Since unemployment rates have declined in many part of Washington, we can begin to think more carefully about the real goals of economic development planning.
Although job creation is always important, it makes sense to begin to ask what kinds of jobs we want to create. In many successful communities, other objectives of economic development planning are as important or more important than just the short-range objective of job creation.
Despite strong economies in recent years in the United States and Canada, economic development remains an important and a widely recognized activity. This is due in part to the persistent poverty that plagues many parts of both urban and rural communities.
Also, local community leaders everywhere know that economies are cyclical and that no “boom” lasts forever. Another contributor to the importance of economic development is the continued existence of conceptions of the role of economic development that were created in the 1980s and early 1990s. In response to those periods of economic recession and their high unemployment, competition intensified between states and even between communities within a single state.
Job recruitment and job creation for the sake of job creation became common. The mantra was, “Any job is a good job.”
As economic development established itself as widely accepted and high profile, many of these communities have more aggressively pursued their development goals.
This has made economic development a more complex and challenging field. Public sector collaboration with private entities to enhance local economies has become the norm rather than the exception. The creation and management of these relationships are now a crucial part of the economic developer’s job.
College training and professional certification has mushroomed in all areas of the vocation, from general economic development to business incubation.
However, despite the increased sophistication of the profession, local economic development continues to be narrowly focused on one primary goal: Job Creation. This is politically understandable. Jobs are a tangible outcome that politicians can proudly point to when defending their records. Low unemployment wins votes.
Yet economic development includes much more than job creation.
In fact, job creation is usually the end result of a well-considered, comprehensive and rational approach to economic development. Economic development is not an event. It is a process, and if the process is well done, the jobs will follow.
More thought must be given to the long-term objectives of local economic development activities and to the way economic development plans fit into the broader perspective of community development.
So why plan for economic development?
Economic development planning is no different than any other kind of business planning. A thoughtful and comprehensive plan will provide the roadmap, with goals, objectives and measurable outcomes for the economic development activities of the community. Without a plan, the community will never know where it is going or if they ever arrive.
The first step in formulating an economic development action plan is to set measurable objectives. It is very important to be clear as to why economic development is important so as to guide future actions.
Communities may have a variety of economic development objectives. Common among those are, of course, the traditional job creation.
Other objectives might include job retention, tax base creation, increasing disposable income by increasing wages, retention of wealth, reduction of poverty, economic stability and economic self-sufficiency. Most communities typically pursue a combination of these.
Economic development is a long-term community activity. It is a community’s investment in its future. An economic development plan, like a retirement savings account, needs to be worked in especially hard in the good times, because it will prove its true worth in the more difficult times.
If you should think that there is value in planning for economic development, you might appreciate that the Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council is in the process of developing the organization’s first five-year economic development plan.
Its purpose is to identify what activities we will engage in to enhance the economic base of Whatcom County and why. It will identify what we are not going to do and why.
The plan will rely heavily on and explain how the economic development partnerships can work together to achieve the objectives identified therein. Most importantly, it will have measurable outcomes for each activity area. It is intended to be a working document because, like the roadmap, there are often many ways to get to a destination.
The operational aspects of this plan will be focused on the mission critical, economic development activities of the EDC.
The focus is on the enhancement and preservation not only of the economic basis of the community but also on the enrichment of the overall quality of life for the all citizens of Whatcom County.
Rob Pochert is the executive director of the Bellingham/Whatcom Economic Development Council.