I was probably about five years old when my mother signed me up for T-ball. There, I was to learn the seemingly important skills of batting, catching, throwing and providing my parents with a chance to run errands without their child in tow.

Sadly, I never mastered any of these skills and my dreams died along with the dandelions in right field many years ago.

Still, I enjoyed the game. I got to run and chase other kids around the bases and talk to my imaginary friend out there in right field who never seemed to catch on to how the game is played. And, of course, I stood around a lot, as few T-ball teams have lefties who pull.

The best part of T-ball was the end of the game where we were rewarded with homemade snacks and fellowship. After everyone had three at bats, we ended the game. We did not argue about who was safe or who was out. We did not gloat about how we demolished our opponents. No score was kept, no one ever lost and yet we felt part of something bigger than we were as individuals. We were all winners!!

I really miss those care-free days and my mother’s brownies. Winning was something you only talked about when mentioning wars, politics and the World Series. Now, it seems as if life itself has turned into a sport and there always has to be a winner and loser. The goal is not only to win but we also have to vanquish our opponents.

Vince Lombardi, Green Bay’s legendary football coach, used to say that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” He wasn’t just talking about football. Winning has become more important than outcomes. Where people use to be civil, cooperative and find delight in compromise, they have become increasingly obsessed with winning at all costs, baseless partisanship and destroying anyone who opposes them. With winning comes moral superiority and personal destruction.

People often think economic development is a competitive sport. After all, communities compete with each other, trying to win a business from one community to another. The community with the most incentives is usually the winner and everyone else is a loser. The outcome may not lead to superiority or destruction over a competing community but you could hear the chants of “we’re number one” being pronounced in the media with every company relocation.

This competition is bad for the profession and bad for communities. Rather than investing in our own economies, our existing businesses and our future generations, we are trying to win an economic numbers game where no one really wins. We simply rob Peter to pay Paul who will undoubtedly pay Mary somewhere down the line. Sure, a “win” is exhilarating, but what is the true cost to the community in money, time, and resources, especially when the company inevitably hops to another town with an even better incentive package?

Before I go any further, let me clarify something. I am not saying that recruitment is bad economic development strategy. I understand that some companies may have very good reasons to relocate. Companies need to grow just as communities do for all sorts of reasons – job creation, increased profits, faster supply lines, expanded inventory and product development – to name just a few. But that kind of growth in a community can happen just as easily with investments in business retention, expansion and entrepreneurship at the local level. Your first priority should be the home team.

Communities, especially rural ones that focus on “winning” the ever-elusive big fish, will have more in the loss column than the win column. For some, you may never win a game. But for those who play, a lot of precious time, energy, money and resources will be spent on these dead ends instead of using them to think, invest and act locally and grow organically.

When you grow from within, your community develops assets, meets the needs of existing businesses, invests in infrastructure, encourages entrepreneurship and fills empty storefronts with new ideas and startups. This is called win–win and there are no losers.

This strategy should be the preferred approach for any practitioner that wants to build a meaningful and strong relationship with his or her community. Inevitably, those once elusive big fish will see your community through a different set of lenses as you grow and prosper and you won’t have to do a thing to attract them (Well maybe a few things).

Like T-ball, economic development shouldn’t be about winning or losing or even keeping score. It’s about creating a great community, one where people want to live, where they can find living wage jobs, and where the economy is such that it can support growth naturally through fellowship, companionship and partnerships. When you think about it, that should also be the outcome of every war and political issue as well, where everyone wins.

Maybe we should all attend a T-ball game just to remind us of how the game should be played. And with any luck, someone will remember to bring the brownies.

  • Maury