Money is the lifeblood of a community. The point of jobs creation, of attracting events and visitors, and of any economic development activity is to create wealth for the community. It doesn’t matter how it’s dressed up, the end goal is capital.
For a government, community wealth means more tax revenue. For a business, community wealth means more sales and (usually) more profits. For a denizen of said community, community wealth means higher quality of life.
For small cities and rural communities, attracting the pie-in-the-sky, big-fish jobs creators is a costly and frequently unsuccessful venture. So too are attempts at attracting individual professionals through social media pushes and marketing outreach- without wealth (and very importantly the resulting variety and quality of jobs) in a community, the targeted individuals are going to be hesitant to relocate, and if they do, retaining them is next to impossible.
For these smaller communities the solution, from my perspective, is to provide the businesses the tools and sophistication to generate wealth. And where some firms won’t choose to leverage those tools and instead decide to remain stagnant, create the market sophistication that forces success into those firms.
When a community does decide to focus on wealth creation for their community, there are still harsh realities to face. For one, small cities and towns in rural areas are too small to create critical mass needed to attract investment by themselves. Those towns also often can’t singularly support the training programs needed to boost their entrepreneurs’ sophistication levels. This means, to even get out of the gate, that there must be collaboration beyond a single municipality or county, and a reduction in the infighting that is all too familiar to those working in rural areas.
Too often in rural communities I have seen a program pop up only to be hamstrung by someone else who thinks- rightly or wrongly- that their toes are being stepped on. Curiously, the biggest resistors to these programs face neither immediate funding threats nor a threat to their immediate clients. As a direct example, I have watched more than one program arise, only to continually be resisted by holdouts all over the area- typically they’re demonized by local governments or other organizations in the same sphere. These programs aren’t funded by the local government and aren’t making a concerted effort to attack any other program in existence, and by all accounts are generating actual success in creating community wealth. The brightest example I have worked alongside has total buy-in from multiple counties and municipalities in their region, while the supposed ‘leading’ and ‘innovative’ municipality of the region still holds out, three years in.
The cynical side of me can only imagine that these resistors are afraid of success because success outside of their controlled bubble highlights weaknesses they want to cover or shortcomings in their own strategies. But is that any reason to fight against programs that are directly operating towards and achieving the same goals of wealth and job creation? Even more cynical, could it be possible that many in charge of development don’t truly care about development at all, and only care about the churn but not the results? That seems just as likely- it could even be both.
On another note, continually dumping out fragmented programming and displaying to the community and to the world a strategic plan that offers no unique propositions is a less than stellar approach. When people outside the region actually acknowledge that the place exists and give it a real look, the fragmentation and stagnation becomes apparent, whether the locals want to believe that or not. On top of both of those, a region where infighting is real- where old Friday night football rivalries still dominate the local political and development landscape- will never pull ahead for good.
Just like in a business, personalities have to be set aside and there must be uniform buy-in to the vision. If that means painfully cutting out programs or people, so be it; more often, that involves running end-arounds around resistors and creating success in spite of those people, as many programs do (after all, if there is value, people will come). More importantly, if that means admitting that certain efforts aren’t generating enough value that makes them worth the expense it’s time to end them. Sunk costs are gone- continuing to sink costs for a low-value effort is folly.
Economic development in rural areas and smaller cities could use a reboot, if not a total rebranding. Right now, there is heavy focus on either attracting big fish with enormous and costly industrial parks or on growing from zero abstract industries/markets (tourism, arts) that either A) generate low, seasonal swings in economic impact (and these are often only minimally understood) or B) are already dominated by other regions. These are attacked with limited resources often at the expense of already present small businesses and industries or without even considering the opportunity cost of making those enormous investments.
The solution is for economic developers to truly, fearlessly work alongside those that are fostering success, and for local politicians to open the doors for real innovation, real wealth creation, and real proactivity. Entrepreneurial programming focusing on capital attraction is, from my perspective, one of the safest bets. At the very least, developers and politicians could get out of the way of people actually changing the game for the better. Even if a community doesn’t want to grow, they must adapt- or die.
Capital is critical to the local business base, and right now many firms in small cities and towns are missing the pieces necessary to successfully attract capital, purely because they haven’t had to in the past or because they don’t see the need. If a region wants to truly grow or sustain, and importantly create that growth organically- they must be active in creating local wealth. Being active will surely eventually develop into an ability to support the more abstract markets as wealth grows- but first the region must get healthy via deep and widespread transfusions of capital into local businesses.