What’s It All For?

“Inclusive Economic Development” is the buzz from IEDC these days. In fact, across the country, programs are being developed aimed specifically at promoting economic equity and opportunity for communities and populations that were previously unexplored by economic development traditionalists. Rooted in the mantra “a rising tide lifts all boats,” these practitioners focused on attracting jobs and investment to an area under the assumption that job availability was equated with economic prosperity. To be fair, these practices were rooted in a market that valued low-cost, low-skill labor, and resulted in millions of middle-class workers who were able to walk out of high school graduation and begin their 30-year careers.

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Summer breeze makes ’em feel fine

Report: Tax breaks for redevelopment spurred $659 million in projects

The report by the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, conducted by Redevelopment Resources and issued Thursday, found that the agency’s policy has encouraged more than 53 redevelopment projects in and around Buffalo since it went into effect in 2008.

Those projects, totaling $659 million in value, include Bethune Lofts, Sinclair, Foundry Lofts, 500 Seneca and Phoenix Brewery Apartments.

— The Buffalo News 

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Crowd-sourcing the Future

Working in economic development in small towns and rural areas takes passion. It requires vision that sees beyond “what was” into “what is” to create the energy around “what could be” – through flexible planning, implementable tactics, extreme patience and tenacious passion for what makes each community interesting and meaningful.

Increasingly, the “Assets” key to an asset-based approach to economic and community development – the foundation of any plausible development strategy – are shifting. Often, traditional area jobs and industries have migrated out of an area, forcing a re-evaluation of what makes the community economically relevant.

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Rural Economic Development: A Game of Inches

Throughout modern history, the founding and continuation of communities has been predicated on compelling economic opportunities that drive individual investment of time, money, and labor to convert natural resources into monetary gain. Whether a community is founded for its access to trade routes via lakes and rivers or abundance of wildlife, timber or gold (to name a few), the founding of America has been a fascinating economic story.

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Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.

I don’t debate that there’s going to be a robot revolution. My question is, will it be an American one?

— Matt Rendall, Otto CEO and co-founder, originally quoted in this article by Kevin J. Ryan, staff writer for Inc. Magazine.

Every so often, the Redevelopment Resources main blogspot is dedicated, in full or in part, to the rise and evolution of technology, and its effects on local economic and workforce development. Whether it’s encouraging learning to code for young and old alike, highlighting “Where Life Meets Art” in the age of robotics, or how machines are being leveraged to enhance learning, the affect that technology is having on the workforce (see the National Conversation on the future of American jobs) and the global economic landscape is inescapable.

Shifts such as these are difficult to navigate. Technology is changing and evolving at such a rate that it is generally impossible to the layperson to keep up — but it is the layperson that will ultimately be affected (and likely for the worse from their perspective). In such a climate, the temptation to hearken back to a more stable time, where manufacturing jobs in particular were abundant, and the middle class American dream was not only achievable – but achieved (as evidenced by the strong growth in the economy and rise in the middle class across the nation) is palpable.

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Bottling the Je Ne Sais Quoi of Communities

That certain, indescribable something.

Every community across the US wants to have it. It is that seemingly magical essence that drives engagement and investment, and instills a sense of pride and responsibility in a community. Where does it come from? How does it permeate neighborhoods in such a way that even visitors – strangers to the area – are drawn to it, and find that they somehow want to become part of it?

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Building for the Future

Don’t teach your children to fish. Teach them to code.

The landscape has shifted beneath our feet. Again. We were aware of it to the point that it affected our daily lives; which means that for most, it was an interesting factoid that came up in our twitter newsfeeds. Many still don’t know what even happened or why it matters.

3D printers began to create food. Or, “food” if you prefer. Either way, an edible food-like product is no longer just available on the shelf of an average grocer; it is now available “hot” off the press. Human technology has come a very long way since Guttenberg’s original printing press made its debut in 1450. Just as Gutenberg’s contraption sparked social and economic revolution (and fueled many more), the 3D printer has the promise of social and economic upheaval hidden within its very code.

Imagine having access to almost anything you want – almost anything – with no need to rush out to the store to get it. Just print it. Think about that.

Think about every job that a general merchandiser supports. Textile manufacturers, plastic molders and assemblers, metal fabricators, shipping and transportation…everyone that is part of producing and distributing the goods to the store – and then, of course, there is the store itself. Consider all of this, and prepare to lose a fair number of those jobs to the revolutionary home 3D Printer. Think also about the food system in America. Think about fast food, “slow food” and everything in between. Think about food pantries and commercial kitchens and food incubators. How will this revolution affect them? What kind of world will we face in 50 years?

All of this is both amazing and intimidating.

While it is also mere conjecture, there are folks writing for the Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post that seem to agree that 3D printing will permenantly change the economic landscape. And printed food? It isn’t something new in the lab – it is all the rage at food shows, is trending in the industry, being contemplated to end world hunger, and is being utilized as a real solution for feeding the elderly in Germany today.

What 3D printers could mean for the global economy (and the Economic Development profession) is staggering. Economic Developers exist to increase tax base and support wealth creation for the constituencies that we serve. With the normalization of 3D printing (even now, basic versions sell for less than $200), means that the way that we measure our work – historically in jobs numbers, square feet of new development, business investment dollars, and tax base growth – will become less relevant.

