How to Assemble a Seaworthy Economic Development Crew

Magellan didn’t set sail in a one-man rowboat.

Columbus didn’t climb into a kayak before pushing off to the New World. And Captain Cook wasn’t on a stand-up paddleboard.

For voyages of discovery, you need a crew.

You need someone who can read maps. You need someone who can work the sails. You need people to watch for pirates, icebergs and land.

Economic development is much the same.

There’s a whole boat full of stakeholders. And you want to make sure you’re all sailing in the same direction.

economic development crew team

Assembling Your Economic Development Crew

Economic development can mean a lot of different things to different people.

A good way to think of it is as a collection of programs or activities that aims to enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for a given community.

The goals of economic development? Create good jobs. Retain good jobs. Help businesses flourish. Attract new businesses.

To achieve these goals, you’re going to need a diverse team with diverse talents. 

Let's get started...

Your Community’s Economic Development Staff

Today, almost every community has guys like me. And a staff to support economic development.

A community’s public economic development staff can work in a few different ways. They could be part of the mayor’s or county executive’s office. Or maybe economic development gets its own department.

No matter how it’s structured, an economic development staff bring brains, connections and lived experience to the table. They’ve got the institutional knowledge.

RELATED READ: How to Exploit Your Local Economic Director for Fun and Profit

Local Businesses

Economic development strategies can’t succeed without business.

Local businesses don’t just provide jobs. They provide lots of different kinds of jobs.

While a national chain or big box store provides employment, they don't always bring a diverse pool of jobs.

Local businesses allow you to put your eggs in multiple baskets.

That’s part of the reason communities are shifting focus from attracting big companies to growing and helping local businesses. Why focus on the white whale when there’s plenty of other fish in the sea?

Local officials and economic development staff can work together to foster the right environment for businesses. Including them in the conversation is crucial.

economic development organizations

Private and Nonprofit Economic Development Organizations

Some places also have a third set of stakeholders outside – or straddling -- the business and public realms.

Public-private partnerships or nonprofits are often involved in economic development. They help businesses by marketing the region as a whole. They advocate for infrastructure projects that benefit the local economy. And sometimes they lend to businesses.

These can be organizations focused on revitalizing a community’s downtown or waterfront. Business improvement districts. Or a regional economic development council.

A more familiar type of organization in this mold is the Chamber of Commerce.

Chambers are membership-based but have the interests of the whole business community at heart. They work to retain current business. To recruit new ones. And they help sell the region as a destination for visitors.

Many areas also have community development corporations (CDCs). CDCs might lease or develop property, lend to businesses or help train workers. The structure? They can be for-profit, non-profit or run as community cooperatives even.

They’re often the technical assistance side of the economic development equation when it comes to private and nonprofit economic development organizations.

The money side? That’s handled by Community Development Financing Institutions (CDFIs). In a word, CDFIs provide money to places and people that others won’t. A neighborhood that’s seen better days. An individual down on his luck.

If these places need an injection of capital to get something started, they can turn to a CDFI.

A community credit union is a familiar CDFI. They can also take the form of loan funds or community development banks.

Real Estate Developers

You can’t do economic development without… well… development.

Real estate developers are always a key constituency in the economic development landscape. They can provide homes for residents and for your workforce. They can create new commercial and retail space.

Developers can take unused or unwanted parts of your community and build shiny new buildings on them.

Which is what everyone wants, right?

Sometimes. A challenge of working with developers is that they all have their own aims. And those aims can sometimes conflict with those of the community.

It’s important to understand what niche each developer in your community fills. And how their interests can be balanced with the community’s.

A developer may have what they feel is a great idea for a vacant parcel or old run-down building. But ask the neighbors and you might hear something different. Community concerns that can irk developers run the gamut from historic preservation to just plain Not-In-My-Back-Yard NIMBYism.

Workforce Development Partners

Even once you’ve succeeded in hooking a big employer, your job’s not done.

