It's about people, not jobs

This past week, Michael Hicks,  the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, posted an article titled, A not-so-quiet revolution in economic development. In this, he states how many Indiana economic development practices in the past 50 years have been sad efforts of "romancing the smokestack." 

He states, "Since the 1960s, economic development in most of Indiana meant luring a business, sometimes any business, to town. The tools for these policies were cheap land, cheap labor, tax breaks and subsidies. That process cheapened our land, immiserated workers and starved local governments of much-needed revenues."

He continues, "Over the past 15 years nearly every Indiana county has subsidized a new business that pays below-average wages, subsidized a big company that reneged on its hiring promises or constructed a still-empty shell building. It is easy to trace the popularity of these policies to those whom they benefit. It is clearly not the taxpayer nor future residents of Indiana."

Well said. His call for new community leadership to redefine the meaning and practice of economic development is spot on. As we have worked with associates in the community development field, we see this transition in practice. New language such as "placemaking" is surfacing to redefine this space and bring clearer emphasis to the importance on first attracting people - not jobs - to communities.

Without population growth, communities die. If you live in a community where people are not clamoring to find an apartment or home, you are in trouble -- and you are not alone.  Communities around the world are starting to realize the fact that the annual growth rate of world population is rapidly declining. The population growth rate in the United States is only .7% and it will decrease to be negative along with other developed countries. Only areas in South America and the Middle East will have high population growth rates for the years to come. 

This context is important, especially when linked with the national macro trends demonstrating demographic and migration changes. This proves that urbanization is real. Millennials and seniors alike are moving to urban, walkable communities. When it comes to staking ground, millennials first choose where they want to live -- then, they find a job -- and they tend to stay. The days of jobs first driving attraction to communities are gone. It is about quality of place and social connection. It is about winning people over to live in your community.

Our associates at Thomas P. Miller Associates have coined the term "community resiliency." This may best describe the elasticity and stickiness that communities need these days to economically adapt and thrive. As workforce availability will continue to be low for the decades to come, economic development must shift from first being about attracting industry to first creating a place where people want to live.

Perhaps the following top 30 list is a start for defining the components for achieving community resiliency and placemaking that will attract people. These are in no order of importance. However, it could be argued that the elements at the bottom are not possible without the tax base and environment developed by offering the elements at the top of the list. 

  1. Social connection and events
  2. Walkability and bikability
  3. Less suburban and more urban - a strong downtown
  4. Street life and night life
  5. Great food
  6. Cool places to shop or hang out
  7. Recreation
  8. Nature
  9. Environmental care
  10. Health and fitness
  11. Strong leadership
  12. A community identity, story and pride
  13. Diversity
  14. Inclusion
  15. Regional proximity and friendliness to more opportunities
  16. Philanthropy and volunteerism
  17. Entrepreneurship
  18. Neighborhoods with character
  19. Apartments and rented housing
  20. Higher property values
  21. Affordable housing
  22. Jobs with career paths
  23. Entry levels jobs
  24. Learning institutions and opportunities
  25. Interesting and diverse industrial base
  26. Investment-ready space for new retail, commercial, industrial growth
  27. Public transportation
  28. Great schools
  29. Public safety
  30. Appealing aesthetics and maintained infrastructure