January is an exciting month in many state capitals around the country. There are twenty new Governors being sworn in and starting to announce their teams. There are others who were re-elected and recognize that a second term provides a unique moment to be bold with their agendas. Soon, many will need to submit their first budget request and begin the shift from campaign rhetoric to actual programmatic and policy-driven agenda setting.
We have seen the good, the bad, and everything in between in how these leaders - well, LEAD. Some will seek to lead in a hands-on way, meeting with key constituents and helping to manage the daily agenda of the government. Others will choose to rely on the talented people they hire to carry out the vision.
Most are in agreement that the economy of their state - jobs for residents, happy employers, outsiders interested in moving in - are all important to their political futures. They recognize that a healthy economy makes the other tough issues they must deal with easier.
So how do they ensure economic success?
Think Beyond Transactions
It’s hard to argue against wanting the press release and the photo op with the big scissors or golden shovels. The announcement of an expansion, a new housing development for millennials, or a major infrastructure project, all attract interest and ‘show’ that things are getting done. I’ve seen too many economic development leaders focus on these wins and ignore what’s bubbling beneath the surface in their communities.
The announcement of these transactions must be accompanied by an understanding of the short and long term consequences. Often these broadcasted wins fall short of the excitement promised. Economic forces change the narrative and project scope as the growth ramps up; or worse, the face-value excitement is for a deal that will strain the community fabric. For example:
Community Win: Job creation!
Community Loss: All of the jobs pay below the community’s living wage.
Too many communities are losing with this rhetoric, and trust in leadership is lost as excitement deflates.
Announcing improvement in areas like place, investment, diversity, sustainability, and talent are the wins that leaders should aim for to create a lasting impact and to maintain trust and excitement about local development.
The Fourth Economy Community Index is a great resource for economic development officials to start looking into key indicators, like those listed above for each county in their state. The Community Index is a free resource that profiles almost every county by using 19 indicators that we think illustrate what is needed for success.
Quality of Place Drives Economic Development
For years now, I’ve been preaching that the best tool for economic development is a vibrant community that supports diverse lifestyles. There are a lot of people who get paid to tell you how bad your tax system is, why you should throw truckloads of incentives at companies and that your red tape is ‘crushing business’. Our research has shown that in a vibrant community those issues become footnotes and not the lead story. People want to be in communities that have culture, recreation, good education, and a welcoming environment. If you have those things people will stay or move to be there and the jobs will follow.
A few years back we researched the most transformed places in the country and found the quality of place to be the common thread. The message and results of that research are stronger than ever.
Power Comes From Collaboration
The history of governors and economic development leaders is filled with those who have tried the Command and Control approach, and those that pursue Collaboration.
The command and control leaders think that the path to success can be dictated. They fail to recognize that economic development is a team effort that can sometimes involve hundreds of organizations and leaders.
The Collaborative crowd recognize this and use their positions to rally, to leverage, to inspire those in their network to pursue a shared vision. The collaborative leaders will have a longer-lasting positive impact. They are the ones that collect awards and are well-regarded by their peers and communities they serve.
These are my three pieces of economic development advice to our newly-elected officials:
Don’t get caught up in flashy announcements
Pursue quality of place for all citizens
Work collaboratively with organizations and local leaders.
Governors that uphold these standards will set themselves, and their state, apart from the rest. I hope that all leaders, not just governors, can use this advice to help chart a better course and support vibrant communities in their state.