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What does the federal government have to do with local economic development? A lot.

At Fourth Economy, our focus is on helping communities develop strategies that will make a big impact. For major projects, that often means identifying and assisting in applying for federal assistance. The federal landscape can be confusing, especially when trying to keep up with the news out of Washington. We can help sort through the thicket of regulations to find opportunities that align with your communities plans by leveraging our experience with federal programs and our engagement with national trade groups.

One of the best groups to keep up to date with opportunities in Washington is the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). Matt Mullin, IEDC's Vice President of Policy & Communications heads up their policy efforts, so I reached out to him for an overview of the federal role in local community and economic development.

Emily: Why do economic developers need to know what is happening on a national policy level? Don't they have enough to deal with in their own communities?

Matt: The federal government, whether functioning well, or not, plays a significant role in what happens at the local and regional level on both a macro and micro scale.

On the macro scale, the rhetoric coming out of Washington influences the international economy. When a president is talking about trade with China it impacts business decisions that are being made about future supply chains, distribution and other factors.

On a micro level, the federal government is still spending money. While the administration is not supportive of economic development programs in their budget, congress has ignored them and has pumped more money into our key programs. These federal resources make direct impacts on the local level.

I understand that seeking federal aid in this climate can be exhausting, especially for small communities where it is hard to find the time and resources to apply for and report on grants. It is easy to make a decision to ignore the federal government during this time. That’s unfortunate, because those that are persistent have a real opportunity to get resources that have not been available in the past.

Emily: What resources does IEDC provide for economic developers to learn more about public policy and federal resources?

Matt: We provide research analysis and advocacy resources to help members remain engaged in DC. Last year, we published a guide that outlines investments in local economic development projects from different agencies is available for free download on the IEDC website. We provide federal updates in our newsletter, legislative alerts when key pieces are under consideration, and updates at key moments in legislative calendar.

We also advocate on the behalf of the profession, to the administration, to federal agencies and to congress. Furthermore, IEDC has a Public Policy Advisory Committee that informs our board on policy and legislation. This is the general membership’s voice to the IEDC board on public policy.

Emily: This administration certainly has an unconventional approach to economic development! What are some of the changes you have seen?

Matt: Their agenda for economic policy seems to be largely grounded in trade policy; tariffs, trade negotiations, NAFTA, China. Early on they had suggested they would drop multinational trade agreements in favor of bi-national. That has largely fallen on the wayside. Now they are focused on China and Canada and Mexico through revising NAFTA. Outside of that, not clear what major initiatives that they will engage in.

Previously, administrations would create focus areas. For example, the last administration took on the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership. That was not a funded initiative but it put a spotlight on regional strategies for manufacturing. Programs like those do not exist currently.

Emily: What about Opportunity Zones?

Matt: Opportunity Zones are a program that was included in the 2017 tax bill. The program was something that had been worked on for some time by Economic Innovation Group in collaboration with Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott. This is the first tax credit program since New Markets Tax Credits, which are over 10 years old. The program is under the purview of the Department of Treasury. They collaborated with the CDFI Fund to get the ball rolling, and now the Internal Revenue Service is taking it over.

It came as a bit of a surprise, and there has been some scrambling, but now all zones are identified and the regulations are being completed. No more zones will be identified for this round, but it is possible that, if all goes well, there may be future iterations. This is a bright spot in an otherwise uncertain climate for economic development and the administration has thankfully embraced it.

Emily: Are there any programs that most economic developers don't know about that you feel are particularly useful and important?

Matt: According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there are 120 federal economic development programs. GAO needs to revisit this because while there are many programs that have the ability to improve the economy through investment, not all are specifically economic development oriented.

In terms of economic development programs, I think EDA is deserving of greater attention because it is the only federal agency specifically and exclusively designed to engage in economic development actions. It’s only purpose is to help local communities experiencing economic distress through investments in infrastructure, planning, and technical assistance. In fact, EDA is the lead agency for economic recovery following disaster at the federal level because it is precisely the type of work it does on a daily basis. They are the experts in economic recovery and resiliency.

EDA was created through the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (PWEDA). Reading over the signing statement made by President Lyndon Johnson over 50 years ago reveals the relevancy of the agency to this day.

Emily: Aren't you putting on a conference soon?

Matt: Yes. The Federal Economic Development (FED) Forum is the only annual conference of its kind. While there are lots of legislative conferences, this is the only one focused on federal economic development programs and policies. You will typically see two dozen or more agencies on our program and usually the person participating is the lead program director. At this conference, the connections that you make can translate into getting a grant, getting answers, getting assistance on bureaucratic issues that you would not otherwise have.

These are the people you want to know and form relationships with, because, even in this environment, there are still many career civil servants who believe in the work they do and want to help you.

One of the speakers I am most excited about is Fran Seegal who is the Executive Director of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, which is being incubated at the Ford Foundation. She will be talking about their work in standards and best practices for communities in Opportunity Zones, especially advancing community development in sync with economic development. We’ll also be welcoming the newly-confirmed head of EDA, Dr. John Fleming.

Plus, it is springtime in Washington!


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