As we enter the final months of “the most important election of the century”, each candidate warns us that an American apocalypse will take place if you vote for the wrong person. This recalls a comparison to the fall of the Roman Empire where arguably emperors and historians directed the apocalyptic blame at a lead poisoning pandemic and a disgruntled enemy from within.
Some would say that history is repeating itself. Now I am no historian (I know how to google) but I prefer to look at the current pandemic and mass protests not as the destruction of our economy but as a necessary transformation into a different kind of society. Every part of our lives has been disrupted and altered as a result of this pandemic. Sure, we may never be able to eat at a salad bar again but that may be a good thing.
Every industry and every profession is conducting self-examinations of how to reset and accelerate into the future. The medical industry is reinventing delivery of care with telemedicine, the educational system is rethinking how children learn, law enforcement is reallocating resources to better protect and serve, and small businesses are reimagining new products and supply chains and discovering how to do more with technology. Even my Pilates instructor has found new ways to keep me exercising during the pandemic. (Thank you, Danielle). So if it is true that with every crisis there is opportunity, what can economic developers do to transform the profession for growing the future economy?
Conducting Front Porch Forums: Creative problem solving among small businesses benefit all members of the community. People will support changes when they are mobilizing resources for community improvement with participatory and inclusive engagements. Economic developers should rethink their business retention programs by conducting front porch forums for small businesses in communities.
Front porch forums are listening sessions for a targeted audience. Front porches have always been an excellent place to bring families and neighbors together to share food, put issues on the table, share stories and resolve community concerns. Builders rarely add front porches to new housing now. (Why is that?) Zoom forums may have replaced the front porch during these times of social distancing, but economic developers can learn a lot by just bringing small businesses together, listening to their issues and adapting strategies accordingly. Front porch forums open up a new dialogue between economic developers and businesses that goes beyond business retention visits.
Discovering New Ideas and New Resources: Economic developers have the responsibility to seek out and introduce best practices, new ideas and existing resources to businesses. For example, work-sharing programs subsidize the wages of workers who are kept on the payroll with reduced hours rather than being laid off. The federal government picks up the cost from the states. Despite its success, most employers and workers do not even know about it. (Why is that?) Work sharing is a great way to strengthen the labor market with existing employees yet of the 30 million people receiving unemployment benefits only 1% are enrolled. The program saves jobs, eases the pain of families, and helps them move on. Economic developers have the opportunity to replace dated strategies and programs and seek out innovative ideas that nurture entrepreneurship and move towards a diversified ecosystem.
Promote Win-Win Solutions: For decades, the emphasis of economic development in many communities has been to seduce large businesses from other areas with money and attractive baubles that often burden their futures economy. (Check out the hilarious yet insightful movie, “The Grand Seduction” on Amazon Prime. Its the story of a down on its luck fishing village who wants to recruit a recycling plant so everyone can have a job).
With this economic development strategy there has to be a winner and a loser. But competition is best left to athletes and spelling bees. Economic development should strive to be a win-win profession. Strategies should be redesigned, and budgets reallocated to deploy incentive and financing programs towards local investments that will create more jobs faster and with fewer financial investments and long-term results. What if communities focused on:
- Investing in broadband
- Restructuring supply chains
- Promoting local startups
- Developing a talent attraction program based on anchors, amenities and attachments.
- Supporting underserved communities,
- Assisting minority owned businesses
- Involving young adults to be invested and engaged in their community.
- Collaborating with other economy related professionals.
These investments should be the central elements in promoting the new normal for a community’s economic development and will result in a win-win strategy.
Developing an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: An educated/trained workforce and a dependable/stable infrastructure will continue to be important for the business community. But the pandemic has introduced remote working and automation that will alter business decision-making and change the landscape of our business communities. There will be less office space demand and fewer employees. That is why we need to change our downtowns and communities into entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Some communities have turned vacant buildings into coworking spaces, makerspaces and even popup spaces for future entrepreneurs and existing businesses. Economic developers can facilitate these changes by engaging with the schools and public officials to make communities entrepreneurial and pedestrian friendly.
An entrepreneurial ecosystem requires technical assistance, education and training, access to capital and mentoring/networking (TEAM). Not giving small businesses the tools to do their job is like not allowing a guitarist to use the chord C. It is possible to play the instrument, but they will never achieve their full potential of success.
Measuring the Right Stuff: Job creation and business relocations should no longer be the primary metrics to stimulate and sustain local economic growth. We need to have a new consciousness in economic development that there is more to measuring economic development than jobs and relocations.
Given that each community has different needs and different strategies, I won’t presume that the industry has a standard set of metrics to fit every community. The profession is too disparate for that to be possible. But for starters consider Rhonda Phillips suggestion that communities re-organize their economic plans, goals and metrics to a focus where communities and individuals define success based on their happiness, community well-being and ecological sustainability. (Check out The Happiness Policy Handbook that offers steps, tools, and resources for a more reasonable set of economic development metrics.) Economic development leaders should seek indicators that recognize that all jobs are not equally beneficial to a community. Just as the new normal for businesses need to focus on productivity rather than time spent at the office, economic developers need to focus on community outcomes rather than bad measures.
Preparing for the Next Big One: And finally, if I have said and written this once, I have said and written it 1000 times. Economic developers should work with communities and businesses to make sure that they prepare for the next pandemic or natural disaster. There is no such thing as a “500-year storm” or a “once in a lifetime pandemic”. The new normal for disasters is annual, sometimes monthly. There will be another tidal wave coming for our communities and economic developers can either be prepared or the wave will submerge them. Mother nature plays to win. Economic developers must figure out how to beat her with well-designed preparation plans and innovative business support.
These are just some ideas that many practitioners should consider transforming our profession to create the new normal. To paraphrase Robert Duvall in the movie Apocalypse Now, “someday this pandemic will be over”. And when the pandemic is over, historians will call it “the great reset” or “the accelerator that changed the world”. In order to do that, we need to reset our profession as a transformation that changes our communities to be prepared and sustainable in the future and not the fall of the American economy.