After almost 26 years, five governors, eight directors, six department name changes and hundreds of workshops and presentations, the time has come to put away my three-legged stool theory of economic development. Yes, the rumors are true that at the end of this month, I am retiring. I will feel like an alien from another planet, leaving the comforts of state government that has supported me for more than two decades and stepping off into the unknown that is retired life.
This blog shall serve as my swan song, which causes me concern, largely because I am neither swan-like nor can I sing. I’ll gladly blame the Greeks and all their mythology for this, of course. They considered the swan a symbol of beauty and harmony. As for the idea of the swan song itself, well, it is supposed to be a final gesture, the final number in a last performance.
Given its gravity, I thought long and hard about what to write in the first place. I could have done an In Memaury-am piece. But that seemed a bit self-serving. I also could have done a big thank you as my sendoff, thanking everyone who helped me throughout my economic development years. But I would not want this to sound like I just won the Academy Award for Best Performance in an Economic Development Role. My work at Commerce was rewarding but was it really award worthy? Anyway, I don’t want to embarrass Linda, Karen, Terry and Robb for making me the man I have become as a result of their guidance and partnerships over the years.
So, swan song it is.
After a lot of torment and several discarded drafts, I have finally decided that after 26 years I would bequeath a bit of wisdom for every year I was here. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much wisdom and without cartoons, who would read the entire list? Not me. So, in keeping with my love of Top 10 lists, here are 10 bits of wisdom that I will share with you.
- Economic development is not about jobs. Economic Development is about strengthening communities so job creation can occur organically. If your board tells you that your position requires you to create ‘X’ number of jobs then they are setting you up for failure.
- Rural matters. The economies of rural and urban parts of any state are interdependent.That economic dependence is real, measurable and significant. Rural manufacturing performance sends economic ripples into urban areas and agribusinesses generate additional business-to-business spending. Don’t short-sheet rural.
- Every economic developer should have a working relationship with their library or at least a regional one. Libraries act as great “Third Places” in a community, more so than coffee houses. Baristas serve you coffee that will last for hours; librarians serve you knowledge and information that will last a lifetime and can help your community grow. That knowledge will help communities relocate a company, assist entrepreneurs in starting a business and provide strategic intelligence to existing businesses to understand their competition and the marketplace in general.
- There is no #4. I came up a bit short in giving you 10 bits of wisdom so I stuck this in the middle hoping you wouldn’t notice.
- The pathway to jobs is not through recruitment. Studies clearly show that small businesses are the true job generator in any community. Pay attention to them. Existing businesses can be like dogs. They are faithful to where they live, but if you don’t pet them every once in a while, it’s hard to keep them under the porch. It falls to practitioners to give them the support and assistance they need to grow. If you focus on small business growth and entrepreneurship, other businesses (recruitments) will naturally follow.
- A healthy downtown will usually mean a healthy community. Suburban malls come and go but a downtown should last forever. Revitalize, re-grow, and reinvent. This will combat neglect, abuse and abandonment, which so many downtowns have experienced. A strong downtown can be a major stimulator for economic growth and potentially a key revenue generator for local government.
- Educate your boards. It is as important for them to be educated in this profession as it is for the practitioner. The International Economic Development Council has some excellent professional development opportunities throughout the United States. Not only is it important to educate your boards about today’s strategies and best practices in economic development, but the private sector should have as much representation as the public sector in determining the direction of the community. Not only will they offer a unique perspective concerning your activities, they will also be your best brand ambassadors, drawing other businesses to your community
- Youth will form the backbone of the community for the next 50 years. If they have opportunities to learn new skills, participate in a business plan competition, appreciate the community’s assets, practice leadership, enter an internship program with existing businesses, and identify and become mentors, your community has a better chance to grow and prosper.
- Washington State has some of the best community colleges in the country. They have greatly broadened their economic development role to include contract training, small business development and entrepreneurship. These new activities promise to take the community college in a new direction, from an institution focused on educating students to one centered on meeting the needs of businesses and the local economy. Community college is not just about scholarship. It is also about successful adulthood.
- Every community should promote strategies that support the three-legged stool that encourage 1) asset development (infrastructure, arts and workforce programs), 2) innovation and entrepreneurship, and 3) technical assistance.
So there you have it. Ten bits of wisdom that I have left you with (O.K., nine if you really read them all).
As those of you who have heard me speak know all too well, I always like to conclude with a story. As such, I leave you with this swan story which has nothing to do with swans.
This is the story of a band of people marooned on an island and they want to get off. One day they spot a passing ship and quickly build a bonfire to attract its attention. The captain of the ship sees the smoke and dispatches a dingy with a batch of the latest newspapers to the island so those marooned can determine if they really want to leave. After reading the newspapers, the people on the island decide they want to stay there and not return.
I am here to tell economic developers that you do not have that option. You must be totally engaged in the future of your community. You are in a position to positively affect the direction of your community and create a better place for the next generation of workers, families and residents. Your community is special. You have history, economic opportunity, neighbors who care about each other and a great quality of life. You believe in strategic thinking, new ideas and innovation, stimulating conversation, investing in your assets and you understand that economic development begins at home. And if aliens ever come from another planet and asked you to show them the best of America, you would bring them to your community.
Now that’s a recruitment that even I could support.