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The State of the Cities in 2012: Economic Development Efforts

March 29, 2012

This is the fifth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2012 State of the City Speeches.

Economic development strategies come in all shapes and sizes.  More importantly, what’s good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. We would not expect Biloxi, MS to have the same strategy as Washington, DC; and we would not expect Washington, DC to have the same strategy as Wyoming, MI. With each state, region, and city comes a different set of strengths and weaknesses and industries and specialties, which should drive economic development efforts. In the state of the city speeches NLC analyzed, three main economic development strategies shined through the rhetoric: increasing exports to global markets, fostering regional partnerships, and developing downtowns and small business.

Within the speeches, big city mayors were more likely to be focused on exports; medium-sized city mayors more likely to focus on regional partnerships; and small city mayors touted downtown and small business development. As always, though, there are exceptions to the rule.

Mayors Vincent Gray, of Washington, DC; Greg Fischer, of Louisville, KY; and Garrett Nancolas of Caldwell, ID took a proactive approach to economic development within a global context. Utilizing a grant from the Small Business Association, Mayor Gray’s administration launched Export DC, “the District’s first major small business export development program. The program will initially focus on emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa, and Asia and is intended to “spur economic development and create good, high-paying jobs here in the District.” Mayor Fischer applauded the fact that Louisville was 1 of 5 cities selected for a Bloomberg Grant, which included “$4.8 million that is being used to create innovation delivery teams that are working to create export-oriented jobs.” Mayor Nancolas provides evidence that small cities can be globally-focused; Caldwell has been working to become a “foreign trade zone” to help local companies compete with their foreign competitors. Nancolas indicated in his state of the city speech that because of the zone, the city has “received verbal commitments from three companies who have said that once this is established they are very, very interested in developing here, building here, bringing jobs to the city of Caldwell.”

Regional partnerships and collaboration was another overarching economic development theme within the state of the city speeches. Like economic development as a whole, there are many different ways to approach regional partnerships; they can be comprehensive and ambitious, or simple and practical. What’s important is getting the right stakeholders to the table. Eugene, OR, as told by Mayor Kitty Piercy, developed a comprehensive “Regional Prosperity Plan” which involves stakeholders like the University of Oregon, local chambers of commerce, and regional counties getting together to encourage local financial investment, business planning expertise, and the development of a “new virtual one-stop shop for business.” Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, WI launched the Milwaukee Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative (ME3) with the help of 13 local, regional, and federal partners to enhance the competitiveness of the city’s manufacturers through “reducing material use and waste, and also (increasing) efficiency.” And Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, MI “forged a landmark agreement with DeWitt Township to develop the Capital Region International Airport… a powerful new magnet for economic growth.”

Lastly, the state of the city speeches revealed a focus on small business and downtown (core) development. While downtown development and small business conjures images of small town America, effective strategies with regard to these two aspects of economic development are applicable to cities large and small, urban and rural.  In Lakewood, CA, Mayor Larry Van Nostran signaled pride in the “Shop Lakewood-Stay Lakewood Loyal” campaign put on by the local chamber of commerce. And Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond, VA is “forging ahead” with the city’s Shockoe Revitalization Plan, an ambitious undertaking designed to revitalize a core area of Richmond’s downtown which would stimulate small business development.

Signified by the various examples from the state of the city speeches explained above, there is no clear choice or “silver bullet” approach to economic development, but it is important to realize that cities can have a positive impact in the development of their local (and regional) economies. What’s clear is that cities are forging ahead to find economic development solutions that best fit their local needs and unique assets, whether it is access to global markets, fostering regional collaborations, developing downtowns and small business, or countless other strategies.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2012 on Citiesspeak.org. Don’t forget to check back over the next several weeks for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2012.

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