How to Select an Economic Development Project

We want shopping

We want shopping

Visitor Asks: What are the secrets to figuring out a good economic development project for my city? We need the jobs and shopping.

Editors Reply You're giving us a tall order by not explaining more about your location, type of city, current economic drivers, and retail gaps. But nonetheless, we will try to offer some observations that will be helpful to most.

Economic development projects should always be for the benefit of the city's residents, not for elites or for corporations.

As we have discussed at some length on our definition of economic development and economic base pages, among others, economic development in the strictest sense of the term occurs only when your city expands its "exports" to other communities, states, regions, or nations. In other words, only the products and services that are produced in greater quantity than they are consumed in your city really count toward economic development. So adding a new burger joint doesn't count toward economic development, although it might count toward providing residents with "shopping" that you say they need. And the burger joint also can provide entry-level jobs, which are in short supply in some cities. So we aren't going to discriminate here between true "economic development" jobs and non-economic base activities.

In terms of jobs, we suggest starting by asking yourselves about the skills and qualifications of unemployed, discouraged, and underemployed residents, as well as others who have no reasonable path toward career advancement in your city. Figure out what your labor pool has to offer for businesses that start or locate in your city. Ways to research this will vary widely depending on location, but persist in finding answers to this important question. At least determine the educational attainment of available labor.

Then strategize about how you might ask your residents to start businesses that would employ these people, and ask your city, regional, and especially state economic development officials for ideas about whether there might be any prospects for attracting relocating businesses that need your labor force.

This reminds us to say that you need to bring together the strongest possible coalition within your city to work on this problem. If you confine yourself only to business groups, business districts, and a tight group of civic or political leaders, you may overlook the best ideas. Bring together young people; senior citizen organizations such as AARP if you are in the U.S.; minorities; advocacy groups for veterans, disabilities, and immigrants; your community college; very small businesspersons, start-up entrepreneurs, and sole proprietors; and business and civic groups to brainstorm this problem and the solutions. But don't let the chamber of commerce totally dominate—if they could have led the effort by themselves, presumably they would have.

Our point is that when you chase jobs, be sure to try to recruit jobs that fit your labor profile; otherwise the negative social and economic impacts of unemployment will persist.

A second major point is that you should try to build on your strengths rather than start down an entirely new path.

If you have an industry that is thriving, ask them whether there are possibilities to recruit their suppliers or customers to your city.

If you have one or two brilliant start-ups, quiz them about why they selected your location, try to determine if there is a common thread, and then look for similar start-ups who might benefit from other players to network with.

If you have tourism, ask yourselves how can you attract more tourists. This question could lead to projects as diverse as perking up the appearance of your main streets and highways, building sidewalks, publishing maps and putting up attractive and branded wayfinding signs, or recruiting a missing type of restaurant.

If you have an anchor institution such as a major hospital or university, is that institution and its strengths a major consideration as you choose an economic development project? Don't let a big player remain aloof from your job creation problem. Your photo implies that you may be interested in jobs suitable for unskilled labor, such as garbage collection. Have your top elected official and very top civic leaders talk directly with your anchor institutions about increasing their hiring of unskilled or difficult to place individuals.

The third major point is that many places simply need to create their own jobs, since there are truly very few large employers that relocate in any given year. Identify the potential entrepreneurs and your existing start-ups; in most cases you need to devote major effort to supporting those entrepreneurs rather than worrying about attracting someone from the outside.

Seriously, if you have not sat down with your state's economic development professionals, the first thing you should do tomorrow morning is make an appointment to do so. Don't feel you have to follow their advice slavishly but by the same token, but they do travel, hear from people, and have specialized professional training. Usually they have data you cannot find on your own, and they should know how to manipulate that data in helpful ways also.

For shopping, we assume you are talking about very basic stores due to your photos. See our page on retail attraction. In brief, our thought is that if you are having trouble attracting the stores you need, you can either grow your own entrepreneurs by searching for city residents who have experience and expertise in the type of business you need, or you will have to recruit retailers from outside your community.

Today's chain retailers are so sophisticated that they probably have looked at your city already, but it never hurts to check. We emphasize personal contact, so if you want a particular retailer, get on the phone with their corporate offices. You may think they will not take your call, and perhaps they won't, but you don't know this until you try. Those who do talk with you and politely decline to consider your community may teach you something you didn't understand about that particular type of retail.

If you are in a small city, look in neighboring larger cities for a small retail operator similar to what you are missing. Invite that retailer for a tour, take him or her to lunch, spring for a hotel room, or whatever you have to do to charm that retailer.

For shopping, no amount of schmoozing will compensate if you don't have enough total disposable income in your city to support retail you want. You might have to scale back your wishes. Maybe your city cannot support a gift shop, card shop, women's shoe store, or whatever it is you want. But perhaps you can convince an existing retailer to expand the lines they carry, or you can broaden the category you think you are seeking. Maybe you don't have enough market for a women's shoe store, but you can support a women's, men's, children's, athletic, and support shoe store. Adapt that example to your situation.

Maybe you mean that you have shopping but you want a higher caliber of goods. Techniques are the same—grow your own entrepreneur or convince an existing retailer that the market can support a better quality. The quality issue is very acute in tourist towns; in this case, you need to talk with your tacky souvenir shops to let them know they can sell better goods. Support that claim with data about the economic status of your tourists; your state tourism office may have data about income of your tourists, or you might have to pay for your own survey.

Without knowing your city, that is our best advice on economic development projects.

Our final words of wisdom would be that when you say "projects," make sure you content yourself with choosing one particular strategy that you want to try to implement, and concentrate mightily on that course of action. If you don't, you will dissipate your energy.

Choose wisely and after talking with local, university, and state experts, and community constituents we described. But also let all of these players know that if your chosen project does not pan out within a couple of years (less or more, depending on the complexity of your project), you will choose a new project. But don't throw away older projects and discarded ideas. All that information can come in handy later.

  1. Community Development
  2. Questions
  3. Economic Development
  4. Deciding on Jobs and Shopping Attractions Project

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