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

February 3, 2009

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.