Your Community: Survive or Thrive? There is a Choice.

The news is bleak: state and local budget cuts, increased unemployment, decreasing property values and tax receipts. The overall mood in your community has changed. Perhaps your community was booming; the local college or university was growing, business activity was up and real estate development was hot. Or, perhaps your community was just about to join in on the economic boom; infrastructure plans were ready, developers were scouting, and community optimism was at a high…just before the collapse.

Now what? Retrench? Wait this thing out? Sure, you can simply wait to deploy your plan. The economy will turn around sooner or later, won’t it? One thing though, it won’t be the same economy so your existing plan will probably not produce desired results. Everything has changed.

Some argue that the US (and indeed, world) economy is experiencing “destruction” versus “contraction” as defined by a recession. Consider the recent changes in banking, which is the circulatory system of our economy. The entire financial landscape is in transition from destruction to re-design, re-build and re-emerge (We are in the latter stages of the destruction phase). This is significant for anyone interested in retaining or creating jobs. Large projects with significant capital investment and appetite for labor are off the table, at least for now.

“Okay”, you say… “We get it.” “How can we adjust our plans and be proactive in this new environment?”

Please take a moment to examine the following:

1. How is your economic development staff being deployed? How much time is devoted to assisting and nurturing existing businesses and local start-ups vs. recruiting? Most new job creation opportunities and ALL existing job retention opportunities are located in your community today. I’m not suggesting that you abandon recruiting, only that you review your resource allocation.

2. How are you marketing? You probably have a website that focuses on your wonderful quality of life. Why wouldn’t everyone want to live here, right? It’s probably true, but unfortunately, it is irrelevant if companies are in no mood to move and your existing business owners already “get it”. Try offering information that will be of value to your existing businesses such as: an online business forum, guest blogs, how to negotiate local beaurocrocies, a talent/job board, local executive biographies and profiles, service provider network, etc. You may discover that prospects will be even more impressed by your vibrant and engaged business community than your new streetscape project.

3. Who is engaged? Your economic development and/or chamber of commerce professionals are paid to be engaged in community and economic development. Many do an outstanding job; however, real success can only be achieved by engaging “champions” to develop, lead or support critical programs or initiatives that make your community more competitive. Do you have support committees leading the charge for improvements in education, talent development and recruitment, public infrastructure, technology, start-up support/angel investing? (Note: I do not recommend meetings for meeting’s sake, aimless brainstorming, or trying to figure out the next big thing. If you want capable individuals to participate, please understand that, by nature, they lead busy lives. They are interested in execution and results.)

4. What are your existing assets? Even though I have seen the film, “Field of Dreams”, many times, I am not a big believer in the If You Build It, They Will Come model of economic development. Sure, you’ll want a minimum inventory of available sites and buildings in order to get prospect visits, but I challenge you to look around your community. You may find: businesses with growth potential, entrepreneurs with great ideas, retirees with knowledge, experience and wisdom, trained workers and available capital. It will take less time and resources to grow your base than to recruit a new one.

In short; involve champions and create an economic movement within your community. Seize control of your common destiny and capitalize on your existing assets. Before long, prospects will want to be a part of your movement.


6 Responses to Your Community: Survive or Thrive? There is a Choice.

  1. John Warner says:


    I agree.

    Recruiting should be strategically targeted to building on a core of strength in the community. What assets do you ready have that are world-class, and what can be recruited to help grow that strength. There should be a complimentary strategy for development of entrepreneurs and educational institutions. The more all economic development strategies add to a core strength (New Carolina calls this a cluster), the greater the global competitiveness of the entire community. Recruitment and knowledge-based strategies are not competitive, they are complimentary.

    A vibrant and engaged business community is essential to increasing innovation and productivity, which is the key to global competitiveness. That is achieved by supporting passionate champions pursuing community building projects which are in their enlightened self-interest.


  2. Beverly Frost says:

    Russell, you’re right on target! I believe we have some communities who do “get it” such as the Digital Corridor in Charleston and Engenuity in Columbia, but the progress has been slow. And look at our competing states – they “got it” sometime ago.

    We are fortunate to have the Endowed Chairs Program, but it appears those funds will continue to be challenged by those who just “don’t want to get it.”

    And indeed, we must work harder to keep our start ups and entrepreneurs within our state; otherwise they leave us and come back as retirees!

  3. Elizabeth Cates says:

    well said. As the co-founder of a small start-up, I have been amazed by the range of assistance provided by my community, and grateful to those individuals and organizations that have helped me navigate it. How many existing small-business owners are unaware of similar opportunities that might exist for them in their community? I suspect the answer is “most of them.”

    Growing an economically vibrant community requires more than a single planting of seeds – it requires continued nurturing. We are well reminded to “fertilize” both our existing businesses as well as new ones strategically recruited to the area.


  4. Tom Ledbetter says:

    Russell and John articulate a leading-edge community-wide engagement model which combines energy, passion, vision, and determination on behalf of the community at large. And there are many “fatal flaws” to avoid, chief among these would be a “fox hole” mentality. We cannot withdraw from an active, on-going determination to grow our communities, to enhance our overall competitiveness, or to identify and nurture existing human talent and physical assets. If we withdraw because of “funding issues” or “other priorities”, WE WILL LOSE. We have to find a way to sustain our play in spite of all those elements that would cause us to withdraw or pull back.

  5. Grant Jackson says:

    Russell: I couldn’t agree more. You are right on target.
    One of our largest initiatives under “Navigating from good to Great” is the Existing Business Retention & Expansion program. Along with the city of Columbia we have already called on more than 100 businesses in the Greater Columbia region.
    The Columbia Talent Magnet Project, of which the chamber and “Navigating from good to Great” are a part, also seeks to couple those important quality of life issues with initiatives such as an entreprenuerial network and an internship campaign, providing resources to create new businesses and connect prospective employers and employees.
    We are also working dilligently to move beyond the meet, talk, study mentality that has sometimes been all too prevalent in our region. We are seeking champions and moving to action on man fronts.
    We can either create our own reality in these difficult times or let one be created for us. We can’t just hunker-down and turtle-up.

  6. Mike Forrester says:

    Russell, great advice. So often folks tend to revert back to the proverbial practice of doing what they’ve always done but expecting different results. I believe some call that insanity. Growing your own jobs either by assisting existing companies expand or by nurturing entrepreneurs as they start new businesses is the most cost effective way to survive this economy.

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