Community economic development: focusing the fundamental effort

Communities are concerned about growing their local economy, whether they are doing this individually or as part of a regional approach.

Seeking a definition of “economic development” and a method for obtaining it can be an exercise in semantics and philosophy. Ask seven people to define it and you will get eight answers. Just as values are developed by experiences and education, vision is created by shared community values. Vision drives goals, which are achieved by effective strategies. The attainment of a goal can only accomplished by complete agreement on the strategic approach (direction). Without consensus on destination, the journey cannot begin.

Two classical definitions of economic development are: “the mobilization of the natural, human, capital and infrastructure resources of a community to create wealth” and “the sustained, concerted actions of policymakers and communities that promote the standard of living and economic health of a specific area”. The common terms from both of these definitions are community and wealth. The first definition gives a concrete explanation of what is being acted upon, yet passes on the opportunity to mention the community as a player. The second definition is more place-based and indicates that the local community is leading the charge. In both definitions, we have the term wealth that is used as an abstract and somewhat elusive term.

The first definition lists what is being used or changed to move a community toward wealth. Infrastructure assets are generally tangible, things like roads, water, sewer, rail, electric, broadband and buildings. An area’s workforce and related training resources can be counted and reported. Capital availability is also a number that can be expressed along with necessary requirements for obtainment. Often overlooked, but equally important, are the natural resources that define the area. Productive soils, forest and water accessibility, while abundant in many rural counties, can be overlooked when the need for promotion of the quality of life presents an opportunity.

As shown in the articles "Placemaking is an economic development strategy" and "Putting place into planning: Placemaking and the master plan", “placemaking” theorists believe that the attraction of new enterprises is enhanced by being an attractive, relevant setting with modern infrastructure. Michigan State University Extension educators, who specialize in placemaking, can be engaged to conduct an appreciative inquiry study to determine what the local assets and capabilities are. Awareness and appreciation of these assets and capabilities tend to result in positive communication of an area’s resources.

The availability of relevant regional data related to these assets and capabilities, along with the comprehensive economic development strategy of the regional planning commission, can provide an overview of the current consensus regional approach. While a regional focus can be helpful in the bigger picture, it is critical that each individual community develop a comprehensive vision for their community that is based on utilizing regional strengths for the direction of their community’s economic development.

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