BILL CRAWFORD: Economic developers under pressure

Jobs. The great challenge facing communities today is more jobs. As a result, people responsible for growing jobs are under tremendous pressure.

Then, there are places like the Columbus area where economic developer Joe Max Higgins is having great success attracting jobs. Other communities see such success, ask “why not us,” and put even more pressure on their developers to grow jobs.

Of course, it’s not fair to put the job growth burden on economic developers alone. They do not and cannot work in isolation. Communities must provide resources and tools needed for them to be effective. Governing boards must give them clear and realistic goals. That said, economic developers are expected to grow jobs.

So, how can communities tell if their economic developers are doing a good job or not? Every community is not going to land a Yokohama, Toyota, or G.E. Aviation plant.

Well, there’s the “obvious” test most people use – unfairly, but they use it. This test looks at total jobs today compared to total jobs yesterday. Up is good, down is bad, level is questionable. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security publishes total job numbers each month for every county. (See http://www.mdes.ms.gov/media/23357/labormarketdata.pdf)

The job numbers reported may not be good jobs, they may not be jobs the economic developer was assigned to pursue, but those are nuances average citizens care little about.

A fairer test is the “simple” test based on two questions: 1) does the developer have the confidence of his/her community; and 2) does he/she have the respect and support of both neighboring and state economic developers. With job growth requiring more and more local resources, regional cooperation, and state support, developers cannot succeed without positive answers to both questions. Then, positive answers don’t guarantee success either.

A more reasonable test is the “objective” test. It assesses a developer’s performance based on realistic goals. Goals may include job growth in targeted sectors like manufacturing, health care, tourism, etc.; expansion of existing business and industry; micro-business start-ups; new capital investment; or job retention, e.g., protecting a military facility from closure or realignment.

And, goals may include the hard work of creating and maintaining business friendly policies and practices in the community.

Many a good economic developer has been stymied by a community that over regulates, over taxes, and under serves business.

The objective test is the hardest for communities and governing boards because setting realistic goals based on available resources is hard. It takes planning, engaged business leadership, and informed strategies. It takes provision of those necessary resources. A good practitioner of this process is the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.

In the end, the best way to assess an economic developer is to use all three tests together.

So, how is yours doing?

BILL CRAWFORD (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.

  • redcreek

    The location of the area relative to other economically viable places is key, along with the quality of life in the location. This varies radically from place to place. Some manager has to live there, so no company is going to move to a bulldozed town made of metal buildings (trees are unnecessary) with a school you wouldn’t send your dog to, especially if it is 150 miles from the nearest civilization. Just saying.

    • TWBDB

      Redcreek you make some good points. Successful community development, in my opinion, is ‘community’ development