Many economic development organizations (EDOs) were created to be the business-facing part of state and local government. EDOs are often housed separately from other agencies and may even have a special structure and rules intended to allow them to be more fast-paced and responsive to business needs.
A downside to this approach is that it is easy to forget why we are working with businesses in the first place, which is the expectation that by helping businesses our residents and the neighborhoods and commercial corridors in our communities will be better off. This connection can easily get lost. Too many economies that seem to performing well are also experience rising poverty and greater disparity among residents. Something has gone wrong.
Thinking about resident-centric economic development can help EDOs correct course and make economic development efforts more responsive to community needs. Here’s how.
Recognize that community engagement is central to the economic development mission. Economic development organizations need to transcend the checkbox way of thinking about community engagement. Community engagement is not just something to “do” when there is a project on the table.
Acknowledge shared history. Project-oriented engagement means EDOs often have blinders on that keep them focused on that project but lead them to miss the context in which that that project is taking place. Community members have their own perspectives on what they want, or they may be thinking about past projects where promises were made but not kept. It’s important to listen and understand and not just brush off the history as not relevant. Everyone is in this together, so acknowledging this shared history is a necessary part of figuring out what should come next.
Grow the circle. In our view, it is incumbent on EDOs to become part of trusted networks across their communities. Growing the circle is a helpful way for economic development professionals to think about this. Most economic developers are great networkers and facilitators, but their networks may be limited to specific business and regional stakeholder groups. They need to take the lead on expanding their circle to seek new voices beyond their old networks.
Take the time to build trust. Trust will be broken if responsive engagement is not sustained. Sustaining engagement throughout program design and implementation can help make sure that whatever initiatives are undertaken, they are structured in a way that is inclusive and ultimately equitable. Committing time and resources for the project lifecycle, not just moving on (as so often happens) once the initial deal is completed, helps ensure promises are kept and builds trust for the future.
Recognize the need for program responses that cross agency boundaries. Residents don’t usually define what they want or need in terms of how government departments happen to be structured. Safety, housing, education, transportation, economic opportunity – these are all part of economic development but they are not controlled by economic development organizations. All parties need to recognize that helpful programs or initiatives are going to happen across agencies.
Provide accountability to residents. Our read is that we may need to look beyond dashboards and key performance indicators (KPIs) as the mechanisms for reporting on results to residents. Options that surfaced during our research include involving community members in the data collection and reporting process, especially by getting input on indicators they care about; selecting metrics that are about informing activity and creating real-time feedback, not just about judging performance after the fact; and recognizing the value of storytelling to add color and insight into otherwise dry performance or community indicators.
This article is drawn from our recent presentation, Fostering Resident-Centric Economic Development at the National Conference on Inclusive Development & Recovery. The presentation is adapted from our report, Reflecting Community Priorities in Economic Development Practices.