How to win in the New Economy

Economic Development practitioners have become increasingly aware of the market efficiencies caused by the growth of technology across sectors, and the subsequent contractions in footprint and job growth that result. To account for this shift, alternative metrics, such as income and population (via migration) growth, have become part of a new narrative for measuring success for EDOs.

The Future of the Workforce

Trending topics in the Economic Development industry today are the “Skills Gap” and the “Talent Gap,” where manufacturers are missing key skill sets today, and demographic trends point to a lack of warm bodies to fill jobs in the future.

Whether today’s gaps are a result of skill shortages (blame to be placed on the education system) or lack of sufficient wage incentives (blame to be placed on businesses), the core truth is that the market will adjust, and the skill shortage will be only temporary. Workforce Development boards, State governments, and local education institutions have stepped up their programming and responsiveness to the needs of industry.

Up Next: the Big Shift

Just as programs aimed at addressing the skills gap are coming on-line (and governmental bureaucracies are scrambling to keep pace with the speed of business), innovative communities are recognizing that they are only a short-term solution. These communities are recognizing that the true end-game lies in their demographics.

Because of this, the new wave in Economic Development is becoming community development and talent attraction, not business attraction. And, as many have discovered through work and research, the key to attracting talent back into areas that are laid waste by demographic realities is the development of quality places and attractive amenities.

The next generation of workers is more interested in the quality of place and local amenities – including broadband access – than their predecessors were. Where small communities have been operating at an intrinsic disadvantage for business attraction, in the new economy, well-connected, well-invested communities that offer a great quality of life will have a leg up in the race for talent.

With this in mind, the Redevelopment Resources teams are continuously encouraging our client communities to invest in themselves. Recommendations to acquire and demolish blight aren’t based on a personal preference; they are based on market realities. To attract both business investment and talent to your town, communities must be willing to put the first nickel in the bucket. Investors are attracted to places where things are happening – not to places where plans have been developed in a vacuum with no intention for the City to follow-up and invest where they recognized that it was needed.

Winning in the new economy requires foresight, courage, and intuition. Most of all, it requires investment.

Is your community ready to invest in their future?

Communities, Investment, Incentive, Initiative

Communities are organic beings. They grow or shrink; they can thrive or become ghosts. They can become physically diseased with blight and outdated infrastructure or face social plagues such as drug dependence, violence or systemic poverty. But like all other beings, they can also find healing by addressing their health problems head-on; strength by challenging their current capacity; and resilience by overcoming mounting adversity.

None of these things – healing, strength or resilience – can come unless the community is first both aware of its challenges and willing to completely let go of what it currently is / has been in order to address them. Beyond this, there must be an understanding that through this process of healing, growth, and change, the community will become something different from what it ever was before.  Undoubtedly, systemic change aimed at healing disease, building capacity, and cultivating resiliency will encounter roadblocks. But it is through these challenges that the true test is met:

“The single factor that will do the most to change a culture toward acceptance of development … is the process of overcoming the challenges that face [the] community in difficult times. If communities come together to face change, they will adapt and thrive. If they don’t come together, they will pass away just like any other organic entity.”

— John Woods

Invest in Transformation

The process of overcoming challenges – that is, coming to an obstacle and surmounting it – is the driving factor in transformational change for both people and communities. It is in this process that resilience is formed, and through this process that new, or emergent community identities are forged. By shedding the past and investing in the future, communities can position themselves as home for unmet generations, and improve their odds for survival during challenges yet unseen.
Incentivize Change

Encouraging the types of investment required for sustained, systemic change may require the investment of public funds in the form of incentives. Incentives are a critical factor for projects that would not gain traction in the private market, yet serve the broader public good. By leveraging public dollars for the purpose of engaging in transformational investments, a community can take a proactive role in shaping their future.

Incentives are a topic of debate among economic development professionals as well as the public at large. Beyond the stated standard practice, I would contend that so long as the incentive is an investment – a strategic choice that results in growth (i.e. increased monetary base, enhanced workforce skills, etc.) throughout the broader system, they are a wise choice. Cultivating change is a difficult task, and is nearly impossible if a community asks the private sector to bear the entire burden.

Initiatives for Youth

Systemic change initiatives face a myriad of challenges – vested interests, conflicting opinions and comfort zones tend to muddy the water for the folks burdened with developing policy and/or implementing plans. Often, community leaders are well-seasoned, experienced people with a well-developed (and somewhat static) vision for what the community is – or can become. While dialogue may include topics such as empowering or engaging youth in the process, it is generally done via the bureaucracies of the school system, rather than engaging the under-25 year-old population directly.

This, of course, encourages the disengagement of a critical population in communities that are seeking healing from current physical and/or social disease or future growth. Community leaders must engage their prime customers – under-25 year-olds – in planning and implementation if they are to have any hope of retaining them as a quality future workforce and future leaders. Direct engagement is not without challenges; but without this critical piece, the broader challenges will only mount.

Interestingly, youths are generally endowed with an incredible capacity to adapt and change as obstacles or challenges impede their goals. This particular trait makes the youth in a community an invaluable asset when mental fatigue gets the edge on tenacity when implementing change. The ability to bounce back – to identify solutions and alternatives at each roadblock – is critical to building community resilience and strength when engaging in community healing.

Though it has become cliché to pound the ‘invest in our youth’ drum, is it not also interesting that sustained efforts to do so are fewer in number and often piecemeal or limited in scope? This paradox feeds generational stereotypes, limits a community’s boomerang capacity, and ultimately erodes the quality of the workforce for the long-term.

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