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Developing “Place”: A Case for Economic Development

April 18, 2013 /

Regions, towns, cities and small municipalities are looking for the “brass ring” of economic development to get them off of the merry-go-round of replacing tax burden and increased costs with an expanded tax base.  Missing the ring requires leaders to raise taxes, eliminate important jobs or to throw “incentive’ money at potential employers.  Maybe what we should look towards are areas that already have the brass ring because, well, they are great places.  Maybe in addition to trying to find great employers, we ought to be spending our time and treasure creating economic development through envisioning great places

What are good places and what are great places?  I won’t name names, as not to offend.  But Delaware has a mixture of A) great places, B) good places that could be great, C) really weak places that could stand for revitalization and D) new places and developments that need to be inspired to become great.  I’ll leave the definition of “great place” to the reader, but let me ask, “How many places in Delaware would someone from Nebraska come to visit because they wanted something fun to do?”, and “How many places would the next Mark Zuckerberg find cool enough to locate the next Facebook?”, and “How many great places is Delaware supposed to have?  Do we have a limit?”

Great places attract intellectual capital:  Take a look at Cambridge, Massachusetts and you will understand.  Nearly $2 Billion is being spent to cater to graduates of Harvard and M.I.T, who are in high demand by the world’s smartest companies and who have chosen a lifestyle that includes commuting on an elevated train, buying chai tea on the way to work, being able to stop for drinks on the walk to a ballgame and getting Wi Fi no matter where you go.  Boston, New York, and San Diego are just some of the culture rich “cool” places that are attracting the best and brightest.  And according to Forbes Magazine contributor Peter Cohen, “capital flows to talent.”

url-11Great places improve the experience and reduce the burden to the average family:  Ever been on a great vacation?  Why did you like the place so much?  Of course the weather or a specific attraction should be on the list.  But my guess is that if you were offered the ability to walk from your room to dinner, to a cultural attraction, for a run or walk, or to get the paper and a cup of coffee, your experience was memorable.    The idea of walkability has an equally dramatic effect on the family.  If your family can walk or bike to school, to the ball field, to the library, to work, to the corner store, etc…. the quality of your life is improved.  Better yet, it can reduce the cost to your family, according to the National Center for Housing Policy, the impact of housing related costs are a growing burden for the family.  They say that housing and transportation costs consume approximately 50% of income for those who earn a moderate income.  Great places, reduce the need for large land purchases, share open space, and place employment, recreation and shopping in close proximity to households.  Vibrant city neighborhoods or mixed-use villages in suburbia are key to improving the experience and reducing the burden.

Great places are attractive to employers (the other brass ring):  When considering locations, corporations are looking at people.  As stated above, capital (and jobs) will flow towards the talent.  But once the talent pool is established, companies want to make sure that their workforce is fulfilled and productive.  Hence, we have seen a gravitation of corporations to complete communities where crime rates, art, recreation, and environment are as important as education and transportation when evaluating site selection.  Cynthia Kincaid completed a report on this subject in 2011 for Site Selection and Planning Online.  She wrote:  “Quality of life still matters, and you can’t take your eye off the quality piece,” says Dennis Donovan, principal at Bridgewater, New Jersey-based, Wadley, Donovan Gutshaw Consulting. “When the economy improves there will be strong competition for labor, and being in an area where a company can recruit critical talent from around the U.S. is going to be important. “You have to assume we are going to return to full labor markets,” he adds. “It may be five years from now, but when you are making a location decision, you have to look five to 10 years down the road. Quality of life still has meaning in site selection.” Indeed, quality of life can be the deciding factor for many companies in the final – or even beginning – stages of the site selection process. Larry Gigerich, managing director for Indianapolis based, Ginovus, LLC, emphasizes the importance that many companies are continuing to place on quality-of-life issues for their employees.  And according to Emily McMackin of BusinessClimate.comUniversity of Minnesota economist Ann Markusen calls this asset the “artistic dividend” — and there is plenty of sociological research to back it up, says Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida’s research shows how artistic and creative movements that spring up from the streets make cities more energetic, diverse and attractive.

url-12Great places are tourist attractions:  Great places bring people in from other areas to spend money without the burden or social cost to the community.   Some attractive places are new, some are old and some are revitalized. Take a look around our region, from Alexandria, VA to Kentlands, MD, to Manayunk, PA to Chesapeake City, Maryland, people like spending time and treasure in these villages.  Who said we only get to have beaches as our tourist destination?  And who said we had to have a “Six Flags” to attract outsiders?  We should be building greatness into our new and existing communities in a way that would inspire the traveller to come, spend the night and leave part of their paycheck with us.  Maybe they’ll like it so much they’ll start a business here!

It is time that we added “Creating Great Places” to our economic development strategies for the state.  It is not mutually exclusive with other strategies, but should sit right along side them.  It’s an investment that will pay dividends, create jobs, and leave our great grandchildren with a beautiful legacy.

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