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State of the Cities 2013: As the Economy Goes, So Goes the City

March 25, 2013

This is the second post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

Every year, economic development accomplishments and future goals feature prominently in mayors’ State of the City Addresses. It’s easy to understand why; as the economy goes, so goes the city. Constituents want to know that their mayor is doing everything he or she can to provide good jobs and a rich quality of life. And from our analysis of mayors’ speeches this year, it’s evident that they are fighting the good fight for economic vibrancy.

But just because economic development is a long-running city function, that doesn’t mean cities are using the same old methods.  Mayors in select cities are showing that by using tailored strategies tied to their unique city characteristics and broad-based approaches that are applicable to every locality, they are able to leverage limited resources to build complete communities.

The speeches we analyzed were chock-full of references to economic development programs and successes, but notable commonalities arose, including a strong focus on partnerships, neighborhood revitalization, and improving transportation hubs.

Building Strong Partnerships

As city governments continue to face budgetary constraints for the foreseeable future, partnerships continue to provide a way to accomplish economic development goals efficiently and effectively, and also pioneer new methods. Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, partnered with the University of Utah to convene a conference on the potential of crowdfunding to provide start-up capital for emerging technology companies. “You can expect to see more economic development partnering efforts like this from the city in the year to come,” noted Mayor Ralph Becker. This is a great sign, and something other mayors alluded to as well.

Partnerships can be used in creative ways to spark entrepreneurship à la Salt Lake City, but they can also be used to streamline regulatory processes, which entrepreneurs, small- and medium-sized businesses, and multinational corporations can all appreciate. Mayor Andy Hafen of Henderson, Nev. noted the creation of a multijurisdictional business licensing process, an initiative for which Henderson served as the regional project lead. Wichita, Kan. Mayor Carl Brewer proudly touted the merger of his city and county code services offices, which is “making it easier for our private business partners to build and grow our region.” Notice that these streamlining actions are making these cities more business friendly, while also demonstrating productive regional cooperation.

Creating Vibrant and Stable Neighborhoods

Thriving urban neighborhoods improve the quality of life for all city residents, not just for Richard Florida’s “creative class.” If done successfully, redevelopment projects can produce positive externalities for the entire population. City leaders have recognized the importance of both their downtowns and struggling neighborhoods, and are using strategic partnerships, and sometimes unconventional means, to achieve encouraging ends.

One such example is Durham, N.C.’s Southside Revitalization Project, where Duke University is providing $10,000 loans to no less than ten university employees interested in buying homes in the neighborhood. Mayor Bill Bell added, “That’s the kind of partnership and support that truly makes this community a very special place.” Another notable example is Columbus, Ohio, where the city has partnered with a local hospital in a declining neighborhood to develop a plan to “stabilize the neighborhood and encourage residential and commercial investment.”

In Baton Rouge, La., Mayor Kip Holden is committed to removing blight from his city. To revitalize its Smiley Heights area, the city will “partner with the state, the Baton Rouge Community College, and private investors to create a development that will house an auto technology center, residential housing, and retail.” And Columbus, Ga. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson is pushing hard for her city to enact redevelopment powers available under state law to tackle declining neighborhoods.

Improving Transportation Hubs

Airports, though sometimes unfairly taken for granted, are gateways to domestic and international markets, as well as hubs for business travel and tourism. So putting a lot of weight behind airport improvements makes a lot of sense, because they can provide a significant economic boost. The airport (and its related businesses) in Salem, Ore. contributes “2,100 jobs regionally, $65 million in annual wages, and $240 million in regional business sales.”

The importance of local and regional airports was a recurring theme in many of the speeches, from smaller communities to cities with international reputations. Auburn, Wash. Mayor Pete Lewis noted that work is beginning on a new master plan for its municipal airport. And Memphis, Tenn. Mayor AC Wharton has created an Air Task Force to develop a plan to increase air service at the city’s international airport.

Cities are also using coastal ports (those that have them) as key economic drivers. Baltimore, Md., led by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, fought hard to improve the city’s port in advance of the Panama Canal expansion currently underway. The city’s actions in solidifying the port’s infrastructure “will help bring jobs while securing the economic future of the port for generations.” In his first term, San Diego, Calif. Mayor Bob Filner is making the city’s port, as well as its airport, high priority hubs. He noted that he will push for needed infrastructure improvements that will “[enhance] freight movement from our border through our sea port and our airport.”

Producing Tangible Results

Economic development will always be a key arrow in a mayor’s quiver. In fact, most mayors probably have a separate quiver devoted entirely to economic development. But it’s more than just having an arsenal of tools to use; it’s about putting these tools to work in innovative ways to produce real, tangible results. The State of the City Addresses in 2013 exemplify how cities employ what limited resources they have in thoughtful and creative ways.

Mayor Denny Doyle, of Beaverton, Ore. noted that “If we’re to grow our economy, the private sector needs a city government that – as a partner – is responsive and nimble.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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