investments targeted to local entrepreneurs. Investments do not always mean public dollars but can include technical assistance, education and training opportunities, access to capital from creative and non-traditional areas, mentoring and networking. Studies have shown that mentoring and networking are the number one needs for many entrepreneurs.
Expand and cultivate new board members: Board of Directors should not just be selected to be fundraisers for the organization but to bring new ideas, different perspectives, and a fresh look at community opportunities. Nor should they only include CEO’s, CFO’s or Directors. Adding new, diverse, and younger directors (even students) to an economic development board can expand its knowledge base, improve its culture and decision-making and train the next generation of local economic developers.
Invest in artists and art institutions. This pandemic has devastated galleries and performing arts organizations. As a result, it has also been a major blow to communities that depend on the tourist economy that support small businesses. Communicating the value of these institutions is paramount to a revival of many communities, especially rural. Makers, doers, and dreamers make over one-third of the workforce. Investing in more foot tapping, smile-inducing moments to our communities is good sound public policy.
Visually imagine what your community will look like in the future. We have all been part of a strategic planning session that plans for five years and is documented with hundreds of yellow stickies and a binder full of pages. Turn your goals into a graphic that people can review and discuss. An illustration makes your future memorable and will receive creative community engagement more quickly and succinctly. Science supports this “visual brain” strategy to simplify content, help understand the community’s needs, opportunities and challenges with clarity and accuracy. I can’t explain the science of visuals because I am typing text rather than drawing what the best of times will look like. But it is the reason why I always include a cartoon graphic to my blogs.
We can rebound from the economic impact of the pandemic. In a world filled with problems, economic developers can be part of the solutions. These 10 suggestions have been tested successfully in many communities all over the country. Most of them will not even require much financial commitment. None of these ideas are new or original. But what I hope is new, is for practitioners to include these in your new year’s resolutions so that people will remember 2021 as a year that was the best of times.