Say the business that you’ve managed to attract to your area needs workers who understand advanced manufacturing technologies. Or who have lab training. Or who have a certain degree.

But your residents don’t have those skills and knowledge...yet.

That’s where workforce development partners come in. They can help you line things up.

Workforce development and economic development go hand in hand. When there’s no mismatch between your workforce’s skills and abilities and the jobs waiting for them, the sky’s the limit.

Workforce development might be a part of your local government. But in many cases they are nongovernmental. Think community colleges and vocational schools that provide training. Or it could be your CDC providing a program for residents seeking work.

Whatever form they take, working with workforce development is all about plugging leaks in the pipeline that runs between your residents and the jobs they want.

RELATED READ: The Workforce Workout: 3 Exercises to Grow Your Local Economy

elected officials economic development

Elected Officials

Elected public officials are like the captain of the ship.

But they might not have ever set sail before.

Why do elected officials need to be involved, even when they don’t have a background with economic development? Because economic development requires collective action and public resources.

You need a strategy. And you need someone who can bring consensus, agreement or common purpose to that process.

Enter the elected official.

They’ve got the bully pulpit. They can exert political influence in support of strategic planning around economic development. They can bring people together. They can make things happen.

Elected officials should also be aware of the possibility of community opposition. Part of their job can be to bridge gaps between developers and the community and give neighbors a chance to weigh in.

Elected officials are the captain, but they can’t throw someone in the hull or make them walk the plank.

Elected officials need to be collaborative, deferential and responsive. They can’t just rule with an iron fist.

economic development stakeholders

Here are some best practices for elected officials collaborating with stakeholders as part of your region’s economic development team.

1. Elected Officials Should Soak Up Knowledge

When an elected official succeeds with economic development, it’s not by acting like a captain. They also have to act like a sponge.

Absorbing knowledge and demonstrating that understanding is critical for elected officials in the economic development game.

Economic development isn’t all beautiful building renderings and ribbon cuttings. Understanding the ins- and outs- of complex policy matters and facts and figures behind each issue is a must for elected officials.

It ensures they are on even ground with other stakeholders. And no one can pull the wool over their eyes.

But mainly, getting into the weeds on something as dry sounding as local zoning bylaws or the permitting process can help elected officials spot opportunities and better serve their constituents.

2. Elected Officials Should Bring People Together

Another role that elected officials can play is convener.

People might know they should be rowing in the same direction. But sometimes they need to get in the same room to know what that direction is.

Elected officials can get stakeholders in the community on the same page at a meeting or getting residents to make their voice heard at a public hearing.

And of course there’s the job of bringing your workforce development goals into alignment with your economic development goals. That means convening leaders on both sides of the coin.

Making sure everyone’s at the table and has a chance to be heard is what good elected officials do best. And it can make all the difference for the economic development of a community.

3. Elected Officials Should Pitch Your Community – To Anyone Who Will Listen

There’s always a trap for elected officials when it comes to economic development.

On the one hand, you want a bigger piece of the pie. To get a bigger share of state or federal dollars, you want to make the case that your community is in need. On the other, a sob story isn’t going to attract developers and businesses.

Developers and businesses are interested in vibrant, up-and-coming places with lots of opportunity on the horizon.

It's a tough tightrope to walk.

Elected officials need to be pitching their community. And that means telling a positive story.

A credible role that elected officials can play outside of their community is as ambassador for that community. When visiting other communities or making the pitch for increased funding from this or that source, be sure to talk up your own. Identify the needs in your community without making people feel sorry for it.

Almost Ready to Set Sail

There’s one other group of stakeholders who might be the most important crew members of all... your community.

Members of the public can help or hinder any economic development effort.  Whatever your economic development agenda is, it needs the backing of your community.

Understanding the kind of jobs they want, the quality of life they would like and their vision of the future has to be part of the program.

With the community on your side, and a good crew in place, you'll always feel the wind at your back.

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