13 May Best of times. Worst of times. Always time for economic development initiatives
A few years ago, the Omaha Chamber’s economic development arm initiated an award-winning awareness campaign around a double entendre slogan: “Omaha … We Don’t Coast.” Creative design and art, clever video footage, and great social media distribution were all part of the pitch. It was as effective at changing attitudes locally as it was at bringing Omaha to the attention of powerful players across the country.
In my wanderings across the continent and the world, I’ve decided that Omaha’s slogan could be an unspoken strategy for every community and economic development entity, regardless of how close they are to saltwater. In some cities and regions, however, I see public and private sector civic/development entities pulling back on their marketing and business retention efforts when times are good.
In some regions, the “no-growthers” ramp up their NIMBY chorus following growth spurts, which creates added burdens and obstacles to development. In others, the entities responsible for attracting, retaining and expanding businesses focus their attention elsewhere in good times. They cut back on aggressive recruiting efforts because the investor interest in their community is “already strong enough.”
Communities can feel desperate during tough times when unemployment and outbound relocation numbers are up and property prices are stagnant. But in times of prosperity, like those being enjoyed in many parts of the country now, it may be tougher to rally enthusiasm and funding for economic development initiatives. Without a sense of urgency (population & job loss), some communities do indeed coast.
Let me give you three reasons why this is a bad idea:
First, the economic well-being being experienced by the majority of people in a community or region is not felt by everybody. Disparities exist in every town and thinking “we’ve arrived” will leave specific neighborhoods in the doldrums and under-represented folks in worse shape than ever. In other words, you’re not a prosperous community until everyone feels that they have the opportunity to share in the abundance.
Second, economic development projects have long timelines and take many winding turns. It could be three or more years before the first shovel hits the ground and five years before the first employee is hired. Victory parties for 2022 are being crafted and nursed along today.
Third, if the traditional promotion and prospecting of economic development become hard to “sell” to city hall and the general population, there are a hundred other activities that can enhance the product – the economic ecosystem and infrastructure for future growth. Experts in the branding world know that the only thing that can change minds, or even perceptions, is multiple impressions over time. You can’t afford to pause the consistent, persistent presence of your region in front of decision-makers around the country and the world.
As a consultant to chamber EDCs and community leaders, I can talk about strategies, tactics, and processes for as many hours as they can stand. What may be more important, however, are attitude and context. Constant examination of economic condition and honest evaluation of generations, sectors, and districts can highlight how far your towns and cities still have to go. Community-wide aspirations that look beyond the next budget or term of office will often prevent coasting — even when times are good.