Random Excerpt: Economic Development Isn’t About Increasing Jobs. We Know That.

This a random selection from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s intended to give you a little taste of what you’ll find inside the book.  Like one of those little tester spoons of ice cream, but this one isn’t going to trick you into thinking you want the triple sundae that will give you a stomachache and a big dose of regret.  At least I hope it won’t give you a stomachache.  Hm.  

If you like what you read, check out the book here.


Economic Development isn’t really about just increasing the number of businesses or the number of jobs.  We all know that.

The reason why communities do economic development, why they invest time and resources in it, is to make sure that the local economy has what it needs and is doing what it is necessary to support the health of the overall system.  The purpose of economic development, at its core, is to help the community become stronger by making sure that the economic part of the ecosystem is fulfilling its role adequately.

Here’s the hard truth, though: it’s a hell of a lot easier to define our economic development work, and to measure our achievements, if we cast our work in terms of “winning new businesses” instead of “facilitating the health of the local economy.”

It’s a lot easier to count new jobs, or new employers, or hits on the web site, or hands shaken at the International Shopping Centers Conference, than it is to evaluate whether we are actually creating a healthier local economy.  That is, unless we have a clear plan and are measuring the right kinds of improvements.  We can certainly do a clear plan and accurate measurements—there are a lot of resources out there that can help us do that.

The big barrier isn’t technique.  The big barrier is that meaningful action and evaluation to determine if you’re actually improving the local economy take more honest thought and stronger leadership than just chasing anything that moves and claiming every minimum wage job as a “victory.”

So more often than not, we count the web site hits and handshakes, we shoot what flies and claim what falls, and assume (or take on faith) that our trumpeted achievements are somehow supporting the community’s ecosystem.  But we never ask how, or check whether that’s really happening.  And then we wonder why it seems like the big picture never gets better.

Economic developers are starting to figure out that “quality of life” has something important to do with the ability to grow a local economy, but until our understanding of the interdependence of the economy on the rest of the community ecosystem takes root, it’s going to be far too easy to default to old measures — measures that often hide whether our efforts are helping the larger community or hurting it.

I pick on economic developers a lot — and the goal of this book is to get people who deal with economic development to change how we work. But the truth is that there is more than enough blame to spread around.

When urban planners fall into the trap of assuming that a single physical strategy, such as Complete Streets or New Urbanism or Urban Renewal or any of the other catch phrases through the years, will have a “catalytic” effect on the local economy, it’s the same error at work: we are not fully thinking about the entire ecosystem.  People who do not have good economic prospects or are insecure about their jobs may use the bike lanes out of necessity, but may not shop in the stores by the bike lane like we anticipated.

Silos. Not only can you not get from one to the other easily, but — they’re airtight. Can’t…breathe…. From wikipedia.

We oversimplify the ecosystem, we stay in our silos and stick to our simple solutions, because it’s intellectually easier.  It’s easier to say “My stuff is important, yours isn’t” than to try to look rationally at the whole range of issues and understand how My Stuff fits into the whole system.

If we pretend that we don’t have to worry about those overlapping impacts, if we pretend that our communities are nice simple frontier towns with lots of empty land to absorb those impacts and a small group of people to accommodate, then perhaps we can continue to pretend it’s all simple.  After all, if we screw it up too badly, we can move out into the scrub another five miles and start over.  All we need are new subdivisions, right?

We did that.  And it basically worked, until we ran out of empty land, or until those people that we were trying to accommodate become more numerous and more complicated.

But that’s where we are today.

If we are honest about the complexities of our communities, then we have to be honest about the fact that there are few, if any, simple solutions.  Economic Development issues don’t just impact businesses, and when we don’t see these related impacts, we will certainly feel their effects.  If we want to facilitate the health of the ecosystem, we have to work on a wide range of elements in concert.

Ideally, this is what planning of any stripe should do, whether economic development strategic plans or community comprehensive plans or any other variant on the theme.  It’s part of why it becomes increasingly important to plan for multiple possible futures – with this many moving parts, a certain level of uncertainty is inescapable.  But too often we only plan for My Stuff, not for the role our bailiwick plays in the larger system.

2 thoughts on “Random Excerpt: Economic Development Isn’t About Increasing Jobs. We Know That.

  1. David Farnsworth

    OK Della, excellent point. Gels with my experience in urban development and planning. So what are the right kind of measurements?

    1. Ah. That’s the Big Question, isn’t it? 🙂

      The key to answering that question is being much more intentional about what it is that we’re trying to achieve. For example: jobs. Does the community need more jobs or any type? More jobs geared to a certain population segment? Need jobs that create a higher overall income level? Jobs that will appeal to in-migrants from elsewhere? The same kinds of questions for any other kind of economic dimension: construction, investment, tax revenues etc. Once we know what we need to measure, then we can identify appropriate measurements pretty easily.

      That’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how often that objective-defining isn’t done — especially at the local level. It’s amazing how often we let a level of seat-of-the-pants decision making go by that we would never accept from a company.

      Or that goal-setting done by one department or organization or something and then they’re all frustrated when others (elected officials, other agencies, the general public) don’t support those objectives or do things that work at cross-purposes to them or demand something that goes against what those objectives. It’s amazing how often we assume that everyone else can read our minds. Every time I have seen an intelligent goal-and-measurement-setting process succeed, it has been because the people leading placed a high priority and put a lot of effort into doing that process collaboratively, with all the people and organizations who will play a role in what happens. That’s not just telling them what you’re doing, but it’s working with them to figure it out. We professionals often balk at that or avoid it — it’s messy, we don’t always get what we want, it takes time and money that we don’t have. But when goal-setting and measurement-identifying doesn’t happen that way, it’s a wasted effort, almost every time.

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