A Primer For Local Government Officials Who Want To Jump Start Economic Development

Any easy way to grasp “how to jump start local economic development” is to understand that every community across America {except where the sale of liquor is prohibited by a municipal law or County ordinance} has three types of bars? There are trendy upscale bars – the nightclubs, supper clubs and ethnic pubs. Places where people go to celebrate their anniversaries, consummate business deals, hold promotion parties, commemorate retirements and take Grandma on her birthday. Then there are the friendly corner taverns and local bars where like minded friends gather to relax, enjoy simple but good food and shoot the breeze. Finally, there are the wilder places often frequented by the young power drinkers who want to let their hair down or blow off steam on Friday and Saturday nights. Many bars in this category see questionable characters and most are well known by local law enforcement officials who occasionally come out to provide assistance.

If you understand the above analogy we can talk local economic development. Across the American landscape there are basically three types of communities? First, the upscale communities with lots of white picket fences and home to fashionable boutiques, coffee shops and strip malls boasting national brands. Next, the family-friendly communities with vibrant downtowns and classic main streets; many tout their historic past or their ethnic heritage. Local businesses in these communities have been in existence for years and are now run by third and fourth generation family members. Often there is idyllic city park where gala events and community festivals are held each year and most of the community turns out.

Finally, there are a fair share of communities with abandoned factories and vacant homes many defaced with graffiti. For years one major employer drove the local economy but it has since folded. Litter lines many streets and trash is visible in many neighborhoods. Many city parks and boulevards are in need of repair? When the old time retailers pulled up stakes – tattoo parlors, pawn shops and gentlemen clubs moved in. Remaining retailers now display brightly colored hand painted signs in their windows proclaiming “big sale” and ”everything must go”.

Let’s return to the bar analogy to understand a public official’s role in jump starting economic development. Why it is that some bars attract high-end customers and serve fine foods while others offer laid back friendly atmospheres and affordable meals. Finally, why are some bars magnets for the overzealous party crowd that enjoys Jaeger Bombs and Jell-O shots? It’s not the bar’s location, the traffic pattern in the community or the name of the bar. No, the only factor that determines a bar’s character, atmosphere, customer base and profitability is its management.

Bars owners who deal with problems head on and re-invest in their facilities have busy bars. Bars owners who develop stringent policies and procedures which they consistently enforce have – without exception – profitable bars. Bar owners who leave nothing to chance and insist employees and customers alike maintain high standards rake in the profits. The bottom line is – good bar owners/managers have profitable bars; lousy bar owners/managers have lousy unprofitable bars.

Vibrant and growing communities without exception have strong local public officials; static, decaying and dying communities have weak local government officials. Dominant local government officials, like dominant bar owners, create lofty goals and think five to ten years down the road. Good local public officials create a clear vision for their community’s future and adopt policies and procedures that support their future vision.

A great question for local public officials is:”When a major corporation is considering building a new plant or when individual businessmen and women are thinking about expanding an existing operation where do you think they prefer to locate?” Do they seek out upscale – family friendly – or wild communities? Do they favor communities with clear visions for the future or worn and weathered communities with no plans for tomorrow? I encourage every public official to drive through their community and ask themselves what do their neighborhoods, streets, parks, businesses and schools convey and reflect. High quality – Family friendly or Seedy? Do they look geared up and ready to take on economic development or expansion?

Many local government officials honestly think economic development is once every 10 or20 year activity. They like to believe that citizen input committees, public hearings, blue ribbon commissions, feasibility studies and public referendums are necessary. It’s convenient for many to think this way because then they can abdicate any personal responsibility for economic development. However the reality is jump starting local economic development rest squarely on the shoulders of local government officials.

Townships, villages, cities, boroughs, parishes and counties that want to jump start economic development need dominant local public officials; men and women who can make decisions. People who can create a vision for the future then formulate measurable objectives and implement strict standards and policies which are enforced – specifically zoning standards and business ordinances. Local economic development does not end with local public officials but the burden of jump starting local economic development definitely rests on their shoulders.

Agree with these thoughts? Post a comment. Disagree with these thoughts? Post a comment.

If I get enough comments I will share the Seven Ways Local Public Officials Sabotage Economic Development.

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Paul Wolf

I think that there is very little that local elected officials can do to impact economic development and the creation of jobs. Personally my preference is that City Hall not have an economic development office that spends time trying to attract businesses by giving away tax dollars.

Perhaps my views are too jaded by the dysfunction I see in my home town of Buffalo, NY but rarely do I see government programs have a positive effect on economic development at the local level.

I would rather see elected officials concentrate on running schools, police, and sanitation services as best they can, creating a positive environment for private sector economic development.

To me economic development at the local level means patronage employees who don’t have the best skill sets, steering money to politically connected developers who in turn direct campaign contributions to elected officials. It all becomes a “pay to play” racket where sound economic decisions are not made.

Eliminate the economic development office and the patronage jobs that go with it and concentrate on providing basic government services. Private sector entrepreneurs will take care of the rest.

Pam Broviak

I agree with what you are saying because I have worked in both types of communities and each had the resulting economic environment you predicted.

As you point out, companies scoping out places to open up check out the infrastructure, the government services, etc. They don’t want to open up in a place where the city does not take care of the roads or the downtown or parks or where the city has not planned for future growth. I’ve had many people in the development business share this with me. Yes, demographics means a lot, but the state of the city so to speak is what might make or break that final decision to open shop in that location.

And based on my experience, one of the primary factors affecting the state of the city is the type of elected official. When they had vision and cared about the community as a whole and understood their job, the town flourished. When all they cared about was themselves or their friends and relatives, the town struggled.

But I did notice another factor that is not quite as obvious and is probably related in a way to what Paul is saying. In one community where I worked, it seemed there was a group of people who depended on the local government for business. In a way, they had allowed themselves to become so dependent on having the local government as a customer that the loss of that business would have possibly caused a significant decrease in their revenue. Because of this anytime the city found a cheaper product or service, many times which was also at a higher quality, the city could not take advantage of it because the business owner who faced the loss of government as a customer would complain to the elected official. These business people also became vocal and obstructed any movement forward that threatened their position. And so the decisions were always made to basically continue to subsidize those businesses. Eventually the city was subsidizing a considerable number of businesses in the community. This approach also does not create a viable and economically strong community.

However, I do believe there are some economic development activities that local government can do that benefits everyone and isn’t necessarily a private sector task. One thing is to create a vacant property database to offer to developers looking for space. Also, this department can monitor and analyze the business community and serve as a liaison between it and the city. This is important because local government is very dependent on this community for revenue so it is necessary to know what is going on with it on a regular basis. And it is important to provide them assistance in navigating the regulations and requirements that affect them. This department is also needed to provide the city-related information developers need when exploring parcels for possible businesses. And they can also serve as event organizers or facilitators and help in promoting tourism.